Thursday, June 30, 2016

SBC church seeks to 'out' child sex abuse victims

David Clohessy speaking to the press, along with other SNAP members,
outside Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas
(Kansas City Star photo)

A Southern Baptist megachurch that is being sued over sexual abuse inflicted on minor girls has filed a court petition requesting that the girls’ names be made public.

Although sexual abuse lawsuits involving minors are typically filed under “Jane Doe” or “John Doe” pseudonyms in order to preserve the children’s anonymity, Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas, has requested that the court require the children and their mother to proceed in open court under their real names.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, described it as a “stunningly callous” and “mean-spirited” tactic.
Clohessy’s organization, SNAP, has been instrumental in bringing countless clergy sex abuse cases into the light of day. It was originally formed by survivors of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, but today, SNAP has members who were sexually abused within many other faith groups, including Baptist groups.   
Clohessy stated that, in his 28 year history of advocacy work, this was the first time he had ever seen a religious institution seeking to “out” a minor who was bringing forward a claim of sexual abuse. “I’ve never seen a defendant try to ‘out’ kids who are still kids in a child sex case,” he said.
For those of you who don’t know much about SNAP, let me just point out that SNAP is the organization whose work helped bring to light the child molestation cases that formed the basis for the movie “Spotlight,” which recently won an Academy Award. Clohessy himself has talked with hundreds upon hundreds of child sex abuse survivors and mostly survivors abused in religious institutions. He knows the ugly patterns of such cases better than probably anyone else in the country. Yet, with all the cases he has seen, Clohessy had never seen a church seek to “out” the identities of children who were sexually abused.
Incidentally, there’s no doubt that these children were sexually abused. The perpetrator is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence. The fact that he also had two prior felonies was a factor in determining the length of his sentence, and it also forms part of the basis for the family’s civil lawsuit against the church. The suit alleges that the church knew the perpetrator was dangerous and failed to take adequate precautions for the protection of kids.
And now … so desperate is this Southern Baptist church to pull out all the stops in trying to defend against the family’s civil suit that it is doing what virtually no other religious institution has previously done. It is seeking to publicize the names of children who were sexually violated.
Brad Russell, attorney for
Westside Family Church
(photo: Shawnee Mission Post)
The attorney for the church -- i.e., the guy who is pursuing this deplorable tactic -- is Brad Russell. In his court filing, he tried to justify the tactic by claiming that the family had used “a Pearl Harbor styled barrage of negative publicity” against the church.

As SNAP often does when it is trying to draw attention to a serious safety problem in a church, it held a press conference outside the church. I’ll leave it to you to take a look at the photo of that group of concerned citizens speaking out for the protection of children and decide for yourself whether you think it looks like “a Pearl Harbor styled barrage.” To me, it looks like attorney Russell went off on a grossly exaggerated and untenable rant.      
Since Westside Family Church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, SNAP called on SBC officials, including newly-elected SBC president Steve Gaines, to denounce the church’s “inexcusable” tactic of trying to “out” children victimized by sexual violence. But of course, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting. Gaines himself has a much-publicized prior history of having kept quiet about an admitted child molester on his own ministerial staff. Yet, despite Gaines’ known cover-up history, Southern Baptists chose him as their leader just a couple weeks ago. That’s how dysfunctionally oblivious this denomination is to the dynamics of child sex abuse and to the ways in which its own leaders create such a hostile climate for those who would seek to report child molesters who prey on church kids.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Southern Baptists elect known clergy-sex-abuse-cover-upper as president

Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis
(photo by Joni B. Hannigan)

At its June 14-15 annual meeting in St. Louis, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Steve Gaines as SBC president. Gaines, who is the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, was implicated in a widely-publicized clergy child molestation cover-up about nine years ago.
Here's what was uncovered at the time: Gaines knew for at least six months that a Bellevue staff minister, Paul Williams, had molested a child, and Gaines simply kept quiet. He did not report the crime to the police, and he also kept Williams’ conduct a secret from the congregation. If a blogger had not made the news public, there’s no telling how long Gaines would have persisted in keeping Williams’ dangerous conduct under wraps.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Gaines had obviously chosen to prioritize the protection of his staff minister rather than the protection of kids, and despite Gaines’ secrecy, the church chose to retain Gaines as its senior pastor. Gaines faced virtually no consequences.
Furthermore, not only did Gaines keep quiet about the fact that a staff minister had admitted to molesting a child, thereby leaving other kids at greater risk, but he also allowed Williams to continue to serve as a counselor for congregants who had been sexually abused as children. Can you imagine how those people felt when they learned that the very minister who had been counseling them was someone who himself had molested a kid? As one woman later explained her pain: “That a suspected pedophile might have been titillated by the story of her abuse at the hands of a since-deceased relative -- the thought turns her stomach.”
It seemed plenty bad enough at the time that Gaines’ mega-church, Bellevue, had no apparent problem with retaining a senior pastor who kept quiet about a child-molesting-minister. But leave it to Baptists to go from bad to worse in dealing with clergy sex abuse. It now appears that the entire Southern Baptist Convention also has no problem with such cover-up conduct in their highest leaders.
In electing Steve Gaines as SBC president, the largest Protestant denomination in the country has spoken loud and clear: Clergy child molestation cover-ups are no big deal in Baptistland.

See also SNAP's 6/15/2016 press release blasting Southern Baptists' election of new president.

Related posts:
"Steve Gaines on Protecting Kids," 12/4/2007
"The Malignancy of Baptist Oblivion to Clergy Sex Abuse," 4/8/2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

SNAP prediction: Next "Spotlight"-style exposé will focus on Baptists

David Clohessy
Executive Director, SNAP
On June 3, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released a letter to top officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling on them to create a "safe place" office to which clergy sex abuse survivors can file reports about their alleged perpetrators and predicting that, without action, Baptists will become the next target of a "Spotlight"-style exposé. The letter, from SNAP's Executive Director David Clohessy and Outreach Director Barbara Dorris, was directed to SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page and SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore. Here it is.

Dear Dr. Page and Dr. Moore:

With the approach of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2016 annual meeting, we are writing with two requests:

First Request.  We ask for the creation of a denominationally-funded “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may file a report about their alleged perpetrators and that the “safe place” office be widely publicized.

Reason for First Request. It is flat-out cruel for Baptist denominational officials to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must go to the church of the accused pastor if they want to report him within the faith community. This is like telling abuse survivors that they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is a response that inflicts additional harm on greatly wounded people and that turns a cold shoulder to those who seek only to protect others. To avoid the hopelessness that often besieges survivors who see no realistic avenue for even making a report, and to encourage Baptist clergy abuse survivors to speak out, the SBC needs to provide a “safe place” where survivors may report their perpetrators to people who have the professionalism and experience to receive those reports with compassion and care.

Because of the traumatic damage that is done to them, most clergy abuse survivors are well into adulthood when they seek to formally report those who abused them in childhood. Often, their claims can no longer be criminally prosecuted. Indeed, most experts estimate that less than 10 percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. Church cover-ups frequently contribute to the failure of prosecution because many survivors made some outcry in childhood only to have their outcry suppressed within the church while the perpetrator was allowed to move on. Yet, despite these harsh realities, many survivors still strive in adulthood to protect others by reporting their perpetrators within the faith community. By providing a “safe place,” the SBC could facilitate their reports rather than stifling them.

As you know, in the past, we requested that the SBC provide its affiliated churches with the resource of trained outsiders for assessing clergy abuse reports that cannot be criminally prosecuted and for informing congregations about credible allegations. These were reasonable requests because realistic response protocols are essential to the prevention of clergy sex abuse, and realistic response protocols require the use of outsiders. Sadly, the Executive Committee declined those requests, claiming that “local church autonomy” precluded them, and that is why we are now making this smaller request for the creation of a “safe place” to receive reports. The mere fact of denominational record-keeping -- i.e., of receiving reports and logging allegations -- presents no plausible possibility of interfering with local church autonomy.  

Frankly, our hope is that, if the SBC Executive Committee would simply begin to receive reports and systematically log allegations, there would eventually come a point when SBC officials would realize the need to provide churches with a professionally-staffed office for responsibly assessing those reports and for informing churches about credible allegations -- and would also realize that providing churches with this kind of information doesn’t violate their autonomy. In other words, we hope for incremental change. Our view is that an outsider’s assessment should happen whenever a minister has even a single allegation, but even if you disagree with us on that, surely you would agree that there would be some point at which multiple allegations against a minister should be responsibly assessed and churches should be warned. For example, if a minister had accrued 3 abuse allegations in 3 churches in 3 different states, would you think this was enough to warrant a denominational assessment as to whether churches should be informed? What if the minister had accrued 10 allegations? 20? Surely there would be some point at which you would agree that denominational officials should help churches with the provision of information about church-hopping ministers who have multiple credible accusations of child sex abuse? Whatever that point may be, the place to start is with receiving reports and systematically logging the allegations.

The SBC Executive Committee has the power. Dr. Page, your predecessor, Morris Chapman, described the role of the Executive Committee as the “fiduciary of the Convention” and as the denominational entity “empowered to function” on behalf of the SBC. Therefore, we ask that the Executive Committee exercise its power for the creation of a “safe place” office for receiving reports about clergy sex abuse in SBC churches.

Alternatively, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has the power. In 2008, when the Executive Committee rejected the proposal for a denominational database of admitted and credibly-accused clergy sex abusers, it pointed to the existence of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and said that no additional office was needed because the ERLC was “fully capable” of “the provision of ministry called for by sexual abuse victimization.” The Executive Committee further stated that “should the ERLC arrive at a different conclusion in the future about the advisability of receiving reports of sexual abuse … and desire to serve as the office of receipt, it may so advise the Convention….” Dr. Moore, although your ERLC predecessor chose to do essentially nothing for the provision of ministry to clergy abuse survivors, we are asking you to choose differently and to “serve as the office of receipt” for reports about clergy sexual abuse in SBC churches. Put an end to the dysfunctional denominational cruelty of insisting that survivors report to the church of the accused perpetrator.

Second Request.  Dr. Page, nine years ago on April 19, 2007, you wrote a column, published in the Florida Baptist Witness, in which you demonstrated the antithesis of compassion and care for clergy sex abuse survivors, and once again, we are asking for an apology.

Reason for Second Request. Writing as the president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country, you labeled those who were speaking in the media about Baptist clergy sex abuse as “nothing more than opportunistic persons.” As was noted in EthicsDaily at the time, the only group that was publicly speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse was our organization, SNAP, whose members are, for the most part, people who were molested and raped by clergy when they were children. Your words were extremely hurtful, set a terrible example, and helped to foster within your faith group a climate of hostility toward clergy abuse survivors. We are still hoping that, someday, you will understand the harm of what you wrote and will make a public apology, which we would be happy to receive.

Conclusion. Data gathered by the Associated Press demonstrated that clergy sex abuse is not only a Catholic problem but also a huge problem for Protestants. If the SBC persists in denominational do-nothingness, we predict that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé will be focused on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that time comes, we earnestly implore you to at least take the step of creating a “safe place” for denominationally receiving clergy abuse reports.

Reported by Baptist News Global, "Victims' group asks Southern Baptists to create 'safe place' for reporting sexual abuse," June 3, 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's wrong with the "sexual predation" resolution

In anticipation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 14-16 annual meeting in St. Louis, Pastor Bart Barber of Farmersville, Texas, has floated a proposed resolution “on sexual predation in the Southern Baptist Convention.” In explaining his reason, Barber wrote: “What drives me to submit this resolution is my concern that the worst days of church sexual misconduct may be ahead of us rather than behind us.”
I believe Barber is probably right that the worst days of clergy sex scandals may be ahead for Baptists -- because they don’t yet seem to have learned the needed lessons from past scandals -- and I applaud Barber for his apparent recognition that Baptists do indeed have a dire problem. However, I don’t think for one second that Barber’s resolution will actually bring about any significant change in how the Southern Baptist Convention deals with clergy sex abuse. Here’s why.
1. What’s being proposed is a “resolution.” Nothing more. It’s just talk. A resolution doesn’t actually do anything. It was almost 10 years ago that SNAP wrote its first letters to top SBC officials, requesting specific action, and action is still what’s needed. It is not enough -- not nearly enough -- to simply resolve that things should be better.
2. While the resolution generically expresses disapproval of churches that have acted in ways to prevent victims or others from reporting sexual abuse, the fact of the matter remains that the SBC provides no denominational mechanism by which survivors may safely report clergy abuse and church cover-ups with any realistic hope of being compassionately and objectively heard. By continuing to insist that clergy abuse survivors must go to the church of the accused pastor, the denomination itself institutionally discourages the reporting of clergy abuse, and assures that, most of the time, denominational officials will not even have to feel the discomfort of hearing about clergy abuse and cover-ups. Cases that make it into the media are the bare tip of the iceberg. If the SBC wants to express disapproval of churches that have acted in ways to prevent people from reporting instances of sexual abuse, then it must start by being willing to institutionally hear the voices of those who are trying to tell about such instances. And that would require a system by which survivors could make a report to a “safe place” office staffed by people with the training, experience, objectivity and professionalism to at least receive them with compassion and care.
3. While the resolution affirms the role of “proper authorities” in investigating sexual abuse allegations, it gives no consideration to the reality that the vast majority of clergy sex abuse claims cannot be criminally prosecuted -- often because of church cover-ups in the past -- and it makes no mention of how the SBC should deal with the many clergy abuse survivors who, even when their claims cannot be criminally prosecuted, would nevertheless seek to report their claims within the faith group in the hope of protecting others.
4. While the resolution cites 1 Timothy 5 with its call for “public rebuke” of "sin on the part of elders,” the resolution itself does not even attempt to actually make any rebuke of any church, pastor, deacon or minister. Denominational entities have disfellowshipped churches for having women pastors and for being too welcoming of gay people, but I am unaware of any instance in which the SBC has ever disfellowshipped a church on the basis of a clergy sex abuse cover-up. So, rather than a toothless resolution, it would be far more meaningful if this were an actual motion to rebuke or disfellowship a specific church based on a clergy sex abuse cover-up. The prominent Dallas megachurch, Prestonwood, would be a good place to start. Thanks to the enormous efforts of SNAP member Amy Smith, it was finally brought to light, as reported in several news sources, that Prestonwood church officials had not reported child molestation allegations involving a staff minister, John Langworthy, but rather had allowed him to move on to another church, essentially unleashing him into the denomination at large where he was able to continue in a position of leadership with children. It was only years later, after more than two years of effort on Smith’s part and with no help from Prestonwood or the SBC, that Langworthy finally pled guilty on multiple molestation charges in Mississippi. Not only did Prestonwood officials, including senior pastor Jack Graham, fail to make kids’ safety a priority at the time, and not only have they shown no public remorse since then, but in a statement to WFAA-News, executive pastor Mike Buster publicly bragged that the church had “dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly” because Langworthy was “dismissed immediately.” Thus, from all appearances, to this day, Prestonwood officials seem to think that what they did was right. Furthermore, since SBC officials made Jack Graham a featured speaker on “leadership” at the 2013 Pastors’ Conference, it appears that SBC officials have no problem with what Prestonwood did either. Yet, this is exactly the sort of conduct that the SBC should rebuke in its affiliated churches if the SBC hopes to have any moral credibility on this issue.
5. Finally, by using the language of “sexual misconduct,” the resolution inappropriately (and perhaps inadvertently) minimizes conduct that should not be minimized. When you are talking about the molestation and rape of children by trusted religious leaders, and the cover-up of those crimes by other religious leaders, you are talking about something a great deal more serious than mere “misconduct.”
Conclusion:  The time for mere talk is long past. The Southern Baptist Convention needs to undertake cooperative action for (1) the provision of a denominational “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may make a report when it cannot be criminally prosecuted; (2) the systematic logging of clergy abuse reports within the denomination; (3) the assessment of clergy abuse reports by a panel of experts who are outside the church of the accused pastor; and (4) the provision of a denominational resource by which local churches may obtain reliable information about clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Thanks to the widely-read for linking to this posting, saying "Christa Brown discusses the limits of that resolution, and what more the SBC needs to do."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why Ted Cruz should see "Spotlight"

Paige Patterson (AP photo)
In the same week that the movie “Spotlight” won Oscars, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz created a Religious Liberty Advisory Council and named Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as one of its members to provide Cruz with guidance.
This is the same Paige Patterson who, in emails made public by the Nashville Scene and EthicsDaily, characterized SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as “evil-doers” and said they were “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” SNAP is the very organization whose tireless work helped to uncover the story on which “Spotlight” is based -- i.e., the story of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Boston archdiocese. SNAP’s former New England leader, Phil Saviano, is portrayed in the movie by actor Neil Huff, and Phil himself attended the Oscars ceremony and took the stage, along with the actors and filmmakers, when the “best picture” award was announced.
“Just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” Think about those words. Can you imagine anything more hateful for a religious leader to say about a group of child rape victims? SNAP people are people who seek only to support one another, protect others, and shine a light on the problem.
Furthermore, Patterson wrote those words to a distraught young woman who, as a teen, had been sexually assaulted by a pastor who was still in the pulpit. Patterson’s response was obviously far from compassionate or helpful.
But it’s not just harsh talk. Patterson wrote those ugly words shortly after SNAP requested that Southwestern’s trustees put Patterson on administrative leave to consider whether he should have done more in the handling of repeated abuse allegations against Darrell Gilyard, a pastor whom Patterson had mentored. By the time Gilyard was 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. According to the Dallas Morning News, many of those claims had been reported directly to Paige Patterson, but to no avail.
So, at the time Patterson made those hateful remarks, SNAP was doing the same sort of work to try to expose Baptist abuse cover-ups as what it had done to expose Catholic abuse cover-ups. And Patterson didn’t like it. SNAP’s president Barbara Blaine pointed out that, even with all the difficult work that SNAP had done over a period of twenty years, and even with all the hostility that many Catholic clergy had dished out, no one had ever before called the organization “evil” or said that they were just as bad as sex criminals. It took a Southern Baptist preacher named Paige Patterson to stoop to such a low level as that.
I can’t imagine why a presidential candidate would want to seek guidance from someone who has demonstrated such a harsh and wrong-headed attitude toward a support group for child rape victims. And I would think that a presidential candidate should have considered the import of the Patterson-Gilyard connection before elevating Patterson to the role of a trusted advisor.
Perhaps Ted Cruz should take a break from the campaign trail, go see "Spotlight," and ponder the lessons that it offers.

Thanks to Baptist News Global, Real Clear Religion, and My Christian Daily for picking up this column. And SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, did a press release urging Cruz to oust Patterson from his advisory panel.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Spotlight: Lessons to be Learned

The movie “Spotlight” has received six Oscar nominations, including best picture, and on February 28 when the Oscars are presented, clergy sex abuse survivors all across the country will be watching and cheering.
The story focuses on the Boston Globe journalists who exposed the patterns of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Boston Archdiocese. But for many of the survivors who will be watching, we know the story is much bigger than Boston and much broader than Catholicism. Many of us were not abused by Catholic priests but rather by Baptist pastors and by clergy in other faith groups. Yet we will all be cheering for “Spotlight” because we all share similar experiences. We too know the horror of sexual abuse perpetrated in the name of religious authority and the nightmare of religious institutions that turn a blind eye.
It would be a mistake to view the “Spotlight” story as pertaining only to Catholics. To indulge that sort of thinking would be to engage in the same sort of denial that allowed the Boston abuses to persist for so long. The lessons of “Spotlight” are not merely about “those bad Catholics” but rather are lessons about what one of “Spotlight’s” screenwriters, Josh Singer, called the “collective looking away.” From beginning to end, the movie illustrates the natural human tendency to want to turn away from realities too repugnant to acknowledge, and it shows us the role that such denial can have in allowing for horrific crimes and cover-ups.
Clergy sex abuse and cover-ups are not just a Catholic problem. “In reality, the likelihood is that more children are sexually abused in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches.” Those are the words of Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor, a law professor at Liberty University, the founder of GRACE, and a grandson of Billy Graham. He’s a man who has devoted his life to dealing with these sorts of crimes and to understanding the dynamics of collusion within faith communities. Tchividjian knows what he’s talking about, and the available data backs him up.
I know that Tchividjian’s words are probably gut-wrenching for many of you in Baptistland, but I beg you to ponder them and to not turn away from this reality.
For those who might like to more closely consider the data, I suggest the Insurance Journal and Ethics Daily as starting points. I wish we had even better data, and I have long advocated that Baptist churches need to cooperatively maintain clergy abuse reports in denominational offices so that congregants might at least be informed about church-hopping abusive ministers and so that we might better understand the extent of the problem. But the day when Baptists decide to keep records on their clergy and to systematically share ugly information has not yet arrived, and that is part of why the data is so limited.
But let me be clear, I have no interest in a debate about whose clergy abuse more kids. The numbers are plenty awful for both Catholics and Protestants, and for both, the numbers are undoubtedly the product of underreporting, which means the real numbers are probably even higher.
Clergy sex abuse and cover-ups are an epidemic problem for all faith groups. The problem is facilitated by individual and institutional denial, and in this sense, Catholics and Protestants have far more similarities than differences.
Because the human tendency toward denial is so common, faith groups need to have systems in place to try to counteract it. This is where Baptists have fallen behind as compared to many other faith groups. While mainline Protestant groups have developed denominational boards for receiving reports about clergy sex abuse, for keeping records on abuse reports, and for warning congregations, Southern Baptists and most other Baptist and evangelical faith groups have not. (The American Baptist Churches USA are the exception; even though American Baptists also profess the autonomy of the local church, they have cooperatively allowed for the implementation of regional review boards in an effort to assure a measure of clergy accountability.)
This failure to keep denominational records on clergy abuse reports is a critical safety gap for Baptists because less than ten percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. This means that it is up to the institutions who afford clergy the mantle of trust to also do the job of policing their ranks and of warning congregations when the risks of trusting a particular individual become too great. When religious institutions fail to step up to the plate with their own functional accountability systems, ninety percent of clergy child molesters will likely slip through the cracks and church-hop their way to new prey.
Every day I continue to wonder how much longer Baptists will stew in their own denial, refusing to see the depth and difficulty of the problem that confronts them. Given the news released this week from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, it appears as though Baptists will remain mired in the quicksand of denial.
The largest statewide Baptist denominational entity announced that it was doing away with its confidential file of abusive ministers who had been reported by churches based on “substantial evidence,” a confession, or a conviction, and was instead going to focus on providing churches with resources for prevention. Though the BGCT’s file was always seriously flawed in practice -- because the BGCT would receive reports only from churches (who almost never report their own clergy) and because the BGCT did not proactively seek to warn other churches but simply kept the information in a closed file cabinet -- many clergy abuse survivors had hoped that, eventually, the BGCT would amend its practice so as to also accept clergy abuse reports from the victims themselves. That hasn’t happened, and instead the BGCT has doubled down on denominational do-nothingness. Its press release makes clear its view that the local congregation is where responsibility for dealing with “clergy sexual misconduct” must rest. (The very fact that the BGCT uses the minimizing language of “misconduct” says a lot about the extent of their denial … but I digress.)  
The goal of prevention is a good one, but Baptists persist in sidestepping the most powerful prevention strategy of all. Most child molesters have multiple victims, and so the best means to prevent abuse in the future is to assure that, when someone tells about abuse in the past, the report is dealt with responsibly. This is what Baptists are not doing.
Prevention requires realistic response protocols, and realistic response protocols must include the use of outsiders. Many other faith groups have learned this lesson, but Baptists still haven’t.
For Baptist denominational officials to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must go to the church of the accused pastor is like telling them they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is hurtful from the get-go and many abuse survivors won’t even attempt it -- and for good reason. Not only will the local church likely lack the expertise, but necessarily, it will also lack the objectivity to responsibly consider an abuse report against its own pastor. In the typical scenario, churches lash out against the accuser. Then, what often happens is that the pastor is simply allowed to move on to a new church, sometimes in another state, with few records kept and even fewer records shared.
For those children who wind up being sexually abused by a pastor who has moved on after abuse allegations at a prior church, the fact that the pastor was merely "allowed" to move on and not "assigned" is a fact that does not diminish by one iota the pain and trauma of the children. Nor does this fact diminish the moral repugnance of a denominational system that turns a blind eye and refuses to intervene.

Thanks to Baptist News Global for picking up this column and publishing it under "Perspectives." (Baptist News Global is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.)

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Frankly, this ruling is appropriate ...."

A couple weeks ago, the Georgia Baptist Convention held “its first-ever sexual abuse summit” at First Baptist Church in Atlanta.

So far so good, right? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Southern Baptist officials were denying there was even a problem. So the fact of a “sexual abuse summit” sponsored by a statewide denominational entity is a small measure of progress. Some officials have apparently moved past the denial stage ... finally.

As part of the summit, the Georgia Baptist Convention posted resources on its website, including an analysis done by a couple attorneys called “Standards of Care Are Rising.” The attorneys wrote at length about a clergy sex abuse lawsuit in Florida in which liability was assessed, not only against the local church, but also against the Florida Baptist Convention. As monetary damages to the victim, the jury awarded $12.5 million.

It was a game-changer of a case. I said so at the time. Baptist officials’ “local church autonomy” defense failed. The court refused to allow them to distort this doctrine of polity into a legal strategy for the denominational evasion of accountability. I praised the decision and my prediction was that the Florida case would trigger more lawsuits.

But hey -- you don’t have to take my word for it. In the analysis recently posted on the Georgia Baptist Convention’s own website, attorneys said this:

Frankly, this ruling is appropriate --
and we will see more like it."

So make no mistake about it: Southern Baptist denominational officials know that they are not doing enough for the protection of kids against clergy predators. Attorneys have flat-out told them that it was “appropriate” for the court to impose liability on denominational officials in Florida and that we will see more of such cases.

The question now is whether denominational officials will heed the words of the attorneys and take seriously their own responsibility, or whether they will they continue to insist that it’s all up to the local churches.

Sadly, I think it’s going to take many more lawsuits before Baptist denominational officials will actually step up to the plate. While the fact of a “sexual abuse summit” shows progress, I haven’t seen any change in how the denomination actually responds to reports of clergy sex abuse. This is critical. Response protocols are just as important as child safety protocols. And in other faith groups, denominational response protocols are becoming standard.

The surest way for faith groups to prevent clergy molestations in the future is to responsibly listen to those who are trying to tell about clergy molestations in the past. Yet, Southern Baptists persist in pretending that “local church autonomy” is a valid reason for refusing to develop denominational protocols for hearing clergy abuse reports or for even keeping systematic records on them. When abuse survivors try to report a Baptist pastor, denominational officials claim powerlessness and tell them to go to the church of the accused pastor. This is like telling abuse survivors that they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them.

It is a system that doesn’t work. It is a system that is designed to fail. It is a system that inflicts enormous additional harm on greatly wounded people. And it is a system that does no good for the local churches, either.

In a denomination whose average church has about 100 people in the pews, the local churches don’t have the ability -- or the objectivity -- to adequately respond to clergy abuse reports on their own. A realistic response protocol must include the use of outsiders. As is done in other major faith groups, Baptist denominational entities should provide the local churches with the resource of trained outsiders for responding to clergy abuse reports and for facilitating the denominational sharing of information about abusive clergy.

Imagine a three-legged stool. In most of this country’s major faith groups, clergy sex abuse survivors have three main ways for exposing their perpetrators and warning others: (1) criminal prosecution, (2) civil litigation, and (3) ecclesiastical process. With Southern Baptists -- and with most other Baptist groups -- that third leg is missing.

Yet, as the Georgia Baptist Convention’s own posted resources recognize, less that 10 percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. This means that, if a faith group waits for a criminal conviction before removing a suspected molester from ministry, at least 90 percent of child-molesting ministers will slip through the cracks. And though time limitations in civil lawsuits are sometimes more flexible, civil lawsuits also face many hurdles that may make their pursuit unfeasible. Besides, many clergy molestation survivors don’t want to pursue a lawsuit. What they want is for their perpetrator to be removed from a position of ministerial trust so that he can’t hurt more kids. In other denominations, an ecclesiastical process can often do just that, but for those abused by Baptist clergy, it’s typically not an option.

With respect to the “sexual abuse summit,” Georgia Baptist Convention executive director Robert White announced plans to repeat the event in 2016. That sounds good, but while it may indicate that denominational officials now realize there’s a problem, there remains a vast chasm between realization of the problem and realization of their own responsibility.

Ten years ago, Mr. White was one of the “blind Baptist leaders” to whom I sent my own report about a Southern Baptist minister’s abuse of me as a kid. Even though my perpetrator had worked in a Georgia church and was continuing to work in children’s ministry in Florida, Mr. White did nothing to help me. Would he do anything any differently now? I doubt it because I’ve seen no documentation of any response protocol offered by the Georgia Baptist Convention.

The fact that the first Southern Baptist “sexual abuse summit” was held at First Baptist Church of Atlanta is also of interest. My own perpetrator worked as a children’s minister there, after leaving churches in Texas and before moving to churches in Florida. After I had written to the chairman of the deacons, and had received no help, and after a second certified letter had been sent to FBC-Atlanta officials, I finally went in person to FBC-Atlanta to hand out flyers so that parents could know that their church’s prior childrens’ minister had been a man with a substantiated report of child molestation. I figured parents needed to be able to talk with their kids about it. But officials at First Baptist Church of Atlanta ran us off the premises, sent out a tough-guy to try to intimidate us, and finally called the police on us. (Since we were on a public sidewalk, the police had no problem with us being there.)

So, my question for FBC-Atlanta is similar to my question for Mr. White: Would the church do anything differently today than what it did eight years ago? What response protocol does it have to assure that any clergy abuse report, whether for a prior minister or a current minister, would receive an appropriate and compassionate response?

So long as Southern Baptists refuse to develop realistic denominational response protocols -- protocols that include the involvement of outsiders -- children in Baptist churches will remain at undue risk. When denominational officials have no process for doing anything about clergy child molesters they’re specifically told about, why should anyone imagine that they will be able to prevent the clergy child molesters they don’t yet know about?

11/20/2015: Thanks to Baptist News Global (a news site that is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) for picking up this column and publishing it under "Perspectives." 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mitigating the trauma of clergy sex abuse

"A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives."
--  Desmond Tutu

I felt so honored when retired judge Sheila Murphy invited me to contribute a chapter for a book on restorative justice that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was supporting and writing an introduction for. I had never met Sheila before, but after my speech at the 2013 SNAP convention for clergy sex abuse survivors, Sheila introduced herself and pressed into my palm a yellow post-it note with these words: "Yoga as Restorative Justice." That was the topic she wanted me to write about. I looked at my palm, looked at her, and then said, "Huh?"

Fortunately, Sheila wasn't deterred by my monosyllabic response. "You may not have used the language of restorative justice," she said, "but I think it's what you were really talking about just now in your speech."

"It was?" Again, any pretense of wit or wisdom eluded me.

But ultimately, the more we talked, the more I decided that Sheila was right. It's funny how communication is a two-way street like that. Sometimes, what gets communicated depends as much on what's in the mind of the listener as it does on what comes out the mouth of the speaker. Sheila had heard more in my speech than what even I had realized I was saying.

So, I wrote the chapter, and the book has recently been released. You can read my chapter here: "Yoga as a Practice of Restorative Justice."

I'm happy that I could bring this discussion of clergy sex abuse and of yoga's therapeutic benefits into a perhaps unexpected context -- i.e., a law book. Below is a short excerpt:

"In so many clergy molestation cases, we have seen that, in the churches and communities in which such abuse occurs, little care or thought seems to be given to the needs of the victims. It is as though the crime itself, if spoken of, renders the victims into untouchables. We are left bleeding out in the sands of a spiritual desert while others ride their donkeys right past us. This is the typical pattern. When such grievous wounds are inflicted from within a faith community, then the faith community does not care to look too closely, and so it does not try to bind the wounds.

"I yearn for the day when we will see more cases that defy this pattern, but I know that we cannot idly wait for that day to come. The bleeding must be staunched, and so we ourselves must do the job of binding up our own wounds. To accomplish that, we can extend peach and wholeness, compassion and care to our own most inner selves. And though no other form of justice may be possible, we ourselves can engage in a form of self-restorative justice."

Read the rest of it here: "Yoga as a Practice of Restorative Justice." It's in the book Restorative Justice in Practice: A Holistic Approach.

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.