July 22 , 2002

Illinois editor resigns under pressure

By Bob Allen
Associated Baptist Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (ABP)--A state Baptist newspaper editor in Illinois has resigned after a disagreement apparently brought to a head by publication of a news story about a pastor charged with sexual misconduct.

Michael Leathers had been editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper since November 1999. Glen Akins, interim executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, announced June 12 that Leathers had stepped down.

Leathers won awards for both design and writing during his 19-month tenure, but he became embroiled in controversy early this year after running a front-page story about a former Illinois pastor charged with criminal sexual assault for allegedly molesting two teenage girls.

Reaction to the story prompted formation of a five-member ad hoc committee of the state association's board of directors to study the role of the newspaper. The committee's chairman has been quoted as saying a goal of the process is to ensure that reporting like the sex-abuse story "doesn't happen again."

Leathers wrote a story in the Jan. 9 issue reporting the arrest of Leslie Mason, 34, former pastor of Olney Southern Baptist Church in southern Illinois. Court documents charged Mason with having sexual intercourse with two minor girls, both at least 13 years old at the time the acts occurred, at the church parsonage on a series of occasions between 1994 and 1999.

Mason has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The story, which had been reported in secular news media, prompted a barrage of letters to the editor both critical and supportive of Leathers' editorial judgment. Critics said the story had no place in a religious newspaper. Defenders said a Baptist newspaper has a responsibility to report bad news as well as good.

Even those critical of the sex-crime story complimented Leathers for his overall work. A former lifestyle editor at a daily newspaper, Leathers traveled to all corners of Illinois to write news and feature stories. The Baptist Communicators Association recognized his work in 2001 for best newspaper redesign and this year for two writing awards in its annual Wilmer C. Fields competition.

"There's no question that the Illinois Baptist is a better news journal because Michael was here, but it is time to build on the changes and improvements that came during Michael's tenure as editor," Akins said in his statement to the Illinois Baptist. "This is one of those situations where God's will and calling was for a man with certain skills and gifts to serve in a specific position for a specific term rather than permanently."

The article said Akins believes Leathers will be happier in a position "reflective of Leathers' professional journalism style of being hard-hitting and direct, and one that doesn't require the same high degree of spiritual sensitivity."

"The Lord has a place of service for Michael where he can be more fulfilled and challenged while also making a big spiritual difference," Akins said. "Obviously, the secular press and media need the impact and influence of Christians like Michael Leathers."

Leathers confirmed the decision was mutual but declined further comment.