Friday, January 4, 2008

Because It Matters

"There are no words to describe how cruel, and even wicked, this insulting statement by the SBC president is."

Danni is talking about Southern Baptist president Frank Page's public statement that the abuse victim support groups are "nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain." Obviously, Page's statement struck a nerve.

Writing in response to the end-of-year Baptist abuse wrap-up in EthicsDaily, Danni had a lot more to say on her blog about the entrenched denial of SBC officials and their lame "nothing they can do" excuse. Because she said it all so well, I've reprinted Danni's remarks below.

First of all, for a leader in the SBC to deny there is a systemic problem is a big problem all on its own. Anyone who is willing to look at the issue without choosing deliberate denial can see there is a systemic problem. No, clergy sex abuse is not happening in every other church. But I will tell you what is happening. Because the entire denomination refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of sexual abuse in the church, abusers and pedophiles know they are generally safe to prey in churches....

Denial is denial is denial. You can’t deny it at the very most critical point - the top of the ladder - and expect the church to do anything about the rest of the monster lurking in the church.

Regarding the statement that groups and individuals are using the issue for personal gain - what kind of lame excuse is that? We’re going to let church members, mostly small children, be scarred for life and possible turned against God forever because some people might be using the issue for personal gain? This is outrageous! And by making this statement, the SBC president is implying that the issue is not only irrelevant but one created primarily for satisfaction of the greed of a few bottom-feeders. It is a classic “politicians” spin - to make an issue go away, tar it with a brush that makes it’s advocates look like quasi-criminals in their own right. I’m not just outraged - there are no words to describe how cruel, and even wicked, this insulting statement by the SBC president is.

Then there is the former SBC president’s pitiful hand-wringing. He says there is nothing they can do because local churches are autonomous. This is another patently lame excuse. Most (but not all) local churches contribute to the convention. Most (but not all) local churches benefit from the convention in some way. That is the very foundational principle of the SBC Cooperative Program. Their entire missions and other outreach programs are centered in the basic fact that all those local churches are banded together and work together. Don’t try to say there’s nothing we can do because local churches are autonomous! At the very least, churches who are in the convention can be required to list their staff for the safety and well-being of members and any church foolish and irresponsible enough to insist on employing staff who have been reported to the convention for sexual, or other, abuse can be expelled from the convention. This one possible option does not require excessive thought, and I’m sure if they even try they can come up with other options as well.

Bottom line, the SBC leadership just doesn’t care. It would cost them too much, either in time, potential loss of position or power for daring, or whatever. It is a very sad day when these “costs” could outweight the price of a life. And not just one life - the lives of all those affected by clergy sexual abuse.


Junkster said...

Hi, Christa,
I've been thinking about the lack of action by SBC executives in dealing with abuse by Baptist clergy. Like you, I think the concern expressed about local church autonomy is just a smokescreen, a convenient way to say that they are prevented from doing more because of a basic Baptist doctrine.

Yes, autonomy is a genuinely held belief, but there is nothing about it that would prevent the national organization (the SBC) from collecting and providing information -- after all, the whole purpose of the Convention is to facilitate cooperation in ministry and do more collectively than can be done by the churches individually. If autonomy is a genuine reason not to cooperate in protecting children (something Jesus considered a high priority, as I recall), then that same commitment to autonomy should prevent other forms of cooperation, meaning the entire concept of the SBC is flawed. (Some other Baptist denominations might argue that very thing, but it is unlikely the SBC executives are apt to take the idea of autonomy so far that they would dismantle their entire organization!)

Some have indicated that they think the hesitance of the SBC leaders to address this issue is due to a lack of concern; others think it may be a commitment to traditions; others say it is just plain ignorance. But I don't think so. I think the concern is that taking action would mean accepting responsibility, which carries a potentially high price tag. I know it sounds crass, but I truly believe their concern is that any action taken by the national organization to address the problem would involve an acceptance of legal responsibility that might open that organization to lawsuits from those who would claim that the SBC did not do enough to protect them or their loved ones. In short, they don't want to do what Catholic church has done because they don't want to have to pay (financially) what the Catholic church has paid.

I am not saying that the desire to avoid legal liability makes it right for the SBC to do nothing. I'm only saying that I understand the line of reasoning, even though I think it is short-sighted and selfish. I have never heard anyone in power in the SBC publicly express concerns about increased legal liability for the national org if they took steps to address the problem, but I still feel in my gut that is their real concern. Maybe I am wrong, and, if so, the report back to the SBC at the annual meeting in June will recommend establishing a database of offenders. We will just have to wait and see.

But even if the SBC begins to take action as a denomination on this matter, Southern Baptists are not the only churches with limited national governance for addressing these issues. There are many other Baptist denominations, and may other denominations with similar structures, and many independent churches also. I fear that even if the SBC does something to address the issue, the abusers might just take up residence in other circles to avoid detection.

All that brings me to consider other options. Websites and blogs such as yours serve a useful purpose in bringing attention to the issue, and informing people about specific individuals and instances of abuse. But that only goes so far, and only reaches so many. So I've been wondering if there might be some way to get a third-party to take up the charge. Something like a sex abuse equivalent of the Better Business Bureau, on a national scale?

Would an organization like Focus on the Family (FOTF) be willing to help set something up? Or the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)? The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) has strict guidelines for financial ethics, so that when someone contributes to a member organization, they know what controls are in place to prevent financial abuse. Couldn't an existing ministry (such as FOTF or NAE) establish moral and ethical guidelines, and keep records of groups and individuals (an Evangelical Council for Moral Accountability, perhaps?) Then all that the SBC or any other group would need to do is require membership in that org as a condition for membership in their own org. Not sure any of this would work, or how it might be received -- just thinking "out loud" about ways to address this serious problem.

Christa Brown said...

Good thoughts. Bill Leonard, the dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, expressed a similar thought about how SBC officials are afraid that if they do anything proactive about clergy sex abuse, or exercise any sort of oversight, it will subject them to a greater risk of legal liability. I think that's terribly sad. It would mean that they are choosing self-protection over kid protection. They're choosing protection of financial resources over protection of human resources.

The additional twist I see is that I don't think the concern about potential legal liability is solely a concern about lawsuits by the victims. I think it's just as much a concern about lawsuits brought by ministers who might be determined to have been "credibly accused."

American Baptists have a form of regional review boards, and ministers who work in churches affiliated with the American Baptist Churches essentially "covenant" that they will be accountable within the American Baptists' system. (Seems sort of like what you're talking about related to the NAE, etc.)

You're right, of course, that there are many other independent churches, and I hear from victims who were abused in independent Baptist churches. But the SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and so I view it as an organization that could set an example, that could reach the most victims (if they engaged in an outreach effort), and that could protect the most kids (if they took effective action). I also think that many ministers in independent Baptist churches and Bible churches went to Southern Baptist seminaries, and so there might be possibilities for catching some of those predators earlier in their ministries.

I too have wondered if there might be some way that the NAE could be of help, particularly with the independent churches. But of course, if the SBC could require membership in some other organization that established an accountability system, then it would seem that the SBC could also require that any minister who wants the benefit of using the "Southern Baptist" name should be subject to accountability systems within the SBC itself.