Religion Unplugged

How the SBC sex abuse scandal turned a city hall reporter into a full-time religion writer

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

Editor’s note: Every Friday, “Weekend Plug-In” features analysis, insights and top headlines from the world of faith. Got feedback or ideas for this column? Email Bobby Ross Jr. at

Robert Downen almost burned out on newspapers and went into the insurance business.

Instead, the talented journalist, now 28, stuck it out and spearheaded what the Religion News Association chose as the No. 1 religion story of 2019.

I’m talking about the Houston Chronicle’s bombshell investigation that revealed more than 700 victims of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and spurred reforms by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Come April, Downen’s work on the “Abuse of Faith” project could earn him and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

For now, it has resulted in a new gig for the former City Hall reporter. As of last week, he’s covering religion full time for the Houston newspaper. This is wonderful news for Downen and Chronicle readers.

“Mr. Downen has already demonstrated the importance of the beat with his impactful investigative work,” said Peter Smith, the RNA’s president and the veteran religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Houston will benefit from his attention to the religiously diverse population of this major American city.”

Texas’s largest daily newspapers — including the Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — all used to have full-time Godbeat pros.

But no more.

At the Chronicle, Downen steps into an important role that has been unfilled for a while. (Here’s hoping those other papers decide to keep up with the competition.)

“Our decision about the beat was sparked by Abuse of Faith and the thought that there will be an ongoing discussion about these sorts of issues in Southern Baptist churches, and those of other denominations, for some time,” Chronicle executive editor Steve Riley told Religion Unplugged.

“But that’s not the only reason for us to do more on the religion beat,” added Riley, who was the investigations editor when the Abuse of Faith project started. “It’s such an important part of the lives of many of our readers, and we hope to find ways to reflect that in our coverage. Rob, of course, did a great job on Abuse of Faith, and he was interested in this beat, so we decided to try to make it work.”

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

Photo by Melvin Thambi on Unsplash

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