Monday, January 29, 2007

Bellevue shows need for change

The report from Bellevue shows that what pastor Steve Gaines called “moral failure” was really minister Paul Williams’ “egregious, perverse sexual activity with his adolescent son over a period of 12 to 18 months.”

PW apparently never sought counseling for his son. That is still another form of parental neglect and abuse. If there had been any true repentance on PW's part, he would have sought counseling for his son so as to try to minimize the damage and lessen the long-lasting harm of sexual abuse. It's as though he ruptured his son's spleen with violence and then left him to slowly bleed out internally rather than taking him for help.

The report notes the staff's practice of keeping sensitive matters secret "to protect the church from embarrassment" and says: "This feeling is not only found in Bellevue Baptist Church but also is prevalent across churches in general." This is true. What happened at Bellevue has happened at churches across the country - and most have greatly fewer resources for dealing with it. It's why SBC leadership MUST step up to the plate and provide congregations with the resources they need to appropriately deal with clergy abuse and to better protect kids. As the report states: "The events relating to the PW issue have vividly brought to light the need for change."

Baptists profess congregational autonomy. Yet, the reality is that, when it comes to clergy sex abuse, congregations are not being given the information they need to make responsible decisions. As at Bellevue, the information is too often kept secret by small groups of ministers and deacons. What's happening in actual practice is not a reflection of congregational autonomy but of the autonomy of small groups of men in positions of power. People in the pews need a resource for obtaining objective independent investigatory assistance when these kinds of allegations are brought forward.

If a church with the sort of human and financial resources that Bellevue has still did such an awful job of handling this, why would anyone imagine that churches with much lesser resources would be capable of handling it any better? They aren't. It's usually even worse. This is why the need for change is so great. National leadership must step up to the plate and establish an office for receiving clergy abuse reports, for independently and professionally investigating clergy abuse reports, and for providing congregations with the information they need to make responsible decisions. [See SNAP’s requests.]


Lin said...

It is strange that he never sought counseling for his son.

Christa, what is the situation with all the people who did not report this including counselors? This is very troubling.

Christa Brown said...

Perhaps the reason he never sought counseling for his son was precisely because he knew an outsider would then know about the abuse and possibly report him. Along parallel lines, I sometimes wonder if this may partly explain why some state conventions provide counseling for clergy perpetrators to "restore" them but don't provide counseling for clergy abuse victims. Maybe they're afraid that if the victims got counseling, they would get past their entrenched shame and might instead get angry, report it, file lawsuits against churches, etc.

I don't know what the situation is there in Tennessee with all the people who didn't report it. Generally, criminal prosecutions under reporting laws are very rare. Failure to report is still a crime, but it just doesn't get prosecuted very often. But wholly apart from the legal obligation to report, what about their moral obligation to inform the congregation and to be proactive in protecting others? I'm pretty fed up with church leaders who try to argue away the legal obligation, because it doesn't mean a hill of beans one way or the other in terms of their moral obligation. Most good lawyers know that just because something may be within the bounds of the law doesn't necessarily make it the morally right choice. The two are not one and the same. And of all possible people who ought to realize that - church leaders are the ones.

If mega-church leaders are so intent on acting like corporate CEOs, then maybe congegations should try to give their leaders a taste of corporate-style accountability - sort of like shareholders. As things stand now, the average tobacco company executive would face more systems for accountability than the average mega-church pastor. I can't help but wonder whether there might be some breach of fiduciary duty in the failure to inform the congregation of something so important. Certainly, ministers and deacons occupy a position of trust and I think they ought to be considered as standing in a fiduciary relationship toward the congregants. That relationship ought to impose some serious obligations. Maybe it's time for congregants to start trying to enforce those obligations in the courts. Mind you....I'm NOT giving legal advice here. I'm just throwing out my thoughts based on all I've seen. But I can't help but wonder whether a good attorney with some experience in fiduciary duty litigation might have some creative thoughts on the matter.