What happened to a journalist who did his job
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. -Edmund Burke
Michael Leathers is a good man who did something.
And it cost him his job.
Back in 2002, he was the editor of Illinois Baptist, a newspaper covering Southern Baptist congregations across the Land of Lincoln.
When he learned that a pastor, Leslie Mason, was criminally charged with sexually abusing girls in the southern Illinois town of Olney, he reported it. One of the girls apparently was only 13 years old.
Instead of receiving praise for informing Baptists about a potential predator in their midst, he found himself in a room with a lawyer and his boss, Glenn Akins, who then ran the Illinois Baptist State Association.
They wanted him gone.
According to Leathers, Akins offered a peculiar complaint about the story: that writing about one pastor who committed sex crimes was unfair because that “ignores many others who have done the same thing.”
In my 30 years in journalism, I’ve encountered some pretty dumb arguments for why a particular story shouldn’t have run. But I have to say, the reason Akins gave Leathers may be the dumbest.
By the way, I reached out to Akins – he didn’t get back to me.
This month, Leathers’ sacrifice for truth was cited in a powerful investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that found that the Southern Baptist Convention repeatedly tolerated sexual assaults by clergymen and church volunteers. The investigation found 380 credible cases of church leaders and volunteers engaging in sexual misconduct over the past several decades.
The series chronicled how the victims of abuse sometimes are shunned by churches, urged to not report abusers or advised to get abortions.
The investigation hit home with me because I’m an evangelical Christian and Southern Baptists are the largest evangelical denomination in the United States.
Of course, the problem of pastors, coaches, teachers, physicians, scoutmasters and others abusing their positions of trust to harm children is not a new one.
And yet, when it occurs it often is confronted with silence.
Southern Baptist leaders are hardly unique in how they responded to predators in their midst.
“I think there is a tendency for people in leadership to want to protect the institution by covering things up,” Leathers told me. “The interesting thing is that when I wrote the story, I got plenty of positive feedback from laypeople in various congregations. They get it. It was people in positions of authority who had problems with me writing the story.”
Leslie Mason, the pastor Leathers wrote about, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He’s now out of prison and again working as a minister in Illinois.
Yes, you read that right.
Glenn Akins, the boss who gave Leathers the boot, is now assistant executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
And Leathers? His newspaper career ended when he lost the job. For the past 15 years he’s been in public relations.
Scott Reeder of Springfield is a veteran Statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He also produces the podcast “Suspect Convictions.” Contact him at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.