The Moralizers: Crooks, Quacks, Kooks, Creeps and Cruds in the Clergy

(The Humanist, July/August 1993)

By James A. Haught

"Give me that old-time religion...''

Pentecostal evangelist Mario Leyva of Columbus, Ga., sodomized more than 100 church boys. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison in 1989. Two assistant pastors got 15 and 12 years for transporting the boys state-to-state for orgies.

"Give me that old-time religion...''

The Rev. Roy Yanke of Beverly Hills, Mich., pleaded guilty in 1991 to robbing 14 banks of $47,000 to pay for his daily use of prostitutes. He got seven years in prison.

"Give me that old-time religion...''

Some 400 U.S. Catholic priests have been charged with child-molesting in the past decade, and the church has paid an estimated $400 million in damages and costs. One priest, James Porter, is accused of abusing perhaps 100 victims in three states -- including a boy in a full body cast who couldn't move to resist.

"It's good enough for me....''

Born-again con-artist Michael Douglas of Antioch, Ill., who specialized in investments for wealthy fundamentalists, got a 12-year sentence in 1991 for swindling 131 people out of $31 million.

"It was good for Paul and Silas...''

Army chaplain aide Steven Ritchie of Fort Lewis, Wash., was sentenced to 26 years in prison in 1990 for raping a six-week-old baby girl.

"It was good for Paul and Silas...''

Radio evangelist Willie Winters of Kalamazoo, Mich., already serving two life terms for a shooting spree, was indicted again in 1992 on charges of killing his brother-in-law for $22,000 insurance money.

"It was good for Paul and Silas...''

The Rev. Jerry Wilson of Monticello, Ind., who said his preaching came "from God Himself,'' had a sexual affair with his secretary at the Bible Tabernacle Church and planted a bomb to kill her husband. In 1992, Wilson was sentenced to 108 years in prison.

"And it's good enough for me.''

* * *
I'm a newspaper editor. Day after day I watch the carnival of life via the news wires. To me, the most fascinating oddities in the show are those self-righteous men who say God called them to cleanse impurities from others.

I'm leery of people who talk to invisible beings -- but at least some in the praying set are kind and tolerant. The unkind ones demand laws to use the police power of the state to make everyone obey their taboos. They hate sex, and they're relentless in demanding censorship of movies and magazines, condemning unwed mothers and homosexuals, denouncing sex education and birth control programs.

They attained a pinnacle at the 1992 Republican convention when millionaire evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell hailed the GOP's endorsement of their agenda. Right-winger Patrick Buchanan was correct when he told the Republican delegates: "There is a religious war going on in this country for the soul of America.'' The war waxes and wanes, but never ceases. Endlessly, the issue is whether all Americans will be forced to live by the strictures of those who think they are morally superior.

* * *
"It was good for the Hebrew children...''

Evangelist Don McCary of Chattanooga, Tenn., drew a 72-year prison sentence in 1992 for sodomizing four boys. His twin brother, Christian comedian Ron McCary, is in prison for raping a 6-year-old boy. Their older brother, the Rev. Richard McCary, previously was imprisoned for child-molesting.

"It was good for the Hebrew children...''

The Rev. Richard Snipstead of Minnesota, president of a fundamentalist Lutheran group which denounces homosexuals, confessed in 1992 that he's had 20 years of gay relationships, that he carries the AIDS virus, and that he gave the disease to his wife.

"It's that old-time religion...''

Catholic priest William Joffe of Milwaukee was jailed in 1992 for embezzling $264,000 from his parish.

"And it's good enough for me.''

Fountain of Life evangelist Jim Whittington of Greenville, N.C., was indicted in 1992 on charges of swindling a paraplegic woman out of $900,000. He called the federal charge an attack "on the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.''

"It makes you love everybody...''

The Rev. Duane Smith, who operated a born-again Christian school in LaPorte, Ind., got a 12-year prison term in 1991 for molesting pupils.

"It makes you love everybody..."

The Rev. James Weller of Redwood, Cal., was convicted in 1990 of 27 forcible sex crimes against children, some only 10 years old. He drew 46 years in prison.

"It's that old-time religion...''

Church deacon Henry Meinholtz, 53, of Kingston, Mass., was convicted in 1991 of raping and suffocating a 13-year-old girl.

"And it's good enough for me.''

* * *
Many years ago, when I was a young thinker and knew practically everything, it seemed clear to me that magical, moralistic, moronic religion soon would disappear, because people were becoming too educated for such superstition.

So much for young thinkers. The opposite occurred. Puritanical fundamentalism not only survived, it rose to dominance in America. Mainline Protestant churches with university-educated clergy are dying, losing members by millions. But the born-again realm is booming.

(Think of the farce at the GOP convention: The president and the ruling party respectfully listened to evangelist Robertson, who claims that his prayers can deflect hurricanes -- whose newest book says President Bush's Gulf War was part of a satanic plot to establish "the New World Order of the Antichrist'' -- and who wrote that the equal rights movement "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.'' Loonies like this aren't taken seriously in other modern nations.)

America has an unwritten rule that all religion must be "respected'' -- never subjected to public scoffing. But an ugly tide of sex offenses and other crimes by ministers is eroding this code of silence.

Los Angeles Times religion columnist Russell Chandler did research in 1990 and found 2,000 cases of sex molestation by clergy pending in the courts. John Cleary, general counsel of Church Mutual Insurance Co., which covers ministers, said: "Today, the number of credible sexual abuse and misconduct cases is astounding.''

Some of these men are among the moralizers seeking to jail sellers of sexy videos and books, halt Medicaid abortions for poor girls, and impose state-mandated prayer upon school children. The hypocrisy is galling.

I live in the Appalachian Bible Belt, where politicians are nearly as holy as evangelists. A yearly feature in West Virginia is the state government prayer breakfast, where elected officials attest their piety. At a recent breakfast, the leading supplicants were Gov. Arch Moore, Senate President Dan Tonkovich and visiting congressman Patrick Swindall of Georgia, a darling of the fundamentalist New Right. A couple of years later, all three -- Moore, Tonkovich and Swindall -- were in federal prison for corruption.

Old-time religion is having a heyday in America. Its champions seek to dictate behavior rules for all of us -- to take away our freedom to make choices for ourselves. We must fight back. We should look at Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and the rest, and say the obvious:

These scumbags are not morally superior to us. In fact, they are inferior, and it is insulting for them to tell us how to live. We will not allow it.