Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Risk: Another lesson from the Matt Baker story

“Matt has been losing jobs for many years. If Mr. Baker… had such a great relationship at the church where he was a pastor in Dallas, why did his first (in a long line) attorneys threaten to sue that church (and I am betting this letter went to other churches too) if they gave out any information about him? … This information isn't known by many but it can be confirmed. I was a member at that church.”

This comment was recently left on a blog that follows the Matt Baker case and advocates “Justice for Kari,” the deceased wife. (See my posting yesterday for more on Matt Baker.)

The comment illustrates another part of the problem in why Baptists are failing to rout out clergy predators. As explained in the Texas Monthly article, among Baptist churches, “there are no rules” requiring a church to inform others about a minister accused of abuse.

“In fact, to avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy, which is perhaps why First Baptist officials said nothing about the allegations when other churches later called, interested in hiring Matt.”

So, according to Texas Monthly, First Baptist in Waco kept quiet about the sexual abuse allegations against Matt Baker there. And now it appears that one of Matt’s Dallas churches may have also been intimidated into keeping quiet.

This sort of thing is common. Local church leaders are afraid.

You can be angry at the local churches all you want, and rightfully so, because their cowardice puts others at risk -- possibly grave risk. But the reality is that the local churches desperately need some leadership and help from state and national Baptist bodies. That’s where there are the resources to deal with this pervasive problem in a cooperative and effective manner.

The average Baptist church in Texas has 75 members in the pews on a Sunday morning. Imagine you’re the pastor of a typical church and you receive a troubling report about one of your part-time staff ministers. It’s far easier just to let that minister move on than it is to actually look into the matter.

There’s no excusing it, but that’s the reality. One road is easy; one road is hard. People take the easy road.

Particularly if the departing minister gets an attorney who threatens suit if you say anything, it then becomes even more easy to simply keep mum rather than to grow a sturdy backbone.

Besides, you don’t actually KNOW anything for sure, do you? That’s what church leaders tell themselves in this situation.

And then they run the possible dollar-cost through their heads. If they actually stand up to the departing minister, they realize they’ll be putting the church’s finances at risk. What about the mortgage on the building? What about the church’s ministry programs?

Church leaders find ways to rationalize their silence about reported clergy abuse under the guise of “good stewardship.”

So, the accused minister is allowed to move on to one of the other 43,000 Southern Baptist churches in the country. And then the pattern will probably repeat itself….

The porous structure of Baptist churches makes them a perfect paradise for predators.

Baptist leaders know this. Yet they persist in doing nothing to plug the holes.

The Associated Baptist Press explained the problem this way:

“Experts warn the lack of…a hierarchy in Baptist life gives abusers free rein -- and makes Baptist churches unwitting accomplices to predator pastors who are recycled from one unsuspecting congregation to another.”

State and national Baptist leaders must step up to the plate if this recycling of predators is to be effectively addressed. It is a pervasive problem and it requires a systematic cooperative effort.

Much harm might have been prevented, for example, if the pastor at Matt Baker’s first church – First Baptist of Waco – could have related his concerns to a trained review board at national headquarters. Such a board could have taken on the burden of looking into the abuse allegations in a professional manner, and it then could have taken on the responsibility for relaying information to subsequent churches.

Taking on that responsibility would necessarily mean taking on some risk -- the risk of being sued by ministers who don’t like having information about their deeds relayed to others. But the national organization can better bear that risk than local churches, and it could insure against it.

After all, it’s not a matter of avoiding all risk. That’s not possible. It’s a matter of choosing which risks we care about the most and of choosing who should bear the risk. As things stand, Baptist leaders are choosing to protect themselves and to leave the burden of a far worse risk on the backs of kids and vulnerable congregants. They’re the ones who wind up falling prey to sexual predators.

But so long as Baptists have a system in which their leaders can so easily pass the buck, Baptists will also continue to pass their predators on from one church to another.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Baptists at their best?

Matt Baker is a Baptist preacher who is accused of having killed his wife in order to pursue a relationship with a young woman in his church. Just before Christmas, the trial in the civil suit was postponed, and the criminal case is still under investigation.

I don't know whether he killed his wife or not. But here’s what I do know: Whatever else this murder investigation may eventually uncover, it has already revealed the dangerous reality of Baptists’ blind-eyed approach toward clergy sex abuse.

As reported in an earlier Texas Monthly article, investigators say Matt Baker “spent years in Waco leading… a secret life as a sexual predator.”

At every stage of that alleged “secret life,” he was in schools, churches and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Also known as the BGCT, it’s the largest state-wide Baptist organization in the country, and rather amazingly, it claims to do more than any other Baptist body toward preventing clergy sex abuse.

So, taking Texas Baptists’ brag at face value, let’s look at the best of what Baptists have to offer on this. (Quotes below are taken from the Texas Monthly article.)

Matt started out as a ministerial student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. It’s affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Matt was also a trainer for the football team. A freshman girl, who had a part-time job cleaning locker rooms, reported that “inside the locker room, he pinned her arms behind her back…spread her legs…forced her onto a bench….”

According to the girl’s account, Baylor officials “asked her not to contact police.” They “let him walk away.” They typed up a report and put it in a file.

The girl dropped out of school and moved away, but Matt continued to move up the Baptist ladder. He got a prized internship at First Baptist of Waco, a church affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He ran their summer youth camp and worked in the church’s recreation center.

A “minister at First Baptist received a report that Matt had grabbed a female custodian in the bathroom….”

“Around the same time, the pastor received a separate report that Matt had cornered a teenage girl in a small room where roller skates were stored.”

But the church didn’t fire Matt, and apparently, didn't even say much. So Matt was able to continue his upward climb.

He got a job at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, one of the most prestigious churches in Waco. It’s affiliated with – guess who? – the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Then he got a job at First Baptist Church of Robinson. It’s affiliated with – guess again – the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

To supplement his income, Matt ran an after-school youth program at the YMCA. The director received written statements from 4 young female employees, all of whom claimed Matt had sexually propositioned them,” and one said Matt “touched her pants near her genitalia and put her hands on his crotch.” The YMCA fired Matt.

After that, Matt was accepted into Baylor’s renowned Truett seminary. I guess even the Baylor seminary wasn’t able to find out about the sexual assault report that sat in its own file at the Baylor undergraduate school. Just like the university, Truett seminary is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Next, Matt got a job as pastor at Pecan Grove Baptist Church, also affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

A woman told Matt’s wife that her 16-year-old daughter said Matt had “grabbed her and kissed her” in a parking lot.

Matt then became the pastor at Williams Creek Baptist Church, and from there he went to First Baptist Church of Riesel, and to Northlake Baptist in Dallas. All are churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In 2005, Matt moved his family back to Waco and accepted a job as chaplain for the Waco Center for Youth, a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents. He was also asked to be the pastor of Crossroads Baptist, a church affiliated with – guess who -- the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In 2006, still more stories from teenage girls surfaced: “…a hand on a leg”… “his hand against her breast”… asking “if she was wearing panties.”

After his wife’s death, and as talk began to circulate in Waco, Matt moved to Kerrville to work as a director for the Baptist Student Union at Schreiner, a small West Texas college.

Guess who funded his position there? The Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Even with so many allegations of abuse and assault on teens and young women, Matt Baker was able to get still another job working with students. And the Baptist General Convention of Texas even paid for it.

After his arrest on murder charges, he was suspended from his BGCT-funded position “with pay.”

An ordinary person might look at this trail and ask, “How could he keep getting new jobs?” But with Baptists, it’s easy. Baptists have no effective system for even keeping records on abuse allegations against Baptist ministers, much less for doing anything about them.

And the Baptist leaders who claim to be doing the most – those at the Baptist General Convention of Texas – are no less blind than other Baptist leaders.

If the hiring personnel for a BGCT-funded position can't manage to find out about the string of prior sexual abuse allegations in the BGCT's own affiliated churches or in its own affiliated university (or about the fact that he was fired from the YMCA), why should anyone imagine that local churches will be able to find out?

And if this is the best of what Baptists have to offer on clergy sex abuse prevention, what would be the worst? I’d hate to guess.

Incidentally, Matt Baker denies all charges.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Southern Babtoys Corporation

Imagine a company called Southern Babtoys Corporation. They market a game-toy that has a pervasive problem. At least 3 out of every 100 will blow up in a kid’s hands, hurling tiny fragments far and wide.

Typically, it injures the kid quite seriously, though the pieces are so tiny that the kid often doesn’t realize his injury at the time. He may see only a scratch on his forehead and doesn’t know that some of the tiny pieces have actually penetrated his skull.

To make matters worse, the tiny pieces contain a radioactive compound that releases slowly and ripples destruction outward. So, over time, the damage in the kid’s brain grows worse. But though the damage is very real, it manifests slowly. So people don’t usually trace it back to the toy.

It’s the sort of toy that kids play with in groups. So a single toy will often hurt many kids.

Southern Babtoys knows this is happening. But they don’t do anything about it.

They don’t institute any sort of quality control measures to prevent it.

When reports about the problem crop up, they issue public statements that minimize it. And they never acknowledge the seriousness of their quality control problem or how widespread it really is.

Instead, they talk about a few “isolated cases” and chalk them up to all sorts of other things. The kid didn’t follow instructions. The parents didn’t supervise. The toy had been altered. The kid is a whiner. They’re just opportunists who are trying to get money.

Southern Babtoys has a whole list of these kinds of statements, and their public-relations people rotate through them when they talk with the press.

The flawed toys are actually made by a whole slew of small companies spread all over the country. But to better market them, the companies stick a Southern Babtoys label on the toys. Then Southern Babtoys takes a percentage of the revenue from the sale of the toys.

It’s a sweet deal. The local company sells more toys because people trust the Southern Babtoys name. And Southern Babtoys takes in multi-millions with its percentage. Its executives get super-high salaries, and the company gets the prestige of promoting itself as the largest toy-maker in the country.

But what about the kids who get hurt? It’s not such a sweet deal for them. Or for their families. Or even for their future families. They wind up dealing with the brain damage for a very long time.

The few who try to call the monolithic Southern Babtoys Corporation to account get met with a stone wall. If they persist, they get run into the ground by the mega-monied media arm of the SBC. Because its resources are so enormous, Southern Babtoys can spin things however it wants, and to a large degree, the public sees only what the SBC wants.

If push comes to shove, Southern Babtoys pulls forth its most golden “not our problem” excuse of all.

“The toys aren’t even made by us,” it says. “It’s all those small local companies who make the toys, not us. And the fact that the Southern Babtoys brand is on them is irrelevant. Those local companies are all autonomous, and we don’t have any control over them.”

Most people in America wouldn’t accept such a ridiculous story-line from a secular for-profit corporation. So why do they accept it from a religious organization?

Most people in America would expect the brand-holder, Southern Babtoys Corporation, to bear some accountability for those who make use of the brand.

Why do people let religious organizations off the hook at a LESSER standard of accountability than secular organizations?

Friday, December 19, 2008


TIME magazine named Southern Baptists’ rejection of a sex-offender database as one of the top underreported stories of 2008.

It’s right there on the same “top 10” list with stories about the deadly conflict in Sri Lanka where 300,000 people were forced from their homes and about the civil war in the Congo where a million people were displaced.

So, this story about clergy sex abuse in Baptist-land keeps dreadful company. But though the story was underreported at the time, I am so grateful that a national news publication has now seen the significance of the story and included it on its end-of-year list.

Because, make no mistake about it, when leaders of the largest Protestant denomination in the land plant their feet and refuse to even attempt to implement the sorts of proactive kid-protective measures that other faith groups do, it’s a big story.

Southern Baptists claim 16.2 million members, and they have 101,000 clergy in this country. Without an effective oversight system, these numbers mean that a lot of kids and families are being left at risk. Without even any record-keeping on credibly accused clergy, there’s nothing to prevent Baptist clergy-predators from moving church to church.

Folks, take pride in this end-of-year victory. A major national news publication saw the importance of this story, and also saw that it was previously “underreported.”

We are small Davids in this battle. We have only the pebbles that we lift out of the dirt. By comparison, Baptist officials have tanks and artillery.

At national headquarters and in state conventions across the country, Baptist officials have dozens upon dozens of highly-paid, full-time, professional, public-relations people. They have their own press-arms. They have the money, the time, the resources and the staff to endlessly put forth their self-serving spin of trying to minimize the Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-up problem.

Yet, despite all that, this story about their failure made national news.

It’s just one publication, and it’s just one story. But someday, the weight of so many of these stories in the public eye is what will tip the balance and compel them to action.

I don’t know when that will happen. I don’t know whether it will be in 2 years or 20. But I believe it is inevitable. It will happen… someday.

As Martin Luther King said, “No lie can live forever.”

I also believe in the mechanism of how it will happen. WE are the ones who will bring about this change through the gift of truth that we carry in our own voices.

So keep on healing, and raise heck when you can.

Shine on, Survivors!

See also:
"Time ranks SBC rejection of sex-offender database as 'under-reported' story," ABP 12/17/08
"Southern Baptists decide against pedophilia database," BaptistPlanet, 12/22/08

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Letter to SBC president Johnny Hunt

Dr. Johnny M. Hunt
President, Southern Baptist Convention
First Baptist Church of Woodstock
11905 Hwy 92
Woodstock , GA 30188

Dear Dr. Hunt:

With a change in leadership comes a new opportunity.

As president of the Southern Baptist Convention, you now have the opportunity to show genuine leadership on the issue of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups. This may be one of the greatest leadership challenges in the history of Southern Baptists.

Please use your tenure to prod the Executive Committee toward taking real and meaningful action to rid the ranks of Baptist clergy predators and to minister to those who have been wounded by Baptist clergy.

We have heard the oft-repeated explanation that denominational leaders are powerless because Baptist churches are autonomous. However, if indeed denominational leaders lack the power to actually remove credibly accused clergy child molesters from ministry (as other faith groups do), then this would be all the more reason why denominational leaders must at least provide information to those who do carry the power. Denominational leaders must assure that Southern Baptist congregants are provided with objective, professional, trustworthy information so that they can make responsible decisions about their ministers.

As a July 10 Tennessean editorial stated: "The very fact that Baptist churches are autonomous signals that they need the information that the convention could provide."

The only way people in the pews will find out about clergy child molesters is if victims feel safe in reporting them. And victims are never going to feel safe if they have to report abuse by going to the church of the accused minister. Telling clergy victims to "go to the church" is like telling them to go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is cruel to the victim and unproductive toward the end of protecting others.

This denomination needs to provide (1) a safe and welcoming place for victims to report clergy sex abuse, (2) an objective, professionally-trained panel for responsibly assessing victims' abuse reports, and (3) an efficient means of assuring that the assessment information reaches people in the pews -- i.e., a database.

If there is to be an end to the scourge of Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, it will require a strong cooperative effort with leadership at the highest levels. Please make this your top priority. Will you schedule a meeting with us to discuss this urgent need in Southern Baptist life?


David Clohessy
SNAP National Director

Christa Brown
SNAP Baptist Outreach Director

This letter from SNAP to Southern Baptist president Johnny Hunt was reported yesterday in the Associated Baptist Press.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Innocent until proven guilty?

I get email after email with these words: “Innocent until proven guilty.”

Sometimes, they put “proven” in all caps: “Innocent until PROVEN guilty.”

The thing that gets me is the way they toss out those words as though “enough said.”

It’s a catchy slogan and they seem to think slinging the slogan will automatically solve something.

It doesn’t.

In fact, the slogan doesn’t even apply in the context where they’re slinging it.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard for whether a person should go to prison, not a standard for whether he should be in the pulpit.

Our criminal justice system operates with an underlying presumption that it is better to let nine guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man. This fundamental choice lies at the very foundation of our American justice system. So everything is weighted toward a presumption of innocence for the accused.

After all, if a man is found guilty in a court of law, he may lose virtually everything. He may lose his freedom; he may be locked up; he may even lose his life. The consequences of criminal conviction can be extraordinary and severe.

This is why, in a criminal trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proof and must convince a jury that the accused is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It’s an extremely high standard of proof. It’s a standard that inherently accepts that some guilty men will nevertheless go free under the law.

Religious institutions that review clergy sex abuse reports do not operate with the same presumption as the criminal justice system. And for good reason: The risk of mistake does not carry the same consequence for the accused.

A religious institution doesn’t have the power to throw a pastor in prison. It does, however, have the power to inform people in the pews about credible accusations and to safeguard the well-being of kids. It's a power that religious institutions ought to exercise.

Being a pastor is a privilege and a sacred trust. It’s a profession, not a right.

When there is substantial evidence that a pastor molested a kid, the privilege of that profession should be forfeited, regardless of whether the pastor has ever been criminally convicted in a court of law.

This is a reality that other major faith groups have recognized.

In effect, leaders in other faith groups take on the burden of policing the sacred trust that their pastors carry. They realize the power of that sacred trust, and the horror of what can happen when the trust is twisted into a weapon for sexual abuse.

So they honor the power of that trust by safeguarding the boundaries of it. They do so by implementing systems for responsibly assessing clergy abuse reports.

But of course, Southern Baptists are the exception. They’ve rejected the sorts of accountability systems that other faith groups -- and other professional groups -- implement. Instead, Southern Baptist pastors can effectively say, “If you can’t put me in prison, then you can’t put me out of a Baptist pulpit either.”

Wouldn’t you think that Baptist clergy should be held to a higher standard than THAT?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Spending God's Money

The secrecy of Southern Baptist officials about their financial scandal at the International Mission Board wasn’t anything unusual. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen over and over again.

Southern Baptists need to begin seeing the pattern rather than merely viewing these things as isolated cases.

It’s a very common pattern: Without accountability, power corrupts.

Religious organizations are no exception.

The corruption manifests itself, not only in the cover-up of financial wrongdoing but also in the cover-up of clergy sex abuse. For both types of corruption, the root of the problem is a systemic lack of accountability.

That’s the root that Southern Baptists desperately need to remedy.

This blog has posted scores of examples showing the lack of accountability in connection with clergy sex abuse, but let me give you a few more illustrations showing the lack of accountability in the financial context.

North American Mission Board

The president of the North American Mission Board, Bob Reccord, resigned after a state-convention newspaper published an extensive investigative piece about financial mismanagement.

At the time, Mary Kinney Branson was a marketing director for the North American Mission Board, and she’s written a book that provides an insider’s account of the extravagance and financial mismanagement there. Spending God’s Money shows how a powerful religious organization goes wrong when it is unaccountable to the people who fund it and when its leaders lose touch with the higher purpose they purport to serve.

Branson provides details that implicate high Southern Baptist officials and those details are not flattering. For example, Bob Reccord “had a $1 million fund he could use at his discretion, no questions asked and no receipts required.” (Branson at p. 61)

Can you imagine any other organization that would allow an official to spend such sums with so little oversight? According to Branson, that $1 million fund was replenished each year, and in Reccord’s last two years, the fund was reduced to $350,000. In other words, the money didn’t just sit there. He spent it. “No receipts required.”

When Reccord resigned, 41 Southern Baptist leaders signed a letter, praising Reccord and essentially whitewashing his “undisputed misuse of funds.” (Branson at p. 18) One of those signers was Johnny Hunt, who is now the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Another was evangelist Jay Strack.

According to Branson, after Bob Reccord left the North American Mission Board, “auditors discovered that payments were being made to evangelist Jay Strack ($300,000) and Bob’s mega-pastor Johnny Hunt at Woodstock Baptist Church ($92,000). Final payments were sent after Bob resigned but before he left the building…. There were no written contracts. So nearly half a million dollars was paid to Strack and Hunt through verbal agreements with Bob.” (Branson at p. 113)

A copy of the letter signed by those 41 Southern Baptist men is included in the appendix to Branson’s book. Some of the other prominent Southern Baptist leaders who signed off on it were Jerry Vines, Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham, David Clippard, Anthony Jordan, Michael Lewis, Jerry Sutton, and Edwin Young.

As Branson explains, Southern Baptist officials effectively concealed this sort of financial mismanagement and wrongdoing by silencing employees. With financial incentives, they induced most departing employees to sign a secrecy pact.

A copy of the standard agreement is included in the book’s appendix; here is the secrecy clause that they persuaded people to sign: “I further agree to make no public or private statements or disclosures concerning my employment or treatment by NAMB or any of its officers, directors, or employees, and not to portray them in a negative or poor light to anyone.” The contract further specifies that, if they break the secrecy pact, then all the “enhanced separation benefits” they received (i.e., the “hush money”) will “become immediately due and payable to the NAMB.”

Baptist Foundation of Arizona

The Baptist Foundation of Arizona was established with the pretense of serving Southern Baptist causes. During its history, it did indeed return about $1.3 million to Baptist causes. But it also “loaned” nearly $140 million to companies owned by three of the Foundation’s directors. In doing so, the Baptist Foundation of Arizona cost thousands of investors their life-savings to the tune of $570 million dollars. It was called “the largest affinity fraud in history.”

Also called “affinity scams,” such frauds target investors who have a similar interest -- in this case, advancing "the Lord's work" through Southern Baptist churches.

Consider just one example: A Baptist Foundation of Arizona subsidiary called Arizona Southern Baptist New Church Ventures "had a stated purpose of financing new Southern Baptist churches in Arizona. Yet it raised most of its money by selling investment products to individuals and invested most of those funds in… an allegedly phony company owned by one-time BFA director Jalma Hunsinger.”

Many of the investors were elderly, and they learned of the investment “opportunity” through their church. They were promised high returns and that some of their money would be used to advance the Gospel. Brochures, distributed in Arizona churches, assured investors that their money “would be as safe as if kept in a bank.”

“We were deceived,” said a woman who invested $35,000 from her son’s Navy death benefit with the Foundation. She described the Foundation’s presentation in her church as being like “the moneychangers in the Temple,” and she complained that Baptist officials were reluctant to discuss the scandal for fear that it “gives God a bad name.”

Sound familiar?

Baptist General Convention of Texas

The “Valleygate” scandal showed the ugly side of the largest state-wide Baptist convention in the country. It involved $1.3 million in lost and mismanaged church-starting funds. “The investigative team faulted the BGCT Executive Board staff for poor oversight, uneven management, failure to abide by internal guidelines and misplaced trust.”

Because the investigators’ report indicated that some BGCT staff had “allowed the misuse to occur,” it was determined that recovery of the funds would be difficult.

This was a scandal that probably would have never seen the light of day if not for a courageous Southern Baptist pastor named David Montoya, who blogged about it relentlessly as “Spiritual Samurai.” It was a name that suited him because he had the heart of a warrior. But like many whistle-blowers, he was made to pay a heavy price.

Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville

Remember when church members at Two Rivers tried to get access to church financial records? They were accused of “causing division” within the church body.

Sound familiar?

Executive pastor Scott Hutchings gave this Borgian justification for the harshness in how church leaders treated the “renegades”: “There has to be submission and authority.”

Meanwhile, thousands of pages of church financial records were found in a dumpster behind the church. It certainly appeared as though church officials didn’t want people to see those records.

Two Rivers is the home-church for many of the Southern Baptist officials and bureaucrats who do the day-to-day decision-making of the Southern Baptist Convention. Is it any wonder that there are so many Southern Baptist cover-ups when this is the example that is set by the leaders of the leaders’ own church?

These are the sorts of disasters you get when an organization gives its leaders power without also insisting on accountability.

Without accountability, power corrupts.

6/11/09: Appeals court upholds convictions of Arizona Baptist Foundation officials
11/11/10: Libel suit by South Texas church starter dismissed

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

He could have been stopped

Gray Harvey was a Baptist missionary who allegedly stole about $360,000 from the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some say the amount of the theft was actually much greater, but $360,000 was the amount the Southern Baptist Convention settled for in a civil lawsuit in 2005.

As part of the settlement, Southern Baptist officials also entered into a “secrecy pact” and pledged not to talk about it. They terminated Harvey’s employment, but beyond that, Harvey didn’t face many consequences.

Southern Baptist officials let the guy go free without pressing any criminal charges.

And it appears they didn’t even collect on the $360,000. The Mobile Press-Register reports that, with interest, Harvey’s debt to the Southern Baptist Convention has now grown to about $500,000.

That’s a lot of moolah.

Think about that tired waitress who got up on her swollen feet the next morning, went to church, and put her tips in the plate for the Lottie Moon offering.

Think about that single mom working at Wal-Mart who bought a chicken for Thanksgiving dinner instead of a turkey because she wanted to have some money left over so she could give to her church for mission work.

Think about that man who’s up to his knees in muck, working overtime to fix the city sewer line, and he goes home filthy, but before he even cleans up, he tells his wife to write a check to the church for the overtime portion of his pay.

Think about that older factory worker who’s exhausted from a double-shift and wonders whether he’ll ever be able to retire, but though his arm aches, he still reaches for his wallet and puts money in the offering plate because he wants to support the missionaries.

Think about that frail widow who needs her prescription refilled but she prays about it and decides to give some of her Social Security check to the Lottie Moon offering instead.

Now think about this: Southern Baptist officials, sitting in their fine offices in Nashville, had so little respect for the hard-earned dollars that people gave to God that they didn’t even press charges. They didn’t want negative publicity. They “didn’t want people to know.”

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Southern Baptist officials handled this embezzlement scam in much the same way that church officials typically handle clergy sex abuse allegations. It’s the same keep-it-quiet pattern.

And they sure as heck can’t hide behind their “all churches are autonomous” wall on this one. Gray Harvey was an employee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He was unmistakably one of their own.

Given this lack of transparency about financial wrongdoing in their ranks, is it any wonder that so many local churches do such a poor job of handling clergy sex abuse allegations? Look at the example set by the highest of Southern Baptist leaders. It’s an example that says “protecting the image is all-important.”

I wish I could say this story ended here. But it gets worse.

A whole lot more people got hurt.

Gray Harvey is now accused of selling fake insurance policies to residents on the Gulf Coast. Police say he may have swindled coastal residents out of as much as $750,000 -- and the fake insurance scam also left their homes unprotected during hurricane season.

This part didn’t have to happen. Gray Harvey could have been stopped sooner.

But rather than doing the right thing, Southern Baptist officials did virtually nothing. And their do-nothingness allowed for many more people to get hurt.

Sound familiar?

It’s the same dreadful pattern that we see with their do-nothing response to clergy sex abuse. The perpetrators are allowed to move on and more people get hurt.

Police believe Gray Harvey has left the country by now. So he’ll probably never be held accountable.

Sound familiar?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Jonestown anniversary

Thanksgiving marked the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Over 900 people lost their lives when Rev. Jim Jones exhorted his followers to “die with dignity.”

By faith and by force, hundreds swallowed the cyanide-laced Kool-aid that was served up by the leaders of Jones’ church.

It was an event that left a permanent mark in our lexicon with the expression “drink the Kool-aid.”

Nowadays, people almost uniformly describe Rev. Jones’ church as a “cult.” Yet, what is often overlooked is that, for years, Rev. Jones was actually a very politically-connected preacher. It’s not as if he wore a sign saying “wacko.”

To the contrary, he carried the credibility of being a minister in good-standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It’s an “absolutely normal,” mainline Protestant denomination. And, similar to Southern Baptists, Disciples of Christ have a congregational polity.

And the people in Jim Jones’ congregation weren’t fools. Many were highly-educated. They almost certainly didn’t see themselves as being part of a “cult.” Yet, when things turned terribly wrong, the sheep couldn't rein in the shepherd.

After the Jonestown tragedy, the Disciples of Christ saw how their lack of clergy oversight made them vulnerable to horrific abuse perpetrated in the name of faith. So they created a process by which a regional body can consider the “standing” of ministers who carry the Disciples of Christ name.

One ordained Disciple recently explained the change this way: “In the dark light of Jonestown, it’s hard to argue that you can go back to an entirely decentralized structure with a general identity. That’s how you get a Jim Jones.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this story about the Disciples of Christ and Jim Jones. About 18 months ago, another ordained Disciple shared this same bit of history with me in explaining why he so strongly supported our efforts to create a clergy accountability system for Southern Baptists. He understood the danger.

After all, Southern Baptists have over 101,000 ministers in this country, and they’re spread out in more than 43,000 churches. It’s a faith group whose members share a strong “general identity” but have “an entirely decentralized structure.”

With 101,000 ministers, you can be certain that there are many who are seriously messed up. Some of those messed-up ministers will be child molesters. With the authority of a minister and with faith as a weapon, they persuade trusting kids to serve their sexual ends. Then, they often convince their own colleagues to disregard their worst fears about what they suspect or to even participate in a knowing cover-up. Such is the power of faith and trust.

There is no denominational system of oversight for those 101,000 ministers nor anyone who is systematically keeping records on them. In fact, Southern Baptists don’t even have some minimal oversight at the start of a minister’s career. They don’t even require that their ministers go to seminary.

Of the major faith groups in this country, Southern Baptists are perhaps the most loosey-goosey of all when it comes to clergy accountability. In essence, there simply isn’t any system of accountability.

Most people in the pews don’t realize that.

I will never forget the phone call I once got from a deacon in a church facing a substantiated allegation that, 20 years earlier, their much-loved pastor had repeatedly molested and sexually assaulted a 14 year old. Only after it became headline news, and when the church’s leaders could no longer keep a lid on it, did the pastor finally resign. The deacon told me that he had heard about the allegations earlier but assumed there was nothing to them.

“If there was anything to them,” he said, “then I figured someone at the Southern Baptist Convention would tell us.”

When I explained to him that there wasn’t anyone at the Southern Baptist Convention who would tell them or who would do anything at all, he was genuinely surprised.

“They wouldn’t really allow someone who molested a kid to stay in ministry, would they?” he asked.

“Yes, they would. And they wouldn’t even tell you about it.” That answer shocked him, but the shocking nature of it didn’t make it any less true.

Even a church deacon -- someone who probably knows more about Baptist polity than ordinary people -- still made the very reasonable assumption that Southern Baptist leaders would intervene if a minister did something dreadfully wrong.

People make that assumption because they share a “general identity” as Southern Baptists, and they think the shared identity means something. But with “an entirely decentralized structure,” there’s no accountability for those who abuse the trust of the shared identity. So the assumption winds up being erroneous.

Thirty years ago, the Disciples of Christ put in place a safeguard to try to plug the safety hole in their decentralized system. When over 900 people lost their lives, leaders saw the power of faith as a weapon, and they realized that the denomination itself carried a moral responsibility to intercede.

It’s a moral responsibility that Southern Baptist leaders still haven’t recognized.

For another account of what happened at Jonestown, read “Town without Pity,” by Charles A. Krause, a journalist who was shot while trying to cover the story there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Southern Baptist ministers and leaders instilled in me a hateful lesson. The core teaching of their lesson was this: “You are a creature void of any value -- you don’t matter.”

In both my childhood and adulthood, Baptist leaders made that dehumanizing lesson absolutely clear. They whipped it into me.

It was a lesson first taught by Tommy Gilmore, the minister who molested and raped me as a kid.

It was a lesson reinforced by the keep-it-quiet music minister, Jim Moore, and by other leaders in my childhood church, who knew and stayed silent.

In recent years, the lesson was retaught by the current ministers and deacons at First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch, including the same keep-it-quiet music minister Jim Moore, who is still there. These were men who chose to threaten recourse against ME rather than doing anything about their own former minister who molested me when I was a kid.

Then, as though Baptists were afraid I hadn’t adequately learned my lesson, it was retaught yet again by the men of the Baptist General Convention of Texas who, with double-faced dissembling, strung me along, did nothing to help me, and instead helped the church that was seeking to silence me.

The lesson was repeatedly retaught again and again by men of the Southern Baptist Convention who misled me to think my perpetrator wasn’t in ministry, who wouldn’t even shake my hand, who did nothing to help me, and who said remarkably harsh and hurtful things.

In truth, if I were to recount all the misery of what I’ve encountered in Baptist-land, there would be no end to it. And how I wish my story were a rarity. But it’s not.

I’ve seen the effect of Baptist leaders’ “you don’t matter” message on many other clergy abuse survivors. It’s such a terribly hateful lesson for religious leaders to teach.

It’s a lesson that I consider myself lucky to have survived.

That’s why I’m always a bit bewildered when Baptist leaders lash out that I’m motivated by vengeance. What really motivates me is something more akin to gratitude. I KNOW how lucky I am.

After all, I survived my twenties only because I was too inept to kill myself off. I can’t help but think that even God might find some humor in the incongruity of it. I’m a “do-the-job-right” sort of perfectionist, and yet I’m also a person whose heart is filled with unending gratitude for my own imperfect failure.

In more recent years, when Baptists’ “you don’t matter” message reared its ugly head again, I was graced to have other people in my life -- people who worked hard to counter that hateful Baptist teaching and to remind me that my life did indeed matter. If not for them, I almost certainly would have lost my grasp. Thank God for non-Baptists and non-believers.

I am a survivor. And I am grateful.

It’s not something I take for granted because I know there are many who do not survive the savage wound that is inflicted by the sexual abuse of a trusted religious leader. It is a wound that literally kills people. And if the wound itself doesn’t kill, then the infection that follows from the faith community’s hateful collusion will sometimes finish off the job.

Every clergy abuse story is a tragic one, but the stories of those who successfully commit suicide are among the most heart-wrenching of all.

Many more clergy abuse victims survive in body, but are lost down a myriad of dark chasms. Lost to alcohol. Lost to drug addiction. Lost to rage. Lost to self-mutilating behaviors. Lost to isolation. Lost to chronic depression. Lost to mental illness.

My heart is filled with gratitude. I came out on the other side of that dreadful darkness, still alive and sane. Whatever pain I may have, I am grateful for the capacity to feel that pain and for the ability to speak of it. I pray that my voice may help others and may work for good.

I give thanks for the life I still live and for the goodness of the people who surround me. And I give thanks for all of you.

May your hearts be full. Shine on, Survivors!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Three-legged stool

Clergy abuse survivors in other major faith groups have three possible ways for exposing their perpetrators and warning others: (1) criminal prosecution, (2) civil litigation, and (3) ecclesiastical process.

Think of it as a 3-legged stool. It’s not a very pretty stool; it’s not a piece of Shaker craftsmanship. But for other faith groups, the stool at least has three legs.

For Baptists, it’s a stool with only about one and a half legs. In effect, it’s not any stool at all, and that’s why kids in Baptist churches are at greater risk.

The first leg: criminal prosecution. It’s good if you can get it, but for most, it’s not possible. The very nature of the psychological damage usually renders a child sex abuse victim incapable of speaking about it until many years later when it’s too late for criminal prosecution. Nationwide, district attorneys recognize this basic reality that most child molesters escape criminal prosecution because of short statutes of limitation. So, while criminal prosecution is an important leg, it can’t possibly hold up the stool.

The second leg: civil litigation. It won’t put the offender in jail, but it can at least bring the offender’s deeds into the light of day and help protect others. Civil litigation gives reporters something they can write about, and so it can bring information about clergy perpetrators to people in the community.

Clergy abuse lawsuits face similar time limitation hurdles as criminal cases, but depending on the state, there is sometimes a measure of flexibility for a civil lawsuit that isn’t available for a criminal case.

However, lawyers considering Baptist abuse cases face even more hurdles than just the time-lag problem. In Baptist cases, lawyers also struggle with finding a line of responsibility because, in the autonomous system of Baptist churches, the buck stops nowhere. By contrast, with Catholic cases, there’s a clear line of responsibility. Penn State professor Philip Jenkins has observed that the “relative ease of litigation against Catholic dioceses” helps to create the public misperception that clergy abuse is “a Catholic problem,” when in fact, it’s just as big a problem for other faith groups. (Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles & Priests, at p. 51 (Oxford U. Press 1996).

Baptist cases can face still more hurdles that lessen the likelihood of litigation and insulate the denomination from court scrutiny. While most Catholic dioceses endure virtually forever, Baptist churches have no trouble in dissolving, reorganizing and renaming themselves. This too can make it more difficult to pursue civil litigation in Baptist clergy abuse cases. And without litigation, reporters will be less likely to write about it, and people in the community will have less chance of finding out about Baptist clergy child molesters.

So, for Baptist clergy abuse survivors, the civil litigation leg of the stool is really only about half a leg as compared to other faith groups. Because this leg is so much smaller for Baptists, you won’t read about as many Baptist cases in the newspapers, and Baptist clergy child molesters will stay more easily hidden.

The third leg: ecclesiastical process. In most other major faith groups, some sort of ecclesiastical process provides the third leg of support for the stool. Other faith groups provide a systematic process for assessing clergy sex abuse reports. They don’t wait for a minister to be criminally convicted, because they know that at least 90 percent of clergy child molesters will slip through the cracks with that approach. So instead, leaders within the faith group take on the responsibility for deciding whether abuse allegations are substantial enough that a man should not be allowed to continue in a position of high trust as a minister.

Decisions made by ecclesiastical processes – or church trials as some call them – are also something that reporters can write about. So they provide still another way of getting information about clergy sex abusers into the light of day and of warning people in the community. Recent news accounts provide ready examples of how church trials brought information to the public about credibly-accused Catholic, Presbyterian and Episcopalian clergy. In fact, for these faith groups and others, this is the strongest of the stool’s three legs, because it has been the means by which the most credibly-accused clergy child molesters have been removed from ministry.

But this possibility doesn’t even exist for Baptists. These sorts of stories never see the light of day for them because there is no ecclesiastical review process for the 101,000 Southern Baptist clergy in this country. There is no third leg.

Unlike other major faith groups, Southern Baptists have no systematic process for objectively and professionally assessing clergy sex abuse reports. There is no committee, no panel, no review board. There is no safe place to which clergy abuse survivors can report their perpetrators. There is no one in leadership who will take on the responsibility of assessing clergy abuse reports or of providing information to people in the pews.

So... imagine what happens to a 3-legged stool if you take away one and half legs. Southern Baptists simply don’t have any stool of support for protecting kids in Baptist churches.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Baptist propaganda

At SNAP’s last press event at the Baptist General Convention of Texas, I was told the BGCT’s media person talked about how, for Baptists, the problem involves clergy “sexual misconduct” with adult women rather than with kids. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve heard this public relations line of theirs before.

In fact, the Baptist General Convention of Texas made a training video about preventing “sexual misconduct” in churches, and on the video, you can see BGCT director Sonny Spurger saying, “Most of ours are heterosexual relationships with adults.” (See part 4 of the video on “clergy issues.”)

I’ve even seen well-respected Baptist academics spout this view that, for Baptists, the clergy “sex” problem involves “misconduct” with adults and not the abuse of kids as with the Catholics. These are people who ought to know better and who ought to be demanding some data before they simply regurgitate the propaganda of the Baptist machine. But, of course, even highly educated academic people can still have blind spots when it comes to seeing the falsity in their own faith group where they’ve built their lives and careers.

Whenever I see this “our problem is adults, not kids” propaganda, it really burns me. Here’s why.

  1. How the heck do they know? How can they possibly go around suggesting that, for Baptists, the problem is primarily about “misconduct” with adults rather than abuse of kids when no one in Baptist circles is even keeping any good records? What data do they have to support this claim? Answer: They have none. Why? Because no one in Baptist circles even cares enough to keep track of clergy abuse reports made by the victims themselves.

  2. After massive media pressure, the Catholic leadership commissioned a multimillion dollar two-part study from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to try to get a handle on the extent of the problem. The first part of the study, completed in 2004, had some serious flaws, but at least it provided the beginning of a yardstick for assessing the clergy abuse problem among Catholics, and it’s WAY more than Baptists have bothered to do. Baptists have cared so little that they haven’t even attempted to get a handle on the extent of the problem.

  3. Based on the limited data that actually DOES exist -- insurance data obtained thanks to the Associated Press -- Baptists do indeed have just as big a problem with clergy abuse of kids as do the Catholics. So, when the Baptist General Convention of Texas spews its “our problem is adults” propaganda, it’s just flat-out contrary to what the data actually does show. If they want to refute that data, then they need to make a conscientious attempt to assess the extent of the problem instead of just spewing propaganda.

  4. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is effectively USING clergy abuse of adults as a shield to divert attention away from their clergy abuse of kids problem. Why? Presumably because they think it makes them look better. I can just hear them now: “Oh… we know it’s bad… but at least our clergy aren’t abusing kids like Catholic priests did.” This does a terrible disservice to BOTH groups -- to those abused as vulnerable adults AND to those abused as kids. It effectively exploits those who were abused as adults to further the BGCT’s own propaganda, and it denies the reality of the many who were abused as kids.

  5. The fact that it’s the Baptist General Convention OF TEXAS doing this spin-job makes it particularly troubling. Texas is one of the few states whose laws make a clergyman’s sexual exploitation of an adult a felony. So, when BGCT officials talk about ministers having “affairs” and committing “adultery” with congregants, there’s a high probability that what they’re really talking about is felony conduct. They’re using the soft terminology of “sexual misconduct” to minimize what really amounts to sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and sexual assaults.

  6. People in the pews put their hard-earned dollars in the offering plate, thinking that a portion will be used for missions work through the Cooperative Program. But a sizeable chunk of their hard-earned dollars -- dollars that they think are going for God’s work -- are really being used to pay for public relations people who spew such hurtful propaganda as this. It’s propaganda that serves only to protect the institutional image and that keeps kids, families and congregants at greater risk. People in the pews deserve better.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Relinquishing expectations

“Relinquish any expectations of others….”

Those were the wise words of “Cakes” in talking with an abuse survivor. The survivor was having a really bad day, and she shared with me the dialogue she had with Cakes.

It was a long exchange, but I seized on those words. They were like neon lights leaping off the screen at me.

Isn’t it funny how, out of the blue, someone can wind up saying exactly what you need to hear? And they can wind up saying it even when they aren’t saying it to you?

“Relinquish any expectations of others….”

That is a lesson I constantly strive to remind myself of. It is a lesson I constantly seek to relearn. It is a lesson I obviously struggle with. And so I need a lot of reminders.

Sometimes the universe gives me those reminders. Cakes’ words were one of those times.

I struggle A LOT with the realization that no one in Southern Baptist leadership seems to give a hoot about kids being molested by clergy… or about the adults that those wounded kids become. Oh sure… Southern Baptist leaders will talk about “precious children,” but it’s just talk. No one cares enough to actually do anything. That’s what’s real.

And that’s the part that I can never wrap my head around.

Sexual abuse is plenty bad, no doubt about it. It has life-long repercussions. But when I think about what it is that I really, really struggle with the most, it’s this. It’s all these other blind-eyed do-nothing people.

That is what literally haunts me.

To accept the reality of it is sort of like believing in ghosts. I can’t do it.

That’s why I have to keep relearning the “relinquish any expectations” lesson. Because the empty-hearted ghosts are real. And in Southern Baptist circles, they’re everywhere.

Yet I keep refusing to see what is before my own eyes. Instead, despite all evidence to the contrary, I keep expecting them to have hearts. Then I’m stunned when they don’t.

“Relinquish any expectations of others…”

This is the same lesson that my friend, Elana, also reminded me of a while back. On lots of walks, she has listened to me recount things that Baptist leaders have said and done. She has heard my expressions of disbelief and has listened to me repeatedly say things like “Just when I thought I’d seen it all, they do this!”

But one day, Elana gave vent to her own disbelief. “Christa, I can’t believe you still expect anything OTHER than low behavior from them. They have shown you what their true values are and they have shown you over and over again. When will YOU learn? Why do YOU keep expecting the best of them? What holds YOU to that belief?

I think it’s pretty much the same thing Cakes is saying.

I keep assuming that decent people will behave in ways that are decent, and I project that expectation onto them. But over and over again, when it comes to clergy sex abuse, Baptist leaders have shown me that it’s an expectation I need to relinquish.

I’m working on it.

You can see portions of Cakes’ “conversation with a survivor” on his blog.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Football players' gender isn't biblically based

Kacy is a 14-year-old athlete. She’s a girl. Her sport is football.

Those facts may make her a bit unusual. But they don’t make her unChristian.

Apparently, the coach of the opposing team thought otherwise. Before the start of the game, he read a statement on the intercom, quoting Romans 12:2 and warning that Christians shouldn’t be conformed to the unChristian ways of the world.

It wasn’t the first time Kacy encountered such nonsense. She plays in an Atlanta league for home-schooled kids and kids attending Christian schools. The chairman of the league tried to boot her out. Kacy respectfully stood up for herself and she kept playing football.

Kudos to Kacy! She simply wanted to play football, but to do so, she had to stand up to senseless religious-based bullying. She didn’t do it because she was trying to make a point. She did it because she’s an athlete.

And that’s reason enough. Her playing football has nothing to do with anything biblical or unbiblical.

For men to twist scripture to say a 14-year-old girl can’t play football is silliness.

If they think a girl shouldn’t play football -- for whatever reason -- fine. But they’re grown-ups and they should at least have the gumption to own their own point of view.

For them to project their personal point of view onto the face of God, and then conjure scripture to rationalize it, is nothing more than cowardly chicanery.

It’s similar to the sort of chicanery that Baptist leaders have used to rationalize why they don’t take action to protect kids against reported clergy child molesters. “Scripture teaches that each church is autonomous,” they say. And so they protect their self-serving radicalized notion of “autonomy” rather than protecting kids.

There’s nothing biblical about it.

News Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Is a girl playing football un-Christian?”

Friday, October 31, 2008

Religion may also be a mask

The Associated Baptist Press recently posed the question of whether there should be a religious “test” for public office.

Suzii Paynter, director of the public policy & moral concerns arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, gave a “yes” sort of answer, stating that religious convictions can reveal “valuable insights into a candidate’s character….”

“When people reach a certain level -- whether in politics, business or any other powerful enterprise -- there’s always a temptation to see themselves as above the rules that apply to others,” she noted, apparently concluding that a religious “grounding” might improve their “public ethic.”

I pondered Suzii’s comments. If we could understand how people like Suzii Paynter think, perhaps we could figure out how to persuade Baptist leaders to actually take action against clergy sex abuse.

Remember Suzii “Because-there-are-no-bishops” Paynter?

That was her lame excuse for why Baptists can’t take action against clergy predators in the same way that other faith groups do: “Because there are no bishops.”

A religious leader who thinks “because there are no bishops” is a valid excuse for nonaction on reported clergy child molesters is a religious leader who has lost a moral compass.

But that doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.

Oh sure, there are some monsters in Baptist churches and there are some Baptist leaders so drunk on their own power that they’re utterly corrupt. But I don’t think Suzii falls into those categories; she falls into the category of good people who do nothing.

The good people who do nothing are a much bigger crowd than the flat-out corrupt people. That’s why I’d like to understand how people like Suzii really think.

How do they convince themselves to believe the “we are powerless” propaganda that’s spewed forth from their religious institution?

How do they rationalize that it’s okay for Baptist leaders to look away when confronted with clergy child molestation?

How do they come to meekly accept a twisted “autonomy” dogma so radicalized that it trumps the protection of kids?

How do they look at themselves in the mirror when they use “because there are no bishops” as code for “not our problem”?

Help me understand. How do good people choose to do nothing?

I figure Suzii really believes all the propaganda and public relations spin of the organization she’s a part of -- the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

I figure she really believes that such words -- “because there are no bishops” -- can somehow excuse the reality of a powerful religious organization that leaves clergy child molesters in their pulpits without warning people in the pews.

I figure she’s a loyal foot-soldier for higher Baptist power-brokers and bureaucrats. She trusts in their leadership. And maybe she hopes to become a higher leader herself.

However she may rationalize this travesty, I figure she’s probably a good person.

It is not bad people who are primarily responsible for allowing the evil of Baptist clergy sex abuse to persist. It is good people.

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

So that’s why I found myself pondering Suzii’s words. Obviously she places value on political candidates’ statements about religious conviction. But has she forgotten that the power of “religion” can be used for bad as well as good? Those of us who have experienced the horror of clergy abuse and cover-ups know this reality all too well.

Words of religion can be a mask. They can become a cloak that leaders wear as a costume to conceal their true character and intentions.

And when Suzii talks about “powerful enterprises,” I wonder whether she realizes that religious organizations are also powerful enterprises in which leaders often lose their way and “see themselves as above the rules that apply to others.”

Ordinary decent people would expect a denomination’s religious leaders to take responsible action when confronted with clergy abuse reports. It’s a sort of “rule.” It’s an obligation of leadership. It’s a “rule” that’s now been recognized in other major faith groups.

But so far, Baptist leaders are saying this “rule” doesn’t apply to them. Why? “Because there are no bishops.”

In pondering Suzii’s apparent ease with this religious rationalization, I was reminded of something columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Orlando Sentinel exactly two years ago. She was talking about the “good German phenomenon” and the devastation that is wrought “when good men look away.”

Parker pointed out how “religion” has so often been used to rationalize a blind-eyed view to horror, and she brought up the history of white Christians’ non-responsiveness to racism and race-based terrorism. “Southern white Christians abdicated their moral responsibility,” she said, “and demonstrated their cowardice and complicity by allowing Klansmen to hijack their religion and terrorize blacks in the name of their Jesus.”

I think the same dreadful “look away” phenomenon helps to explain Baptist leaders’ blind-eyed nonresponsiveness to clergy sex abuse. Leaders like Suzii Paynter -- and many more -- have abdicated their moral responsibility and have cowardly twisted their religion to rationalize a do-nothing response to preacher-predators who molest, rape, and terrorize kids.

When good people like Suzii Paynter stop with the make-believe of “because there are no bishops,” then maybe Baptists will begin to move beyond the haunted hinterlands in their journey toward clergy accountability.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An enduring symbolic gesture

A California cathedral dedicated a first-of-its-kind garden to honor victims of clergy sex abuse. The garden has a broken, circular stone sculpture in the middle. Father Paul Minnihan, the provost of the Oakland cathedral said the garden was important “for the victims, and for the church to atone for the sins of its past.”

At the garden's dedication, the bishop of the Oakland diocese made a public apology to clergy abuse survivors, and pointed to the language on the plaque: "We remember and we affirm: Never again."

When I saw this recent news, I couldn’t help but think back to the start of my own journey in dealing with all this. When I reported the minister who molested and raped me as a kid, I asked the church and the Baptist General Convention of Texas for some sort of enduring symbolic gesture to show the denomination’s care for clergy sex abuse victims and as a focal point for awareness of the problem.

I thought my request was so positive in nature.

My first suggestion was for a small basalt millstone sculpture. It would have cost about $5000. But the church immediately rejected this idea as being “too negative.”

So, I next suggested a labyrinth set into a small contemplation garden, and I offered to wield a shovel myself. This was what I really wanted anyway, but I had been trying to give them a more biblical option with the millstone suggestion.

I asked that it have a small plaque, set off to the side, saying:

“Dedicated in prayer for victims of clergy sex abuse
and in honor of their efforts to reclaim life and faith.”

I also asked that it be in a publicly accessible place so that people who might not set foot inside any church would still feel welcome there.

For a while, I actually believed that the Baptist General Convention of Texas was going to do this. They told me face-to-face that they would, and in subsequent correspondence, they even said they were making “headway.”

In hindsight, I think they were probably just stringing me along, hoping I would get tired and go away. Eventually, they cut off all communication with me and told me that, if I had any other requests, I should direct them to their lawyer. It was pretty cold.

But of course, in hindsight, I know a whole heckuva lot more now than I knew then.

Back when I was talking to them about a garden and a labyrinth, I had no idea that my perpetrator, Tommy Gilmore, was still working in children’s ministry. The Southern Baptist Convention had written me, saying that they had no record of him still being in ministry, and I took the letter at face value.

The music minister of First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch had substantiated my report. He knew about Gilmore’s abuse of me even when I was a kid. The Baptist General Convention of Texas had written me that they had put Gilmore’s name in their file of clergy predators. Under their own published policy, they could have put his name in that file only if a church reported Gilmore (not merely me), and only if there was a confession or “substantial evidence” the abuse took place.

Given all of that, I was literally incapable of imagining that Gilmore could still be working in children’s ministry. Incapable.

And I was incapable of imagining that so many religious leaders could know about a minister who had molested a kid, and could nevertheless choose to do nothing. Incapable.

And I was incapable of imagining that they wouldn’t even choose to warn people in the pews. Incapable.

So when I learned that Gilmore was in fact still working in children’s ministry, I realized how naive my request for a symbolic gesture had been. What good was a symbolic gesture of care if no one even cared enough to take the first step of trying to prevent a known clergy-perpetrator from harming others?

You might think that someone who has been molested and raped by a minister would be more cynical. But I wasn’t. Back then, I was still literally incapable of imagining that so many other religious leaders would turn a blind eye. To this day, it’s the part that I can never quite wrap my head around.

Four years ago, for the cost of a $5000 millstone sculpture with a small plaque, I would have gone away and never been the wiser. I would have believed what Baptist officials said; I wouldn’t have bothered to keep looking for Gilmore; and I would have never seen such a cauldron of dissembling and duplicity in this do-nothing denomination.

Now that I’ve seen it, there’s no way to un-see it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

God wants you to...

I get this line all the time from Baptist preachers. They tell me what “God wants” me to do. Or what God has “called” me for.

As if they know.

“God wants you to return to His fold.”

“God wants you to stop attacking the Lord’s churches.”

“God wants you to find healing among other Christians.”

“God wants you to find a new church home and rejoin Southern Baptists.”

“God wants you to stop holding such bitterness.”

“God wants you to find forgiveness in your heart.”

I’ve heard all of these. And they all arrived with a surreal air of authority.

It’s as though these guys simply assume that their own thoughts are the same as what “God wants.”

My personal favorite was the Baptist preacher who told me, “Your calling is to inform -- your calling is to expose.” And he then proceeded to lecture me on how I should stop “bashing others” for not doing “what YOU are called to do.”

Isn’t that a sad hoot? And it’s such a self-serving sort of thought process.

By convincing himself that God called me, Christa Brown, to expose clergy predators, this guy lets himself and other Southern Baptist leaders off the hook. By his reasoning, those guys in Nashville aren’t supposed to concern themselves with protecting kids against clergy predators because God made that MY task.

Where do these guys get such almighty arrogance? Where in the world do they get the notion that they know what God wants from another person? And where do they get the hubris to think they can tell that person what God wants from them?

Of course, the first thing I immediately know when these guys go down that “God wants you to” track is that they haven’t a clue about the dynamics of clergy sex abuse. If they did, they’d realize that their “God wants you to” line mimics the modus operandi of the clergy perpetrator himself.

That’s the weapon of power.

They project their own sick desires onto the face of God, and then instruct the victim as though their own desires were the will of God.

“God wants you to be my helpmate.”

“God wants you to live by faith and lean not unto thine own understanding.”

As a kid, I heard those lines and many more twisted into a weapon for sexual assault. From the mouth of a Baptist preacher, I heard the most perverse “God wants you to” lines that anyone could possibly imagine. And they all arrived with that same air of authority.

So I don’t want to hear anymore of that “God wants you to” line.

The day I ever again listen to a Baptist preacher purport to tell me what “God wants” or what I am “called” to do will be a cold day in hell. Indeed, I consider that to be the very road to hell.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What befell Bob Allen?

Several people have asked me “What happened to Bob Allen?”

I understand their curiosity and concern.

Bob Allen is the fearless journalist who has written more articles on Baptist clergy sex abuse than any other journalist in the country. As the managing editor of EthicsDaily, he put into print more than 75 pieces on Baptist clergy sex abuse. You can see links for a whole lot of them at the bottom of this piece.

Starting two years ago, with SNAP’s first trip to Nashville, Bob Allen worked diligently to cover the news about the Baptist clergy sex abuse problem and the calls for accountability. He was the first to break some of the stories, and he covered some stories that weren’t covered by anyone else.

So I understand how many of you might imagine that Bob’s work didn’t exactly endear him to Baptist leaders. And many of us have already seen the lengths to which some Baptist leaders will go to try to keep ugly news quiet, haven’t we?

Of course, for many of us, it doesn’t take much to imagine bad things happening. After all, we’re people who were terrorized and traumatized by those we trusted most and in places we thought most safe. Then we watched the bizarre surreality of others who covered for the dastardly deeds as though it were no big deal.

For people like us, the world can seem pretty unpredictable and unsafe. We KNOW that the most trusted people can be people who wear masks and who do terrible things that no one would ever believe possible… and that they usually get away with it.

So, it’s not too hard to imagine the dire possibilities of what might have happened to Bob Allen:
  • SBC officials threw Bob in a lion’s den.
  • A certain big-game hunting seminary professor put Bob’s head on a trophy.
  • A prominent Memphis pastor was seen hopping Bob’s fence, and Bob hasn’t been seen since.
  • A Nashville pastor shoved Bob in the dumpster along with the church’s financial records.
  • The FBI put Bob in the witness protection program.

But of course, none of those things actually happened.

Bob Allen left EthicsDaily and went to work for the Associated Baptist Press, which describes itself as “the only independent daily news agency that reports on and for Baptists.” (In other words, it’s not funded by or beholden to the Southern Baptist Convention like the Baptist Press is.)

If you want to continue to follow Bob Allen’s work, you can find his articles at

Hopefully, Bob will continue to chronicle Baptists’ lost-in-the-wilderness journey toward clergy accountability.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What they CAN do

Haven’t we all grown weary of hearing Southern Baptist officials tell us what they CAN’T do?

Haven’t we grown sick of all their tired talk about how they’re powerless and lack authority?

Haven’t we had enough of their mindless mouthing of “autonomy” as though it were a mantra to relieve moral obligation?

All their words of “we can’t” have become an incessant buzzing drone of unaccountability for this denomination’s leaders.

So, it was refreshing the other day when Junkster did a super-succinct job of summarizing what the Southern Baptist Convention CAN do.

In a comment under the prior posting, Junkster pointed out what the SBC is capable of doing if only it would choose to. His words are well-worth a reprint. Thanks for the clarity, Junkster!

“With a review board, the SBC could make a determination concerning an accusation and then publicly declare any church that continues to employ a guilty minister to be outside the SBC. They could then refuse to accept the church's financial contributions, refuse to allow their members to participate in the annual convention, refuse to appoint any of their members/ministers to any of their missions boards or denominational positions, etc. (just as they would refuse these things to a church of another denomination). They could also publicize on their denominational website that the church is no longer in the SBC and why.

None of this would prevent a local church from continuing to employ an abusive minister if they so chose, but it would provide a means for potential members to be informed before choosing to join that church. And people looking for a church could have confidence that one with the SBC label was at least not apathetic or complicit toward abusers.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Baptists should follow Episcopal example

An Episcopal bishop in Pennsylvania has been ousted and rebuked for covering up his brother’s sexual assaults on a teen girl in the 1970s. He can no longer serve as a member of the clergy.

The denominational review panel said bishop Charles E. Bennison, Jr. showed “a fundamental lack of professional awareness” and that his conduct constituted a “very significant failure to fulfill his responsibilities” as a member of the clergy.

The panel concluded that, 35 years ago, when Charles Bennison was rector of a church in California, he failed to respond properly on learning that his brother, John Bennison had sexually abused a teen church girl.

At the time, John Bennison was a 24-year-old youth minister. As is typical, he never faced criminal charges. He resigned from ministry just two years ago when information about his abuse of the girl finally became public.

Despite knowing about his brother’s abuse of the girl, Charles Bennison never told the girl’s parents or the police, and he continued to keep the matter a secret for decades.

In its rebuke of Charles Bennison, the review panel found that “even today, [Charles Bennison] has not shown that he comprehends the nature, significance, and effect of his conduct and has not accepted responsibility and repented for his conduct and the substantial negative effects of that conduct.”

Invoking his “decades of faithful service,” Bennison argued that his ouster from ministry was too harsh of a punishment. But the 9-member review panel was not swayed by that argument or by the amount of time that had passed since his brother’s abuse of the girl. The review panel refused to minimize either the crime or the cover-up.

Kudos to the Episcopal Church for this strong action!

It sends a message to Episcopal clergy that child sex abuse should be reported and disclosed, not minimized or hidden. It sends a message to Episcopal clergy that they will be held accountable. It sends a message that the Episcopal Church will take this crime seriously and will oust from leadership, not only the clergy-perpetrators, but also those who cover for them.

It also sends a message to the victims of clergy abuse that their lives and bodies have value, and that the church considers a minister’s abuse to be a matter of consequence. It is a message that encourages still-silent victims to report their abuse by telling them that the church will treat their reports seriously and conscientiously.

These are messages that the Episcopal Church has expressed by deeds and not mere words.

Episcopalian families are made safer by this strong action of their leaders.

How I wish that Southern Baptist leaders would see this example and learn from it.

In contrast to the messages sent by the Episcopal Church, Baptist leaders’ do-nothingness sends very dangerous messages. Their do-nothingness sends the message to perpetrators that they can be safe in Baptist churches, and that neither they nor their cover-up cronies will be held accountable. And to victims, Baptist leaders’ do-nothingness sends the dreadful message that what happened to them is a matter of no consequence. It tells abuse victims that the faith community considers their lives and bodies as holding little value.

How I wish that Southern Baptist leaders could move past their moral obtuseness and see the horror of these messages that they’re sending by their do-nothing response to clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

If Baptist leaders followed the Episcopal example and provided a review panel, many Baptist predators might be disclosed. Parents could then be warned and kids would be made safer. (And note how limited my imagination is: I’m not even suggesting that Baptist leaders might “oust” predators in the way Episcopal leaders do. I’m just suggesting that they disclose them.)

And if Baptist leaders followed the Episcopal example, how many Baptist ministers might be brought to task and publicly rebuked for having kept quiet about abuse? (Guess they could start with Steve Gaines, huh?)

Consider what sort of real-world message it would send in this denomination if leaders took on the task of disclosing predators and rebuking cover-uppers. It would be a message manifested by deeds and not mere words. What a great day that would be!

But of course, the very first step for Baptist leaders would be to provide a safe place where victims may report clergy abuse… to people with the training and experience to respond appropriately and with the designated task of assessing the reports responsibly.

If Southern Baptist leaders are ever to effectively address the clergy abuse problem, they must start by opening their hearts to actually hearing the cries of the wounded.

Friday, October 3, 2008

It's not about Baptists vs. Baptists

Baptist minister Timothy Mann was sentenced to 7 years for child sex abuse.

Mann was a popular music minister who worked at prominent churches:
At the time of his arrest, he was at Shades Crest, a flagship church for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Before that, he was at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, which according to its website, is affiliated with both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention. And his prior church, First Baptist of Gaithersburg is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mann was so well-respected that, in 2004, he was the worship leader for the entire general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He also taught at Baptist-affiliated Samson University, and he was active in Youth Choirs, Inc., an interdenominational network promoting youth-choir ministries.

For those of you who don’t follow Baptist arcana (you lucky dogs), what all this means is that Mann worked both sides of the Baptist divide. He worked in both conservative and moderate Baptist churches. And he was a child molester.

The 30-old schism between Baptist conservatives and moderates -- commonly called the “fundamentalist take-over” -- was a civil war that so polarized Baptists that, to this day, they still tend to view almost all issues through that same old cloudy lens.

But when it comes to clergy sex abuse, Baptist conservatives and moderates share a tragic common ground. Both do far too little to protect against clergy abuse or to minister to the wounded. Both do far less than what other major faith groups are doing. Both are big on talk, but small on deeds.

So many people have told me that I should “ease up on the good guys.” Most of the time, it’s people who think “the good guys” are the guys at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Why? Because they’re “moderates” -- or at least they carry that label.

I understand why people often try to peg the “good guys” based on little more than a label. It’s that age-old human desire to believe in the righteousness of the home-team. It’s a sort of tribalism.

But folks, I wasn’t part of the Baptist civil war, and when it comes to clergy sex abuse, I perceive the conservative/moderate labels as being meaningless. Neither side can claim high ground.

Thoughts about Baptists’ conservative/moderate schism came to mind recently when SNAP did a press event at the Baptist General Convention of Texas in Dallas. We were hand-delivering a letter to the BGCT’s new executive director, Dr. Randel Everett, calling on him to protect Baptist kids by releasing the names of ministers who have been reported by churches for sexual abuse.

SNAP’s media advisory went out all over the metroplex, and a reporter emailed his boss to tell him why he wasn’t inclined to cover the event. At least, he thought he was emailing his boss. In reality, he sent the email to a SNAP leader. Here’s what he wrote: “In my view, the Baptist General Convention of Texas has done more than any Baptist group to deal with clergy abuse.”

It’s a revealing message, and based on comments I get, it’s a view that a lot of people share. It’s a view that says, “Why go after the ‘good guys’?” It’s a view that expresses a misperception I continue to battle.

The misperception is that it’s about one Baptist group versus another Baptist group. It’s not.

Think about it this way: If the Catholic Diocese of Dallas kept a confidential file of priests who had been reported for child molestation, but didn’t take action to responsibly assess the reports, didn't remove the priests from ministry, and didn't even bother to warn people in the pews, would we praise the Dallas diocese on the ground that it was doing better than some other diocese, because at least the Dallas officials weren’t calling the victims ugly names?

Surely not. We would expect the Dallas diocese to do a lot better… AND we would expect other dioceses to do better as well.

Similarly with Baptists, the issue isn’t about whether the Baptist General Convention of Texas is doing more than other Baptist groups. The issue is about whether the Baptist General Convention of Texas is doing all that it should to protect kids in Baptist churches.

The answer is obvious: It’s not. The Baptist General Convention of Texas should do a lot better… AND other Baptist groups should do better as well.

The problem of Baptist clergy sex abuse cannot be effectively addressed by looking to the old conservative/moderate labels. This isn’t about Baptists vs. Baptists.

Regardless of what label they wear, the Baptist “good guys” will be the ones who finally step forward with courageous leadership and make kid protection more important than institutional protection.

The Baptist “good guys” will be the ones who finally bring Baptists up to speed with what other faith groups are doing by providing a safe place where victims can report clergy abuse with a reasonable expectation of being objectively heard.

So far, we haven’t seen these basic steps from either the “conservatives” or the “moderates.”

Until we do, I’m not going to pay heed to talk about how one Baptist group is doing more than another. I’m going to keep talking about how much more they ALL need to be doing.
Correction: According to the Birmingham News, Timothy Mann was actually sentenced to 13 years, and will serve 7 years of prison time with the remaining 5 years to be served on probation. Thus, the Gazette headline is incorrect in stating that he was "sentenced to 7 years."