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News & Press: Top 10 Religion Stories

SBC sex abuse investigation voted No. 1 religion story of 2019

Tuesday, December 17, 2019  
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Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib named religion newsmakers of the year


COLUMBIA, MO — An expose by the Houston Chronicle that revealed hundreds of victims of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and that spurred calls for the SBC to investigate churches was chosen as the top religion story of 2019 by members of the Religion News Association in its annual Top 10 Religion Stories and Newsmaker of the Year Poll.

Gun violence claimed the No. 2 spot for the second year in a row, recalling the massacre of 51 worshipers and the wounding of 39 others at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. An Australian linked to anti-Muslim and white-supremacist statements pleaded not guilty to charges this June in the country's deadliest mass shootings in modern history, his actions prompting New Zealand to quickly enact new gun restrictions.

Religion Newsmakers of the Year honors went to Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who took office in January as the first Muslim congresswoman, and who immediately were at the center of bitter controversies challenging the bipartisan consensus on U.S. aid to Israel.

Pope Francis followed in a close second, finishing near the top for the first time since a three-year reign as the top newsmaker from 2013 – 2015. This year he was recognized for a multitude of work: convening a summit on sexual abuse followed by a decree requiring stricter accountability on responding to abuse; for making groundbreaking trips to the Arabian peninsula, Africa and Asia; for convening a synod of Amazonian bishops; and for speaking out on climate change and migration.

RNA is an international journalism association for journalists who write about religion in the news media. It provides training and tools to help reporters cover religion with balance, accuracy and insight. The Top 10 poll is a tradition members have embraced for decades.

Complete rankings for religion headlines and religion newsmakers appear below.


1. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle reveals hundreds of victims of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, spurring calls for the SBC to investigate churches that cover up abuse and prompting a lament at the SBC’s annual meeting.

2. A gunman kills 51 worshipers and wounds 39 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. An Australian linked to anti-Muslim and white-supremacist statements faces charges. New Zealand quickly enacts new gun restrictions.

3. A special meeting of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference strengthens a ban on LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage, rejecting a local-option plan recommended by bishops. Western Conference bishops declare a “safe harbor” for LGBT clergy.

4. Scandal fallout in Catholic hierarchy: Ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick defrocked for abuse. Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone resigns over handling of abuse cases. A report finds financial, sexual wrongs by former Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield.

5. Notre-Dame de Paris, the medieval cathedral treasured as a Catholic shrine and an architectural wonder, is heavily damaged in an accidental fire that topples its spire. It is spared total destruction by firefighters’ heroics.

6. President Donald Trump retains strong evangelical Christians’ support amid impeachment hearings as he continues policies that align with their priorities, such as religious liberty, Israeli territorial claims and conservative judicial appointments.

7. The Nones continue to rise. A 2019 Gallup poll finds only about half of Americans have ties to a house of worship, down from 69 percent two decades earlier. A Pew Forum polls says 26 percent of Americans are now "Nones," or those identifying with no religion.

8. After taking office as the first Muslim congresswomen, Democrats Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib challenge the bipartisan consensus on U.S. aid to Israel, get denied entry there and are assailed by President Trump in words widely criticized as racist.

9. Religious tensions rise in India in decisions supported by Hindu nationalists. The government revokes the autonomy of majority-Muslim Kashmir. The Supreme Court rules in favor of Hindus who want a temple on the disputed site of a mosque razed by mobs in 1992.

10. Gunmen kill one person at a Poway, Calif., synagogue; two others outside a German synagogue; and three in a Jersey City kosher market. Other anti-Semitic attacks and threats increase, particularly in New York City.


11. Several U.S. states pass laws highly restricting abortion. One passed by Louisiana heads for review by the Supreme Court under its most conservative make-up since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

12. Amazonian bishops gather at the Vatican to discuss the priest shortage and other pastoral concerns in their region. They recommend allowing married men of proven virtue to become priests. They also advocate for protecting the Amazon rain forest.

13. Pope Francis hosts a global summit on the sex abuse crisis and enacts stricter worldwide policies governing the reporting and disciplining of abusers. U.S. bishops commit to new policies to hold themselves accountable for cases of abuse.

14. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announces that it will no longer consider members who are in same-sex marriages as apostates and will allow their children to be baptized. The move reverses a controversial 2015 decision.

15. New York, New Jersey and other states open windows in statute of limitations for lawsuits over long-ago sexual abuse. The suits target Catholic dioceses, Jewish schools and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others. The Diocese of Rochester files for bankruptcy.

16. Popular progressive Christian writer Rachel Held Evans dies unexpectedly at 37 of complications following an infection, leaving behind grieving admirers of her feisty engagement with issues of theology, the role of women, and the relationship of science and faith.

17. A terrorist group in Sri Lanka, claiming loyalty to the so-called Islamic State, kills more than 250 and wounds hundreds in suicide bombings at churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.

18. Religious themes pervade the Democratic presidential primary campaign. Some candidates seek to speak the language of faith and mobilize the religious left, while the Democratic National Committee issues a statement lauding secular voters’ values.

19. Videos of a face-off near the Lincoln Memorial between a group of young men from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, Native American activists and Black Israelite protesters prompts national controversy and a series of lawsuits.

20. Brandt Jean offers forgiveness to former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who was convicted of murdering his brother Botham Jean and who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Brandt Jean’s actions lead to a heated debate over race and forgiveness.

21. U.S. commandos in Syria kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who led the self-proclaimed Islamic State through its rise and fall as a self-proclaimed Caliphate and as it inspired years of terrorist attacks worldwide.

22. The suicide of pastor Jarrid Wilson shocks many and gives new urgency to his calls for churches to help those with mental illness.

23. Joshua Harris, former pastor, Christian influencer and author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” announces on Instagram that he no longer considers himself a Christian. His announcement comes amid widespread criticism of the purity culture he championed.

24. The Chick-fil-A Foundation’s decision to stop donating to groups that oppose same-sex marriage, following years of protests and boycotts organized by LGBT activists, angers many evangelical Christians who had been loyal customers.

25. James MacDonald, megachurch pastor and host of the “Walk in the Word” radio program, is fired from Harvest Bible Chapel for misconduct. An outside investigation reveals years of financial mismanagement at the Chicago megachurch.

26. A Louisiana man is charged with federal hate crimes after destroying three historically black churches by arson.

27. Shambhala International, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the West, faces financial struggles and cutbacks after a sexual harassment scandal.



Democratic U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who take office as the first Muslim congresswoman and immediately are at the center of bitter controversies challenging the bipartisan consensus on U.S. aid to Israel.


Pope Francis, who convenes a summit on sexual abuse followed by a decree requiring stricter accountability on responding to abuse; makes groundbreaking trips to the Arabian peninsula, Africa and Asia; convenes a synod of Amazonian bishops; and speaks out on climate change and migration.

Rachael Denhollander, who provides a leading voice for survivors of sexual abuse and calls for reforms in the Southern Baptist Convention and other church groups where revelations of abuse emerge.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who continues an agenda supported by Hindu nationalists in actions such as revoking the autonomy of majority-Muslim Kashmir.

Pastor Paula White-Cain, who continues as a leading evangelical supporter of and adviser to President Trump and who is appointed to the White House Office of Public Liaison.

Rachel Held Evans, whose death at 37 shocks the legion of followers of the progressive Christian author, speaker and prolific social media presence.

The Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, who enters the burning Notre-Dame Cathedral to rescue its sacred relics, and the Paris firefighters who risk their lives to prevent the complete collapse of the beloved landmark.


Tiffany McCallen


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