Rev. Walker Railey and a Taxonomy of Evil

“Hate is pulling our nation apart”

Rev. Dr. Walker Railey, July 6, 2015


A present-day Carl Linnaeus working on a taxonomy of evil might start with the following classification: some evil is the work of people operating alone, and other evil is the work of people working together in teams. At one extreme, the murder of OJ Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman may have been an evil act perpetrated by an individual. At the other extreme, the decades-long pattern of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which was exposed in 2001 by the Spotlight group of the Boston Globe, was the work of a team.  That evil required the participation – tacit or otherwise – of an entire hierarchy.

Rev. Dr. Walker Railey, who spent several years as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church (FUMC), the flagship Methodist church in my home town of Dallas, would make an interesting partner for a discussion about taxonomizing evil.  He would definitely have the appropriate training and talent, with his degrees in psychology and history and his advanced degree from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, coupled with his undeniable brilliance as a minister and scholar.

But, at least from Dallas’ perspective, Railey has been unavailable for a while.  He left FUMC and Dallas for California in late 1987 alongside his formerly secret girlfriend, the psychologist Lucy Papillon.  His flight came in the wake of the April 22, 1987 strangulation of his wife Peggy in their home; the assault put her into a coma which ended only with her death in 2011.

We don’t know with certainty who murdered Peggy Railey, and a San Antonio jury acquitted Walker Railey of that crime in 1993. The New York Times article about his acquittal notes that he left his young children in the custody of “former parishioners who moved to Arkansas” and also that Walker Railey had been found liable for his wife’s injuries in an civil trial,

“Mr. Railey surrendered custody of the couple’s two children in 1989, and they have since been adopted by former parishioners who moved to Arkansas. Two years earlier, he and his lover, Lucy Papillon, moved to San Francisco. He has also tried, unsuccessfully so far, to divorce his wife.

The verdict does not mean that Mr. Railey, once the senior minister at the 6,200-member First United Methodist Church of Dallas, is free from all his legal troubles. A year after the attack, a Civil Court judge found him liable for his wife’s injuries and ordered him to pay $16.5 million to her parents, Bill and Billie Jo Nicolai, who are caring for her.

That order still stands, although Mr. Railey has never paid any of the money, claiming destitution.”

The former parishioners with whom Railey left his two children were the FUMC choir director John Yarrington and his wife.  The 1993 article notes that they had moved to Arkansas, and they have since moved on to Houston, where Yarrington is a professor at Houston Baptist University.

The Railey assault has been covered at great length elsewhere, for example in D Magazine and Texas Monthly; a 2001 article in Texas Monthly notes Railey’s “second act” in California.  Whoever did it, the murder of Peggy Railey appears, like the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, to be an example of an evil act that is the work of a single person.  Given how much is widely known about the murder of Peggy Railey, it is strange another evil connected to her murder has remained unknown.  This second evil has two parts – one individual and one that has been the work of a team.

The individual part of this second evil: John Yarrington, with whom Walker Railey deposited his children as he fled to California, was known for sexually inappropriate behavior with boys in Dallas.  This pattern of behavior was an open secret among young Dallas Methodists.  Last week I interviewed a friend whom I have known since childhood about Yarrington’s behavior with him and others and about his flight from Dallas, after Railey had left for California.  According to my friend,

“The real reason Yarrington left is because he was asked to leave. He was caught molesting kids. Mainly boys around our age, but nobody really knows the extent of the molestation…..There was a police investigation and I was once pulled out of class in like ’89 to talk to the cops, but formal charges were never brought….I remember him tickling me under my shirt.  We would have ‘private lessons’ after church at night and I would take my shirt off….Do you remember Jack*? He was the one who told his mom and she brought it to light. John started messing around with Jack in a VERY inappropriate way, Jack fled and hid in the darkened sanctuary for an hour while John looked for him and called out. Sick bastard.”

Yarrington’s acts were his own, and would thus be in the “single actor” part of the taxonomy of evil described above.  The larger context, however, does appear to implicate a team in evil and destructive acts.  According to my friend – and his account matches the narrative that I understood myself growing during those days – (formal or informal) leaders at FUMC sabotaged the investigation into the Yarrington behavior and facilitated Yarrington’s exit from Dallas.  As my friend said,

“Powerful people at FUMC quelled the whole thing, thinking that so soon after Walker another huge scandal would kill the church, which is probably accurate. But I personally know dozens that were affected and never got any kind of closure. The whole thing was sickening. He left (with Walker’s kids and his own children) and continued music ministry.”

One might make a reasonable argument that, like the Boston Archdiocese’s pattern of shuffling offending priests around across unsuspecting parishes, it was deeply evil – and team evil, not individual evil – for FUMC’s leadership to smooth the path for Yarrington’s departure from Dallas.

Continuing with the taxonomy of evil, evil committed by teams seems often to have a very different flavor from the evil acts of individuals.  The context for individual evil acts is often personal failings – for example lust, greed, sloth, envy, or wrath.  Certainly there can be rationalizations for the evil acts – revenge, for example.  The context for team evil, on the other hand, often appears to demand a somewhat greater degree of ideological justification for the offensive acts.  In this case, it appears that the justification was to avoid “killing” FUMC.  Although this goal could be reasonable justification for many actions, I think that it is still possible to draw a line at actions that are deeply damaging to the larger society that hosted and still hosts the church.

Why do these skeletons need to be unearthed now, almost thirty years later?  John Yarrington is an old man, as is Walker Railey.  My friend aside, many of the people who were affected by these events have no desire to think or talk about them ever again.  While I respect those feelings, obviously I see some value in adding to the Walker Railey narrative some things that have been outside of the conventional accounts of those years, and placing these events into the context of thinking about individual and collective wrongdoing.

At a minimum, I believe that refusing to be quiet can have a healthy deterrent effect for powerful people and teams today.  Perhaps somewhere in the world right now a leader or group is contemplating sweeping an uncomfortable situation under some real or metaphorical rug.  Knowing that the truth can eventually come out, even after thirty years, can have a beneficial effect on the risk-versus-reward calculation for those who might contemplate hiding or burying uncomfortable secrets in ways that pass costs on to the larger society.


(* Jack’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.)

(Artwork: Francisco Goya (Spain, 1746-1828) Saturn Devouring his Son c.1819-1823)





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