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.

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.