Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day and Baptist clergy sex abuse

My father had chronic post-traumatic stress symptoms from his service in World War II. He was wounded in the liberation of Luzon and survived by playing dead while they bayonetted bodies around him. When night fell, he crawled through the darkness and over bodies and back to allied troops.

As a kid, I didn't understand, and sometimes my father seemed terrifying. As an adult, I know that we were probably like a great many families of those stoic men who never spoke of their ordeals. Families simply coped as best they could with the psychological wounds so many of those men had.

After one particularly bad incident, the police were called to our house. They just talked a bit and then called our pastor, who came to the house and prayed. He said we should think about others in the church and how upsetting it would be if people found out that a good Christian family like ours had such problems. He told us not to talk about it.

A week or two later, the youth and education minister approached me. He said he knew what had happened in my family and that he’d like to talk with me about it. He asked me to come to his office.

I guess the pastor’s “don’t talk about it” message didn’t apply to him. He obviously breached our trust and told the youth and education minister about the trouble in my family. But I didn’t see that hypocrisy at the time. I saw only that the youth and education minister seemed to care about me. In hindsight, I now see that this was when the grooming for abuse really began. He used my family’s difficulties to move in on his

Years later, when I again tried to report that clergy child molester, I mentioned that the abuse began shortly after this incident of family violence. Naively, I thought this information would help to educate church and denominational leaders on how predatory clergy work. Instead, long-time attorney for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Stephen Wakefield, tried to use that information against me. He wrote back that because I had “suffered from abuse at home” this would have been what caused my distress. Then he threatened to seek recourse against me if I pursued the reporting of my perpetrator.

Wakefield brought it up when he spoke with me in person too. In effect, he tried to use my dead father’s mental illness against me to say that I was emotionally damaged anyway, as though no greater harm was done by the sexual abuse of the church’s minister. This attitude offended me beyond all words. And this Memorial Day, I’m still angry about it.

In yesterday’s sermons, I imagine lots of Baptist ministers paid tribute to servicemen and said some nice words. But when it comes to deeds, the reality of what I encountered, both as a kid and as an adult, were Baptist leaders who used my father’s war wound to exploit his family, savage his adolescent daughter, and intimidate her once again as an adult.

Stephen Wakefield isn’t just some rogue attorney. He has been attorney for the largest statewide Southern Baptist organization in the country for over a decade. And this is how he treats those who attempt to report clergy child molestation (even when another minister who knew about the abuse when I was a kid substantiated the report). And the Baptist General Convention of Texas just keeps on hiring him. I think you have to assume that they approve of his tactics.

My father was a hero, both at war and at home. He worked double and triple shifts his whole life to put Big Chief tablets in his kids’ hands and shoes on their feet. He literally wore his body out trying to provide for his family.

That a know-nothing like Stephen Wakefield would suggest that my father’s psychological war wound was a form of “abuse” in any way akin to the devastating sexual savagery of a Southern Baptist minister is something I will not forget anytime soon. That he would use my family's difficulties to try to minimize the great harm done by a Baptist minister’s sexual abuse is unconscionable.

Over the past couple years, as I have worked at trying to bring the Baptist clergy sex abuse problem to light, I have been kicked countless times by Southern Baptist men. In person, in emails, in letters, on blogs, and even in the Baptist Press, they have said outrageous things, mean things and even hateful things. On a good day, I could probably find it within myself to forgive almost all of it. But for the likes of Stephen Wakefield to degrade my father and try to use his war wound against me is something I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive.

My father was far from perfect, but he was more honest, hard-working, courageous and decent than any Southern Baptist leader I have yet encountered. I honor the memory of my father in continuing to speak truth about Baptist clergy sex abuse and about the horror in how this denomination handles it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A practicing Christian

"Are you a practicing Christian?" asked the reporter. It was the word "practicing" that gave me pause. When I hesitated too long, he asked, "Well, do you go to church?"

"No." The answer to that one was easy. Or at least that was my first reaction. But then I started pondering that question as well. "What’s a church?" I wondered out loud.

I have great respect for professional journalists, and so I never intend to be obtuse. But I’m just not very good at talking in sound-bites, and I actually think about their questions. Sometimes I’m still thinking about them long after the reporter has moved on.

In many ways, SNAP is like a church. We are a community of people who unite to support one another in a common mission. We each have our own journey, but we travel similar paths and we have all encountered great chasms along the way. Some of us are people of faith, and some of us are people of non-faith, but we try to help one another over and through the dreadful darkness of those chasms.

When we bleed, we bind one another’s wounds. And we labor in the belief and hope that our lives may work for good so that others may be free from such hellish misery.

Maybe I’m part of a church-like community after all. It’s nothing like the church I grew up in. With SNAP, the doors are flung wide-open, and we won’t make you sign any creed. We will simply try to help you and to provide a welcoming sanctuary.

"Are you a practicing Christian?" If a reporter asked SBC president Frank Page that question, I expect he would answer "yes" without a moment’s hesitation. But perhaps he and other Southern Baptist officials should hesitate. Perhaps they should ponder it.

When Southern Baptist officials are confronted by those who've been sexually savaged by clergy predators, they turn away and leave them wounded and bleeding by the side of the road. Or they run their donkeys right over them. Is that what a "practicing Christian" would do?

It gives you a different perspective when you’re the one who’s bleeding in the dirt. You don’t care much about whether someone says he’s a "practicing Christian" or not. What you care about is whether they will get off that donkey and do something. Because if they don’t, you’ll still be bleeding in the dirt and watching a donkey’s ass walk away.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Baptist official clueless on clergy sex abuse

Did you see the interview Nashville reporter Jamey Tucker did with Southern Baptist spokesperson Will Hall? In talking about clergy sex abuse, Hall suggested that background checks would solve the problem and that child molesters would likely be in prison. He said it with a little laugh.

Watch the video. What does that little laugh mean? It makes me wonder whether Hall is deliberately pushing propaganda or whether he’s simply clueless.

Hall’s laugh also caught the attention of David Brown, who is no relation to me and who posted this comment on Jamey’s blog: “His light-hearted laugh about how these predators would be in jail shows how very little understanding he has of this horrible crime.” Amen to that. Anyone who knows anything at all about this crime knows that most clergy child molesters have never been convicted of anything.

Anyway, we’ve already seen that Southern Baptist officials are blind even to the small percentage of clergy child molesters who actually have been convicted. The Southern Baptist Convention kept convicted child molesters on its online ministerial registry. Even worse, it didn’t immediately remove the convicted child molesters when they were pointed out. Even after 20/20 told the nation about convicted child molesters on the SBC’s registry, the names still weren’t removed. Instead, the SBC issued a public statement justifying those names on the registry. Only after EthicsDaily posted the actual names of the convicted clergy-perps, after SNAP made a press release about it, and after still more reporters asked questions, did the SBC finally bother to remove the convicted perps from its registry of ministers. This shows a very, very dangerous level of institutionalized denial.

Will Hall also suggested that Southern Baptists had just “40 incidents in the past 15 years.” Where did he get that? How can they spout such nonsense with such smiling assurance?

Last February, SNAP said that "in the past six months" SNAP had received about 40 reports of sexual abuse by Baptist ministers. And of course, we have received many more since February, and there have been many cases reported in the secular press. For a Baptist official to suggest that there have been only "40 incidents in the past 15 years" greatly minimizes the repeated horror so many kids have endured. EthicsDaily called for the SBC to issue a correction, but I’m not holding my breath for it.

Two weeks ago, in a Tennessean poll, 96 percent answered "yes" to the question of "Should the Southern Baptist Convention create a database of sex offenders among its clergy ranks?" This is a no-brainer to most ordinary people, including most ordinary Baptists. It is something the Southern Baptist Convention should have done long ago, and its continued excuses ring hollow.

Once again, David Brown’s comment hit the nail on the head: “The SBC does not want to maintain a database of these predator preachers because they will find out the numbers are frightening.....Mr. Hall and the SBC, you are dreadfully wrong.”

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Finding restoration

When I feel depleted, I go to the beach. There, I do nothing but soak in the sound of the ocean.

Eventually, the sound seeps into every crevice of my brain and so fully fills it that finally there exists ONLY the sound and nothing more. It restores me.

Some people go camping. Some people get pedicures. Some people go to church. Me...I listen to the ocean.

Perhaps it doesn't seem like much. I expect many might find it boring. But for me, it is least for today.

L'Eternel est mon ne manquerai de rien...Il restaure mon ame.

The Eternal is my shepherd...I will lack nothing...It restores my soul.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What it's like to report Baptist clergy sex abuse

Check out this video depicting the silencing and bullying tactics that church leaders so often use. It's produced by Christian School Confidential, which blogs news related to the unfolding scandal at Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.

On a similar theme, compare my own take on what it's like to try to report clergy sex abuse to Baptist leaders.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A fine day

The loop was a raucous festival of colors. Thanks to heavy rains, the prickly pears were covered in blooms of day-glo yellow. Meadows were filled with the crimson, purple and gold of Indian paintbrush, thistle, primrose, winecups and Mexican hats. Even the flat rocky areas were carpeted with low, lemony blossoms whose names I couldn't conjure.

Butterflies kept my company for short spurts. A goldfinch perched on a twig, and a bluebird crossed my path. (Bluebirds are infrequent migrants here, and so a rare treat.) A red hawk soared above, and chaparrals trotted into the brush. A cottontail looked up and scampered on.

Up ahead, I heard Dan and Emily's banter as they tried to best each other with their bike antics. Reveling in the sound of their mirth, I felt the sun's warmth on my face and a breeze at my back.

Finally, cresting a hill at loop's end, I looked out onto a big red sun in a wide pink sky, and the whole world felt right and good.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I'm a mother

Why do you do this? It’s a question I get asked a lot. The answer is this: I’m a mother.
Motherhood is transformational. I feel that mother-bear instinct not only for my own offspring, but for every kid out there.

Most clergy sex abuse is committed against adolescent kids. However near-grown their bodies may appear, any mother can see that they’re still kids. When trusted ministers sexually abuse kids, it does violence not only to their still-developing bodies and minds, but to their very souls. When other religious leaders turn a blind eye, it does still more violence. And it is a very dangerous and hateful sort of ignorance that seeks to blame the kid rather than holding the minister accountable. Yet, we often see this among Baptist church leaders. Any dumb mother bear would know better.

No kid is unharmed by the sexual abuse of a religious authority figure. No matter how tough the strut, no matter how rough the talk, no matter how many tattoos or piercings, no matter how short the skirt, no matter how tight the jeans – none of it matters. For every kid this happens to, it becomes a nightmare.

That’s why I do this. Perhaps I’ve got nothing more to offer than a tiny nightlite, but I do this because I want to end the nightmares. I’m a mother.

And now....a Mother's Day gift for all of you: a mother/daughter survivor story.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Don't ask don't tell - the Baptist version

Another survivor forwarded me an email she got from the Missouri Baptist Convention. She had written them to ask how she could report the minister who sexually abused her when she was a kid. She told them she had reason to believe the minister had also abused others. It was a painful and courageous letter for her to write.

A director of the Missouri convention wrote back and said, “The Missouri Baptist Convention is an autonomous network of churches....” His response was so cold and obtuse that it seems almost alien. (But of course even Spock would at least put forth the effort to feign some feeling of care.) The gist of the exchange is sort of like this:
Question: “Hi, I was raped by a Baptist minister when I was a kid, and I think he abused others as well. Please let me know how to report him.”

Answer: “Baptist churches are autonomous.”
Amazingly, the Missouri director didn’t even bother to ask the name of the minister.

I’ve got a very similar email that was sent to a different survivor by a director at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It’s sort of like this: “Molested as a kid? Oh...that’s too bad...Baptist churches are autonomous....bye.” And again, he didn’t even bother to ask the name of the minister who did it.

I guess Baptist leaders think that, as long as they don’t ask the minister's name, they don’t have to take ownership of knowing who the child molesters are. And since they don’t even bother to ask, you can be sure they aren’t going to tell anyone else. Not a good system for making kids safer, is it?

I can’t help but wonder whether SBC president Frank Page followed a similar sort of “don’t ask don’t tell” protocol. While interviewing him, ABC’s 20/20 told Page there were convicted child molesters on the SBC’s ministerial registry. Did Page try to get the names of those convicted child molesters? It doesn’t look like it.

Several weeks later, when the show actually aired, the convicted perps were still on the SBC’s registry. No one had removed them. Perhaps Page thought that, if he didn’t insist on getting the names, he wouldn’t have to take ownership of knowing, and the perps on the registry wouldn’t be his problem. And perhaps he was right. If that portion of Page’s interview had been left on the cutting room floor, it’s likely those names would STILL be on the SBC’s registry. They only wound up becoming a problem because 20/20 chose to actually air that portion of the interview, because EthicsDaily listed the names in a subsequent article, and because SNAP then listed them in a subsequent press release.

Churches often do the same sort of “don’t ask don’t tell” two-step. When a person reports abuse, church leaders don’t ask too many questions. They don’t really want to know too much about what happened because they don’t want to take ownership of knowing. If they don’t actually “know” anything, then they don’t worry as much about what to tell another church when it requests a reference. It’s a whole heckuva lot easier just to let the accused minister go on his way without sorting it all out. It’s easier not to know.

Easier for church and denominational leaders maybe. But what about for kids? The Baptist version of “don’t ask don’t tell” is a disaster for kids’ safety.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Kroger Parking Lot

"It all began to come together sitting in the Kroger parking bright sunny day in May."

A Baptist abuse survivor in Colorado sent me a link to the reflections of Becca Stevens. Have a listen to the "Kroger parking lot." I hope it feels as right and true for you as it did for me. It's about sanctuary.

In its own way, that's what SNAP strives to be. We're a community of people who try to offer a safe and welcoming place to everyone for whom church was anything but a sanctuary. Maybe that desire to be part of a community and to work on building a space for sanctuary is one of the good things that still remains to me from the time before my childhood sanctuary became a hell-hole.