4. The Trial of Public Opinion …

Being Both “Jurist” and Journalist


With this essay, we’ll start winding our way through the specifics of Prestonwood Baptist Church and then Morrison Heights Baptist Church. These will provide case studies along the path toward identifying ways any and every kind of church and ministry network can:

  • Review its past in dealing with being a safe place for God’s people.
  • Correct any leftover concerns from the past in falling short of prevention practices.
  • Sustain the highest level of practices for safe and healthy ministry in the future.

I am definitely designing this as an investigation with a larger purpose, not just an exposé. So, I’ve wondered how best to present the evidence and conclusions. How can I best facilitate readers navigating the material?

Finding a Framework for This Investigation

I often find that the LEAST difficult thing about writing a series of analysis essays is … perhaps surprisingly … doing the analysis. By that point, I’ve immersed myself in details, absorbed what I could, and the underlying patterns are already beginning to show themselves. What is there? What is missing? Where are the gaps, and why? What seems to be in excess or over-the-top, and why?

Instead, the MOST difficult thing is usually what comes last and sometimes seems to take the longest. And that is what to write first that “frames” the picture so the detail in it make more sense. Until I have that “handle” on the material, that angle or slant to take in explaining what I’ve found, the analysis just sits there in my brain and in my notes. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

So, this morning, I finally feel like it came to me how to frame the information for this site. And here it is.

I’m approaching this research task as if I were functioning as a hybrid between a one-man jury for a civil lawsuit and a police investigator. The issues at hand involve figuring out who is culpable for what did or didn’t happen with the John Langworthy case as far as the main churches involved – Prestonwood Baptist Church (Plano, TX) and Morrison Heights Baptist Church (Clinton, MS) – and their leadership. But to come to such conclusions, I also have to act as the trial researcher who finds, catalogs, and organizes the available evidence.

It’s not as if I’m investigating a criminal case here, where the issue is to prove guilt or innocence. In such cases, the standard of evidence is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, this is more like a civil lawsuit, where the issue is responsibility for harm or damages incurred, and the basis for determining this is “preponderance of evidence.”

And “preponderance” relates not to the quantity of evidence, but to the quality. I found the definition at Legal Dictionary at Law.Com helpful:

Preponderance of the Evidence. The greater weight of the evidence required in a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit for the trier of fact (jury or judge without a jury) to decide in favor of one side or the other. This preponderance is based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence. Thus, one clearly knowledgeable witness may provide a preponderance of evidence over a dozen witnesses with hazy testimony, or a signed agreement with definite terms may outweigh opinions or speculation about what the parties intended. Preponderance of the evidence is required in a civil case and is contrasted with “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the more severe test of evidence required to convict in a criminal trial. No matter what the definition stated in various legal opinions, the meaning is somewhat subjective.

You might also want to check out the Wikipedia article on Legal Burden of Proof for more details on the multi-tiered system of U.S. evidence for trials.

Jurors only get to use what evidence the lawyers present and the judge allows, so let’s simulate a “trial” on that basis. Since the internet itself is sort of the automatic arbiter of what information is available, I suggest we let it act as the “judge,” When it comes to what evidence we can use to consider this case, that judge allows everything we can find in the public record on the internet as our sources … but we must be aware of whether a given entry involves documented facts (like news reports, non-profit incorporation data, police reports), or primary evidence (e.g., first-person statements and interviews, emails, voicemails), or credible secondary statements (e.g., reasonable testimony of anonymous victim or family member or other corroborating witness, as presented by credible spokespersons like victims’ advocates Amy Smith  who are passing along first-person accounts they have personally heard).

Anyway, this is a different set of rules to use from a regular civil suit, but this seems to me like a reasonable ground rules for doing this as a simulation experience. That’s because we are living in a very different era now with digital domains. So, public opinion is now a constant “jury,” where conclusions are based on all sources of virtual and IRL evidence we evaluate. This makes the process something closer to the “preponderance of evidence” standard than not.

I know this is not a formal trial, but if we think about it, the entire situation has actually been put into the “court of public opinion” by the parties involved here: church leaders, now-convicted sexual molester John Langworthy, victims known and as yet unknown, victims’ families and advocates, news reporters, and others. There is a huge amount of information online! (As of today, Page 06 Reader’s Guide and Bibliography has links to almost 100 items.)

Keeping Our Purposes in Mind

As I’ve stated before, I have some very specific goals I want to reach by investing myself in evaluating the evidence. As a ministry systems analyst and futurist, I want to understand what went wrong in this case study, and what Church leaders and parishioners everywhere in the U.S. can learn from it and do to prevent these kinds of harmful situations in the future. More specifically, I want to reach some conclusions about how we can be more constructive as churches in fulfilling our responsibilities in the legal, pastoral, organizational, cultural, denominational, and educational realms. So, I am fusing the roles of civic jurist and citizen journalist, in order to meet the specific needs of that particular goal, and taking my time to think things through.

Likewise, if you are reading this essay, you too are essentially being the equivalent of another member of the jury, developing an opinion about this puzzle of a situation, trying to figure out responsibility for damage done and how best to make it right. Maybe that’s not your specific purpose. But if you’re here, it must be for some good reason that you’re trying to figure out what happened.

So, how about you? Why are you interested in this case study? Is there something you want to understand? Someone whose personal situation has you wondering what can be done? Some decision you are wrestling with making? Some implication or application you feel driven to explore?

Whatever your passion and/or purpose, you are welcome to join me as I “think aloud” on this digital paper, and figure out what I think I’m finding out that will make for an improved future for ministry. I will likely have a section in most essays called “Unresolved Issues, Unanswered Questions, Unintended Consequences.” I don’t expect to come up with all the answers but, as I suggested in an earlier essay, I do hope at least to clarify the remaining questions. And I suspect that will help all of us sift though the evidence and sort things out, regardless of our specific reasons for reading this site. Hope you’ll find something of assistance here for whatever purpose you have in mind. And so – here we go!

Next Essay: The Trail of Public Evidence: Reporting on Arguments from Silence.


About brad/futuristguy

Culturologist, futurologist, linguist, and learning style-ologist.
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