“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.