Monday, January 19, 2015

Clergy sex abuse and "the silence of the many"

"True evil lies not in the depraved act of the one,
but in the silence of the many."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hello to all of you!

It's been a long time since I visited my blog, but today is Martin Luther King Day and I found myself reconnecting with a column I wrote for MLK day in 2013. It was previously picked up and published by the Associated Baptist Press -- now known as Baptist News Global -- which by the way is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. I think this may just be the best job I ever managed to do in succinctly summarizing the complex issues at work in the problem of Baptist clergy sex abuse and denominational complicity. An excerpt:

"In countless stories of Baptist clergy sex abuse, we have seen the sad truth of King’s words made manifest. Even with childhood histories of horrific abuse – of having been molested, raped and sodomized by Baptist preachers – countless such victims have said that the worst of their experience came when they tried to tell about the abuse within the faith community.

That was when they faced 'the silence of the many.'

That was when the relational fabric of community, and often even of family, was torn asunder.

That was when faith itself was deemed a fraud."

Read the rest of it here or at Baptist News Global.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

SNAP at the 2014 SBC annual meeting

SNAP was at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting June 11 in Baltimore, handing out flyers and urging Baptists to get serious about dealing with clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

The evangelical "good-old-boys" network is just as effective at covering up clergy sex crimes as the Catholic hierarchy, said Pam Palmer, a SNAP member who spoke with the media there.

This problem is not going away, and the sooner Baptists start responsibly addressing it, the safer kids in Baptist churches will be.

Thank you to SNAP!

SNAP seeks independent review of abuse handling by prominent SBC churches, ABP News, 6/5/2014.

Special Note:
To the person who wrote the May 16, 2014 comment on my "To the People of FBC-Orlando" post: Please email me.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

$12.5 million verdict shows change is coming to Baptistland

Last Saturday in Florida, a unanimous jury awarded $12.5 million to a man who, as a child, was sexually abused by a Southern Baptist minister. Significantly, this verdict was assessed, not only against the local church, but against the Florida Baptist Convention.

To my best knowledge, this is the first time in history that a verdict has been handed down against a Baptist statewide denominational entity in a clergy sex abuse case. Attorney Ron Weil of Miami is the person who brought this “game-changer” of a lawsuit to fruition.

I’d like to imagine that Baptists will view this as a wake-up call to begin implementing the sorts of systematic safeguards that other major faith groups have. But Southern Baptists have shown themselves to be recalcitrant in this arena, and so I expect it will likely take still more lawsuits – and still more needlessly wounded kids – before that happens. For now, the Florida Baptist Convention is simply saying that it plans to appeal.

For twenty-five years, I practiced law as an appellate attorney in Texas. So I know a thing or two about what can happen in the appellate process and what the possibilities are. But whatever may happen next, this case has already brought a seismic shift in the terrain of Baptist clergy abuse litigation.

For far too long, Baptist denominational leaders have acted as though they believed that by doing nothing, they could protect denominational coffers against the risk of liability. In essence, they prioritized the safety of denominational dollars over the safety of kids. Now however, denominational leaders will have to consider that doing nothing also puts those dollars at risk.

This $12.5 million verdict will also garner the attention of other trial lawyers, who will now see that the Southern Baptist wall has been breached, and who will bring still more lawsuits in an effort to widen that breach.

No more will Baptist officials be able to brag that they always prevail on summary judgment. They likely had to incur much larger attorney fees in defending this case in a full trial, and it is likely that many more cases will go to full trial in the future. With trials, you get the public disclosure of many more facts – facts that denominational officials might prefer to keep hidden.

Because Southern Baptist officials have historically prioritized the protection of denominational dollars, cases such as this are what are needed if kids are to gain better protection against Baptist preacher-predators. When Baptist officials are forced to spend down enough of their denominational dollars, they may eventually see the sense in re-ordering their priorities for the protection of kids. It’s a shame this is what it takes . . . but it does.

For far too long, preacher-predators have been able to easily church-hop through this porous denomination because Baptist leaders have pretended that their version of “local church autonomy” precludes any systematic denominational sharing of information about reported clergy child molesters. This religious rationalization has amounted to little more than a candy-coating on Baptist leaders’ irresponsible inertia, and it has left a trail of destruction in the lives of countless kids. But Baptist leaders have been successful with this religious-sounding ruse . . . until now.

On the facts of this case, the Southern Baptist Convention’s “local church autonomy” defense failed, and a jury found that a statewide denominational office bears responsibility. Some may argue that this case was unique or that other cases will be different. But while other cases may indeed bring other facts to the table, most Baptist ministers bear commonalities by virtue of their affiliation with the denomination. For example, it is common for Baptist ministers to be aided in job searches through denominational services and to be listed in denominational directories. In any event, there are always variables in particular cases, and this is the very essence of how tort law develops – i.e., case by case.

In the not-too-distant past, when a drunk driver caused harm, only the drunk driver bore responsibility. But as the carnage caused by drunk drivers became better documented, the law slowly changed, case by case and through legislation, so that those who sold alcohol to already-intoxicated people would also bear responsibility. Those who gave the drunk driver the weapon of harm could no longer throw up their hands and say “not my problem.”

Similarly, I believe the law will eventually become more uniform in recognizing the relational responsibility that Baptist denominational entities should bear based on how they promote and facilitate the employment of Baptist ministers. This is, after all, a cooperatively functioning denomination that takes in over $500 million a year into centralized coffers. Abusive Baptist ministers are not lone-wolf rogues, but rather, they are affiliated with a denomination of enormous influence, and that affiliation aids in the public perception of ministers’ authority.

To a very large degree, it is the denomination itself that places the mantle of trust onto the shoulders of Baptist ministers, and so the denomination should be held accountable when it irresponsibly allows that mantle of trust to become a weapon for child sex abuse.

For far too long, Southern Baptist officials have been distorting their “local church autonomy” doctrine to serve as what is, in reality, a legal strategy for trying to shield the denominational structures from the risk of liability. The doctrine has been functioning as a tactical construct and not a religious construct. Ultimately, however, the law must look to how Baptist denominational entities operate in the real world and not merely to the abstraction of what denominational officials say.

Thankfully, that is exactly what the jurors in this case did. They looked at reality.

Slow or fast, change is coming to Baptistland. It is inevitable. I rest my faith in the justice-making work of American trial lawyers and in the ordinary good sense of American people who serve on juries.
Thanks to ABP News for publishing this column!
See also:
SNAP leader terms $12.5 million verdict against Florida Baptist Convention historic, ABP, 1/23/14
SNAP asks Baptists not to appeal abuse verdict, ABP, 2/12/14

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Be gentle with yourself

“When the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference, something in your heart goes cold.”
-- Bruce Springsteen

Trauma experts confirm the critical importance of social context in determining how people process traumatic events. If traumatized people are supported by a caring community, they may often do quite well even after terrible events. But when traumas are inflicted on a child by someone who is supposed to take care of the child, and when the child experiences those traumas repeatedly, and when the child’s community colludes to deny the reality, and when the child is not allowed to feel what he feels or give voice to what he knows, then the child’s mind cannot process what has happened and the trauma embeds itself more deeply.

This truth about the importance of context manifests itself in the stories of clergy sex abuse survivors. These are people who, in childhood, experienced a terrible crime, but for whom the traumatic impact is typically derived from much more than the predatory acts of a single person. Rather, when the offender is a much-trusted minister, the degradation of childhood rape and molestation is often exponentially magnified by the community’s long-continuing efforts to minimize, deny, and cover up – i.e., by the context. We have seen this pattern over and over again.

Thus, the context that surrounds clergy sex abuse makes it a classic context for giving rise to long-term trauma-related issues. For those who experience such traumas during the vulnerable developmental periods of childhood and adolescence, the impact is often more profound than is encompassed within the usual parameters of a post-traumatic-stress-disorder diagnosis. Generally, the diagnosis of PTSD was developed in connection with adults and does not take into account the ways in which chronic, repeated traumas affect a child’s development.

So, researchers have coined the term “complex trauma” to refer to the more disruptive and all-pervasive constellation of problems – problems of mind, body and spirit – that derive from such traumas. They include such symptoms as hypervigilance, dissociation, chronic sleep disturbances, nightmares, persistent feelings of worthlessness, emotional numbing, feelings of shame and self-blame that generalize to daily life, an impaired ability to sustain close relationships, disconnection from others, and a rupture of one’s most basic systems of meaning. These symptoms may persist long after the traumatic events.

Experts recognize that complex traumas can often be highly intractable and very difficult to treat. Complex trauma imprints itself in ways that are not connected to cognitive processes, and so we cannot reason ourselves free. The problem is not all “in our heads,” but rather, complex trauma lodges itself in the body’s physiological processes. The ACE study brought us staggering proof of this physiological correlation when serious traumas, such as sexual abuse, are experienced before the age of eighteen. Like some sort of mutant virus, complex trauma takes up residency within our bodies, always waiting for some moment of weakness when it can unleash its destructive force yet again.

The contextual impact often compounds itself in subsequent decades when a clergy abuse survivor attempts to speak out about what was done to them. The truth of our stories is deeply uncomfortable for many people, including not only religious leaders but often friends, family and community. Perhaps it is because they cannot bear to see their own complicity or perhaps it is simply because they prefer the familiar terrain of their self-told soft lies rather than the seismically-shifted terrain shaped by the hard truths of clergy sex abuse. Whatever the reason, the result, once again, is that the context complicates the traumatic impact. The devastation of clergy sex abuse continues to reverberate through the decades as church, community, and even family persist in sending messages of “what was done to you doesn’t matter.” It is a cruel message that gets communicated in a myriad of ways.

Often, the message is made even harsher by the suggestion that we should not only heal ourselves but should also take on the obligation to make everyone else feel better. We are essentially chastised for making others uncomfortable. And we are expected to shape our stories of clergy molestations and rapes into less ugly versions that will not upset the equanimity of the community.

When so many turn a blind eye, shame the victim further, and collude in cover-ups, it is easy to see why clergy abuse survivors often lose the most basic of trust in the shared bonds of a caring humanity. In the long litany of harm caused by clergy sex abuse, I often think this is perhaps the most pernicious damage of all.  

In so many ways and with so many voices, we hear these sorts of messages so often – “Why don’t you just get over it?” – that we ourselves sometimes wonder all the more about what is wrong with us. And when we find ourselves dealing yet again with the nightmare that we thought we had already dealt with, it is easy to get discouraged.

But for those of you who have experienced the trauma of clergy sex abuse, know this: What you feel is normal. And your long, circuitous path of healing is normal. Those who suggest otherwise are ignorant.

So when you feel yourself discouraged, my earnest plea is simply this: Be gentle with yourself.

What you are dealing with is incredibly difficult. Experts know this. Believe them, and ignore the ignorant.

My wish for you in 2014 is that you may feel many moments of respite from what you know of human evil. And may you have many days of peace, wonder and joy.

  • Related post: "So much hate," 2/24/2010.
  • Great article about the ACE study: "Can childhood trauma shorten your life?", 12/24/2013.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Truth and Reconciliation Needed in Baptistland

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, journalist Peter Beinart posed this piercing question: “Why, in recent days, has the American media focused so much more on Mandela’s capacity for reconciliation than his demand for truth?”

Beinart, who is also an associate professor at City University of New York, presented a possible answer: “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s because, all too often, America wants reconciliation without truth itself.”

I think Beinart may be on to something.

“Truth itself” can be terribly hard. It’s way easier to skip straight to the reconciliation part.

Certainly, we have seen this pattern in Baptistland, where religious leaders are fast to preach on forgiveness but disinterested in the truth about clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

Indeed, in America’s largest Protestant faith group – the Southern Baptist Convention – religious leaders are so disinterested in – or afraid of – the truth about the extent of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups that there doesn’t even exist the possibility of a denominational process for assessing clergy abuse reports. Nor does there exist any denominational process for keeping records on how many abuse reports a minister may have, for informing congregations about multi-accused ministers, or for disciplining those clergy who cover-up for the unspeakable crimes of their colleagues.

One of the best ways to protect children in the future is to hear the voices of those who are attempting to tell about abuse in the past. Those voices almost always carry ugly, hard truths – truths about not only the preacher-predators but also about the many others who turned a blind eye or who were complicit in covering up for clergy child molestations.

Baptists need their own sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring the truth of these voices into an arena where they can be heard.

Those who have been victimized by clergy sex abuse are in desperate need of a safe place where they can tell their stories and be heard with respect and compassion. Those who have known about abusive clergy or who had reason to suspect, those who have been complicit in cover-ups, those who have engaged in intimidation tactics for the silencing of victims, and those who have followed the direction of senior pastors to keep such things within the church family – all of these people – are in need of a safe place where they may now tell what they know, express their remorse, and do what is still possible for making kids safer in the future.

Those parents who sit in pews and wonder about how many of their leaders may have been complicit in covering up for clergy child molestations – those parents also are in need. They need a credible outside resource to illuminate the truth for them – or at least as much of the truth as can possibly be ascertained.

So long as Baptists persist in trying to deal with clergy sex abuse “without truth,” kids in Baptist churches will not be made safer.

They will not be made safer by Baptists’ all-talk-no-action resolutions, and they will not be made safer by hollow pronouncements on the preciousness of children.

Rather, if kids in Baptist churches are to be made safer against clergy sex abuse, then Baptists everywhere must engage a sacred commitment to shared truth.

A faith so feeble that it fears the truth is no faith at all.
Some of my remarks in this posting were previously quoted by journalist Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal in an article called “Evangelicals urged to confront sexual abuse.”

Thanks to Frederick Clarkson for quoting extensively from this posting in his 12/10/2013 article titled "Child Sex Abuse Crisis of the Religious Right Grows."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Baylor president writes letter of support for child molester

Kenneth Starr

Tucked away in a Washington Post article last month was the news that Baylor University’s president Ken Starr wrote a letter of support on behalf of a child molesting school teacher.

Baylor is the largest Baptist university in the world, and Ken Starr is the man at the top. Formerly, Starr served as a federal judge, as the United States Solicitor General, and as a special prosecutor during the presidency of Bill Clinton.

The child molester who inspired Starr’s letter is Christopher Kloman. For nearly 30 years, Kloman taught at the elite Potomac School in Virginia, which Starr’s own daughter attended.

Faced with multiple accusations of having molested female students, Kloman pled guilty last summer to four counts of indecent liberties with a child younger than 14 and one count of abduction with intent to defile.

At Kloman’s sentencing hearing in October, five victims provided what was described as “harrowing”accounts of the sexual abuse they suffered as kids and of the long-lasting impact it had on their lives. One woman testified that school officials had been informed about Kloman’s conduct, but that they merely sent him for counseling.

“My sense of self-esteem had been crushed,” she said. “No one thought what he did was bad enough to help me.”

As reported by the Post, “some of the women testified that they had been through years of therapy after the abuse. For decades, most never revealed what had happened.”

Despite the enormous harm that Kloman caused in so many lives, and despite Kloman’s guilty plea, over 90 people wrote letters on Kloman’s behalf in anticipation of his sentencing hearing.

Among those letters was one from Ken Starr, the president of Baylor University. According to the Wikipedia account, Ken Starr urged leniency for Kloman, and asked that the judge sentence Kloman to community service rather than jail time.

Thank goodness the judge on this case had a good deal more sense and sensibility than Ken Starr. Kloman was sentenced to 43 years.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering why anyone should believe that Baylor University officials learned any lesson at all from the horrific saga of murdering minister Matt Baker – a minister who got his start at Baylor where officials simply filed away a sexual assault report – when even today we see that Baylor’s current president will write a letter in support of a child molester.
Why should parents of high-school students feel any trust in sending their kids off to a university whose president writes a letter urging leniency for a man who molested teens?

Thanks to Frederick Clarkson for quoting this posting in his 12/10/2013 article in the Daily Kos.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Kudos to Boulder law enforcement!

Robert Phillip "Bob" Young
This week in Boulder, Colorado, police served summons on two pastors and two elders at an independent evangelical church after an “investigation revealed the officials failed to report a youth pastor” who allegedly sexually assaulted a child. “A fifth church official, who is currently out of the country, will be served a summons when he returns to Colorado.”

Luke Michael Humbrecht
Five grown men -- all of them leaders at the Vinelife Church -- and according to police, not one of them chose to do the right thing when one of their clergy colleagues was accused of child sex abuse. In fact, police point to evidence that the youth pastor had “repeatedly confessed” to the church officials, and investigators believe the five church officials “knew about the crime.” Yet, they failed to report it.

Those church officials who now face charges are:

Edward Charles Bennell
• Robert Phillip ("Bob") Young, executive pastor
• Luke Michael Humbrecht, pastor
• Edward Charles Bennell, elder
• Warren Lloyd Williams, elder

Warren Lloyd Williams
Police say they will release the identity of the fifth church official at the time he receives the summons. However, 9-News reported that the accused youth pastor, who now faces six felony charges, is the son of one of the church’s senior pastors. The accused youth pastor is named Jason Allen Roberson, and the church's website shows that its senior pastor is named Walt Roberson. A photo gallery of senior pastor Walt Roberson along with the rest of Vinelife’s staff is here.

Jason Allen Roberson
(Boulder County Sheriff's Office)
According to news reports, the abuse began when the girl was fifteen. She is now 23. As reported by 9-News, when she reported the abuse to church officials, “the church launched their own investigation and made Roberson go through counseling before returning him to his position as youth pastor.”

In other words, it’s still another case of a church that tried to handle clergy abuse allegations internally without involving outsiders. It's a recipe for disaster that leaves kids at risk of terrible harm. As we’ve seen far too often, “without outsiders, you get cover-ups and cronyism.”

Because it was apparent that the church was going to continue to allow Roberson to have access to kids, and because she feared the church was not taking the matter seriously, the victim finally went to police. Thank goodness she did.

And thank goodness for Boulder law enforcement. “Duty to report” laws are on the books all over the country, but they seldom get enforced. Kudos to Boulder police for going after, not only the accused perpetrator, but also the many other church officials who knew and kept quiet.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why Paige Patterson's anti-outsider stance is wrong

Paige Patterson
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson preaches that churches should resolve their conflicts internally and should not take them to “the world of unbelief.”

This means, he explains, that when a person has been “offended…misused and abused” within the church, he should take his complaint to church elders and the congregation, and should not go to the courts or talk to the press. In the final prayer of his sermon, Patterson included even “the government” among those to whom church members should not take their troubles.

This insular sort of anti-outsider stance is dreadfully dangerous. Yet, for decades, it has been a common Baptist teaching, and tragically, it is now being inculcated into still another generation of Baptist pastors.

Outsiders are essential to any organizational system of accountability. They bring objectivity and detachment, and these ingredients are critical for the effectiveness and credibility of an accountability system. Without outsiders, you get cover-ups and cronyism.

Contrary to Patterson’s instruction, whether the outsiders are “believers” or “unbelievers” is irrelevant so long as they are outsiders to the system in which the alleged wrongdoing occurred. In any event, since I don’t credit Patterson or anyone else with mind-reading ability, I doubt that his believer/unbeliever distinction can be readily discerned. There are unbelievers in churches just as surely as there are believers who are not in churches.

As human beings, we are creatures with a natural tendency toward bias. When we already feel as though we know and trust someone, our minds naturally move toward wanting to confirm that trust rather than toward giving equal weight to a person whose dissonant story clashes with our pre-existing belief. Most organizational accountability structures now recognize this reality of human nature and incorporate safeguards against it. For example, nowadays, when a police officer is accused of abuse, his conduct is reviewed by an independent panel, not by his buddies in the same department.  

In the context of clergy sex abuse, the human tendency toward bias means that, typically, when churches try to handle abuse reports internally, they accept the accused pastor’s word and minimize the word of the person who brings such challenging information to the forefront.    

When churches are confronted with clergy abuse allegations, not only should they go to outsiders, but they must go to outsiders. State laws require that information about allegations of child sex abuse – or even about suspicions of abuse – be reported to government officials such as the police or child protective services.

This does not mean that going to the cops is enough. While reporting abuse allegations to law enforcement is essential, the majority of child sex abuse cases cannot actually be criminally prosecuted. Typically, the reasons are procedural and have nothing to do with the merits of the allegations. In these cases in which criminal prosecution is impossible, alternative accountability systems are needed if kids are to be protected.

Alternative systems of accountability are nothing unusual; most other professions use such systems. For example, an attorney need not be convicted of a crime in order to have his conduct reviewed through a professional disciplinary process. That process carries the power to take away the attorney’s mantle of trust and to make known the attorney’s misdeeds.

Southern Baptist ministers need a similar accountability system – one that carries the power to assess a minister’s conduct and to warn congregants about safety concerns. When it comes to protecting kids, the criminal justice system cannot do it all, and the Southern Baptist Convention abandons moral responsibility in declining any denominational system of accountability. Merely because a man cannot be put in prison does not mean that he should be allowed to continue in a position of high trust as a minister.

Most other major faith groups now have clergy accountability systems. With such systems, those who have been abused may at least have the possibility of reporting the clergy-perpetrator to a panel of people who are outside the minister’s immediate circle of trust – i.e., who are outside the local church – and of seeking some process of review.

These denominational systems are far from perfect and often fail in actual practice. But for Southern Baptists, lacking even the bare existence of a denominational accountability system, failure of accountability is virtually assured. If a Southern Baptist pastor isn’t literally sitting in prison, he can probably find a pulpit to stand in. The denomination has no alternative system for stopping him.

You might think the Darrell Gilyard saga would have taught Patterson the danger of what he preaches. An insular approach to multiple claims of abuse and assault is precisely what allowed pastor Gilyard to persist in predatory conduct for two decades. According to the Dallas Morning News, many of those claims were reported directly to Paige Patterson . . . but to no avail. By the time Gilyard was finally convicted on child sex charges in Florida, over forty young women and underage teens had made allegations against him – and that’s just the ones we know about. Thank God a young Florida teen finally went outside Baptists’ insular system and took her report to government officials.

And what about Patterson’s insistence that his anti-outsider stance is somehow biblical? If Patterson needs a biblical basis for doing what's right, then he should look to the first thing listed by the prophet Micah. “And what does God require of you? To act justly . . . .” (Micah 6:8) 

If churches are to “act justly” in dealing with clergy sex abuse reports, outsiders are essential.

Thanks to ABP News for publishing this posting as a guest column and for linking to it in still another Baptist clergy abuse story the very next day, demonstrating yet again why Baptists so desperately need to adopt effective accountability systems.

Thanks also to Nonprofit Quarterly for quoting extensively from this published column in an 11/7/2013 article by Rick Cohen on "The Dangers of Keeping Organizational Secrets."