Tuesday, November 13, 2007

It ain't moral just cuz it's legal

Many think the law is all black and white. It’s not. There are huge areas of grey. If there weren’t so much grey, lawyers wouldn’t have so much to argue about.

One of those grey areas is the area in between zealous advocacy and overstepping the bounds.

Some lawyers will use the threat of a lawsuit as an intimidation tactic. It’s a way to shut someone up. It forces them to spend a lot more money and it lets them know that they’re going to be in for a whole heckuva lot more headaches if they don’t back off and shut up. So that’s exactly what a lot of people do.

Recently, such a tactic was used against bloggers who wrote about the religious violence of the “Left Behind” video games.

Personally, I consider such intimidation tactics as overstepping the bounds. But some lawyers might shrug and call it zealous advocacy.

I got to experience similar intimidation tactics when I tried to report a Baptist clergy child molester. Much like a doctor who gains a new perspective on hospital policy when he himself becomes a patient, I felt the full brunt of it, not with the professional detachment of a lawyer, but as an ordinary wounded person trying to protect others and trying to get some denominational help.

Worse than a body blow, it felt like an evisceration. I curled up on my bed in a ball, and tried to make myself small, as though if only I curled tightly enough, I might be able to disappear.

I could not believe that the faith community I grew up in would do such a thing. Why would they threaten to sue me when the music minister had already admitted his knowledge of the other minister’s abuse of me as a kid?

I could think of only one reason: to shut me up.

What finally brought me out of my fetal ball was the knowledge that this lawyer had been working for the Baptist General Convention of Texas for over a decade and the realization that, if he used such intimidation tactics on me, he had probably used them on a whole lot of other clergy abuse victims as well. I figured his tactics probably worked exceptionally well with clergy abuse victims, given how reluctant most are to talk about it anyway.

Ultimately, I couldn’t let go of wondering how many other clergy abuse victims had been shoved right back into silence by such bald Baptist bullying tactics, and how many perpetrators had been left in their pulpits as a result.

I expect the BGCT’s long-time lawyer thought he was engaging in zealous advocacy. But I would say he was treading a very dark grey area. Some might even call it witness intimidation.

Whatever you call it, the real question is why the largest statewide Baptist organization in the country seems to condone such tactics. He’s THEIR lawyer, and he’s also the lawyer to whom the BGCT often refers churches when they're confronted with clergy abuse.

Just because such tactics may be legal doesn’t mean they’re moral.

The same is true of Baptist leaders’ use of confidentiality agreements to silence clergy abuse victims. Not long ago, the BGCT’s lawyer publicly described such agreements as being “standard.”

You got that? He was essentially justifying the practice of throwing a few thousand dollars at clergy abuse victims in exchange for their signature on a contract saying they’ll never again speak of it. It’s an abhorrent practice that perpetuates the secrecy of sex abuse and leaves predators in their pulpits.

Back in 2002, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted an express policy against the use of confidentiality agreements with clergy abuse victims. But Baptist leaders are still using them.

Even if such agreements are legal, they sure as heck seem mighty immoral when they silence the wounded, keep predators in pulpits, and leave other kids at risk.

Just because something may be within the bounds of the law doesn’t mean it’s within the bounds of morality. The two are not one and the same. If anyone should realize that, it should be religious leaders. But apparently not.

And don’t just blame the lawyer. He may indeed be treading the grey on the very dark side, but Baptist leaders are the ones who insist on the wrong question.

Instead of asking “Is it legal?” Baptist leaders should be asking “Is it moral?”

They should be asking whether such silencing tactics reflect what Jesus would do if confronted with a clergy abuse victim. They should be asking whether such tactics are consistent with the mission of their organization.

By comforting themselves with the easy balm of a grey legality, Baptist leaders abdicate their OWN moral obligation.

[Incidentally, the BGCT’s lawyer on clergy abuse issues is the same one who advised the BGCT on the Valleygate mess. See a pattern? Looks like the BGCT may feel right at home in shadowy grey terrain.]

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