A deeply disturbing story has been unfolding for months in Missouri, below the scrutiny and attention of the national press. It involves alleged child molestation and abuse by a conservative pastor turned elected official, and a state Republican Party that apparently turned blind eye to it during election season in order to secure victory before expelling him only yesterday.
On September 29th, the Kansas City Star published a shocking exposé detailing allegations of horrific abuse by Missouri House candidate Rick Roeber, a conservative pastor. Roeber is alleged to have engaged in a pattern of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of his children, including two aged just 9 and 5 at the time. He is also alleged to have drowned puppies in a pond, an example of the psychological trauma and cruelty he apparently inflicted.
Despite the devastating allegations, Roeber nevertheless went on to win his election, defeating Democrat Chris Hager by just 301 votes in Missouri’s conservative-leaning 34th district.
The Missouri House rejected Roeber’s resignation, choosing to expel him instead on Wednesday. That is the bare minimum of decency, but it is also far too late. And the Missouri Republican Party still has much to answer for.
Not only did the party fail to vet Mr. Roeber in even the most perfunctory way, but it also did not take active steps to prevent his election after his actions were exposed. A representative for the Missouri GOP claimed there was “nothing they could do” and that they “expected the voters to take care of it.” The Jackson County GOP Chair David Lightner even insisted that not intervening was the right thing to do, because he believed the accusations were somehow partisan despite coming from Roeber’s own family. Worse, he felt that bygones should be bygones.
Even as House lawmakers prepare to oust only the second member in their history, Jackson County GOP Chairman David Lightner said he would not have supported intervening in Roeber’s candidacy if he knew about the allegations earlier.
“I personally feel that if someone is, they’ve got that sort of past but they’ve made themselves better… I go on how they’ve improved themselves in life,” he said, adding that some county Republicans believed the accusations were driven by “partisan politics.”
After all, what’s a little child sexual between friends as long as you say you say you found Jesus later? GOP officials, meanwhile, are remaining mum as to the extent of their contacts with Roeber after the story broke. Missouri Republican campaign officials took the district off their target list–but again, that’s a bare minimum. And we do not know what may have been done to support him behind the scenes:
None of Jackson County’s four Republican state representatives responded to inquiries about how much contact Roeber had with local and state-level GOP officials while running for his late wife’s seat.
Roeber’s personality was a red flag for some, but GOP officials overlooked it because of the professed redemption story:
When he declared he was running, Evans said some Republicans who had served with Rebecca Roeber expressed misgivings about Rick Roeber’s personality, but said she wanted to “give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“People do strange things when they’re grieving,” she said. “I was put off by him in different ways personally, but I didn’t know anything” about the abuse allegations.
The party recruits candidates to run for open seats, and Evans said Republican officials “talked to some people” in that district but did not find anyone other than Roeber.
Lightner said Roeber was known at the time in the local party only as a recovering alcoholic who “sought to be a better man and tried to erase his past as much as possible.”
In some ways, this is a story about a pathology fundamental to conservative evangelical culture. It is very often the worst perpetrators, men (and it is almost always men) with vicious personalities, abusive tendencies, and destructive urges, who profess outwardly the most religious piety. This piety takes the form of dogmatic conservative theology, an attempt to both control and validate the self by inflicting restrictions on the freedom and self-determination of others–usually women and children. The path of salvation and redemption is curiously open to these men, who are then granted extraordinary psychological and political power over others, and the abuses of their past are seen as irrelevant to or even a validation of the supposed piety of the present. The abusers with the most demons wield disproportionate control, perpetuating the cycle of abuse.
But beyond that, this is also a story about accountability. The state Republican Party knew that Roeber had this allegedly abusive history, but did nothing to ensure his defeat. They waited months to expel him. Why?
A cynic might suggest that the GOP preferred to see Roeber elected and expelled, thus setting up a new special election, than to see a Democrat win the district. despite the fact that Republicans hold a dominant 113-49 advantage in the state house. Certainly, the Republican voters in the district seemed to have no problem sending Roeber to represent them rather than an even more dreaded Democrat. It’s not partisanship to suggest that had the tables been reversed and some Democratic candidate been exposed as a child molester, Democratic voters would have rebelled. The county GOP chair who was quick to believe this was a partisan plot and that a molester can find redemption? It’s hard to picture a Democratic equivalent.
Republican officials in Missouri should have to answer for this scandal—especially since so many of their voters ardently believe in QAnon-adjacent false conspiracy theories about Democrats and child abuse. The gulf between the real and the imagined are growing into a widening chasm in the party of Lincoln. Ask the state’s ambitious Josh Hawley. We need to have a much tougher conversation about what decency and piety mean, and which cultures and institutions are enabling trauma and abuse.
Because a specific party and a specific culture enabled Mr. Roeber to become a pillar of his community, to stand for public office, and to win public office despite such revelations. That deserves much stronger scrutiny, discussion, and accountability.