Friday, September 26, 2008

They've got the power

We request… the establishment of an independent review board as an auxiliary to the SBC, but with adequate and assured funding from the SBC. Its purpose would be to receive and investigate reports of clergy abuse and to arrive at a determination of whether the report should be deemed credible. All reports should be archived, and as part of its investigatory powers, the review board should establish a procedure for notifying people in the pews whenever a report of abuse is made about a minister who worked in their congregation. In this way, the denomination can reach out to other possible victims… and put parents on notice so that they can talk with their kids. Whenever a report of abuse is deemed credible, the review board would also be responsible for reporting that decision to the people in the pews in every congregation in which the minister has worked. This board should be composed of independent professionals, including non-Baptists, who have extensive experience in dealing with the dynamics of clergy sex abuse....”

This was what SNAP asked for two years ago, in its letter of September 26, 2006 to Southern Baptist officials.

Look at that request. Was it so unreasonable?
  • A review board where people could report clergy abuse to trained, independent professionals.
  • A review board that would responsibly assess the allegations in an objective manner.
  • A review board that would provide information about credible allegations to people in the pews.

No one said anything about Nashville telling local churches what to do. No one said anything about Nashville exercising authority over local churches.

The request we made was nothing radical. It was a request for action similar to what’s already being done in other major faith groups.

So why can’t Southern Baptists provide the same sorts of protective processes as other faith groups?

Because their leaders have planted their feet in cement.

It’s not because Southern Baptist leaders can’t. It’s because they won’t.

Oh sure, we’ve heard Southern Baptist officials talk about how powerless they are. We’ve heard their claim that it’s a “bottom-up” organization and that national leaders can only do what local churches tell them to do via their “messenger” votes at the convention.

And after the do-nothing debacle of the 2008 convention, I bet some of you are thinking that the SBC Executive Committee can’t even try to do anything more on this issue until someone gets still another motion passed at still another convention.

If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re wrong. The SBC Executive Committee has the power. They could take action if they wanted to.

In real life, they don’t actually sit back waiting for local churches to tell them what to do.

Remember how pastor Wade Burleson made a motion at the 2007 convention, asking that the Executive Committee study the creation of a denominational database of ministers who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse?

For all the fanfare that motion got, the Executive Committee itself didn’t seem to think it mattered much. They claimed they were studying the clergy sex abuse issue even BEFORE Burleson’s motion.

In other words, they claimed that they were acting on their own power.

In the first sentence of their own June 2008 report, the Executive Committee made this very clear. Here’s what they said:

“… the Bylaws Workgroup of the Convention’s Executive Committee in 2006 began studying how best to address the challenge of clergy sexual abuse in the local church. The work of the Bylaws Workgroup took on higher visibility after receiving the referral of the 2007 Wade Burleson motion relating to the issue, coupled with heightened interest by the press and special interest advocacy groups.”

So according to their own statement, they were studying the issue in 2006 -- i.e., before Burleson’s 2007 motion and without the benefit of any “marching orders” from the local churches.

Augie Boto said something similar in a 2007 email to Debbie Vasquez. Boto is vice-president for convention policy and general counsel for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. When Debbie expressed her great concern about the issue of clergy sex abuse, Boto told Debbie that the Executive Committee was "currently" assessing the issue. Later, when Debbie read about Wade Burleson’s planned motion, she wrote back to Boto and asked “Did you lie to me?” She couldn’t understand why Burleson would be making a motion on the subject if the Executive Committee was already addressing it.

But Boto wrote back and reconfirmed that “The Bylaws Workgroup of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention is already looking into the issue.”

Then he went on to be completely dismissive of Burleson’s motion. Here’s how Boto explained the fact that Burleson was making a motion even though the Executive Committee was already addressing the matter: “It often happens that those who make motions are unaware of occurrences. Since anyone can make a motion about anything, we cannot account for their reasons or knowledge.”

In other words, as far as Boto was concerned, Burleson’s motion was irrelevant and immaterial.

So… if the Executive Committee could claim to be addressing the clergy abuse issue BEFORE Burleson’s motion, why can’t they still address it even now?

The answer is obvious: They can. They have the power. They always did, and they still do.

Their whole “we are powerless” bit has never been anything more than a ruse for institutionalized irresponsibility.

It’s just phony baloney, folks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

SBC's conduct is "shameful," says columnist

Kudos to columnist and radio host Roland Martin!

In a CNN column today, Martin rebuked the Southern Baptist Convention for its shameful action of pulling Gospel Today from its bookstore racks because of the magazine’s cover story on female pastors.

Martin’s wife is a female pastor and a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. So Martin knows what he’s talking about. It’s obviously not the first time he’s seen this sort of hubris from the male-dominated Southern Baptist Convention.

I had the honor of being a guest on Martin’s radio talk show about a year ago. It was right after the story broke about a Chicago-area Southern Baptist church that knowingly put a convicted sex offender in the pulpit. I remember being impressed with how knowledgeable Martin was of Southern Baptist ways, and now that I know about his wife’s seminary training, it helps to explain why.

At the time, I was grateful to Martin for his willingness to use the power of his voice to shine light on the problem of Baptist clergy sex abuse. Now once again, we see Roland Martin using his media power to confront Baptist leaders with the nonsensical hypocrisy of their action in pulling the magazine.

Martin wonders about whether Lifeway might now cull through other publications to pull from their shelves. It’s a good question and one that I posed in my prior blog posting.

If Lifeway is so concerned about the doctrinal purity of their bookshelves, why don't they pull every book authored by former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson and mega-church pastor Steve Gaines? Why should Baptist bookstores give any credence to these men as moral leaders?

Surely, Baptist leaders who cover for and keep quiet about clergy sex abuse are more of an affront to Baptist belief than smiling female pastors on the cover of a magazine.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Women pastors treated "like pornography"

The Southern Baptist Convention pulled the latest issue of Gospel Today from the shelves of its bookstores. Why? Because the magazine has a picture of women pastors on the cover, and women pastors go against the SBC’s beliefs.

So they put it behind the counter and refused to display it in over 100 of the SBC’s Lifeway bookstores all over the country.

“They basically treated it like pornography,” said the magazine’s publisher, who emphasized that Gospel Today wasn’t advocating for women pastors but simply reporting on a trend.

Gospel Today is one of the largest and most widely distributed Christian publications in the country. It’s a far cry from any sort of fringe rag.

Yet, SBC honchos decided to protect people against it by removing the magazine from the shelves. I guess they thought the very sight of that cover, or the article within, might somehow corrupt people’s thoughts.

So SBC honchos leap into action to protect people against a magazine article about women pastors, but they plant their feet in cement when it comes to protecting kids against clergy child molesters.

They can mobilize fast to pull a magazine from Baptist bookstore racks, but they can’t mobilize at all to pull credibly accused child molesters from Baptist pulpits.

Does this make sense?

Where are their priorities?

If anyone had any remaining doubt, this magazine-pulling incident surely demonstrates how dreadfully disordered the SBC’s priorities actually are. Families have more to fear from clergy child molesters who remain in their pulpits than from smiling women in black who appear on a magazine cover.

And anyway, if SBC honchos want to pull from their bookstores all the publications with something that goes against Baptist belief, why don’t they pull all the books by men who have covered-up for or kept quiet about other preachers’ sexual abuse?

They could start by pulling all the books by Paige Patterson and Steve Gaines.

Surely, religious leaders who keep quiet about clergy sex abuse are as much of an affront to Baptist belief as women pastors who appear on a magazine cover.

Thanks to everyone who sent me the Fox News article on this!

Additional News:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Accommodated to unaccountability

It was two years ago that SNAP first showed up on the doorstep of Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville. So let’s reminisce a bit.

On September 26, 2006, we hand-delivered a letter with 5 requests for action to make kids in Baptist churches safer, and we asked for a dialogue.

The Southern Baptist Convention replied with a terse brush-off letter saying “continued discourse between us will not be positive or fruitful.”

But I didn’t personally receive that brush-off letter, and I didn’t know about it. Neither did David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, and neither did any other SNAP leader. The letter just sat in a pile at SNAP headquarters in Chicago. (Apparently, a volunteer there didn’t see much significance in the letter, but of course, why would she? It was just a brush-off.)

So, since I never saw the letter and didn’t know about it, I wound up making statements to the press, saying that SBC officials hadn’t replied to SNAP’s Sept. 26th letter. That was a mistake.

It was an inconsequential mistake, because the SBC’s reply letter was nothing but a brush-off and not anything substantive, but it was still a mistake.

As soon as I got the first indication about the mistake, I looked into it and tracked down the SBC’s letter. Then Clohessy and I made a public apology in a news release. And I personally contacted every reporter I had spoken to about it and told them about the mistake. (None of them seemed to think it mattered much. They were more interested in whether the SBC had actually done anything.)

Though neither Clohessy nor I bore any personal fault, we made an apology on behalf of the organization. It’s what leaders in organizations do.

SNAP is a diffuse and dispersed organization. It is an organization comprised mostly of volunteers who exercise a large measure of autonomy and who are scattered across the country. But the local volunteers join together in a “network” for the pursuit of greater good.

Does that sound like another organization you know? Isn’t the Southern Baptist Convention also a sort of dispersed organization? And it’s comprised of local churches that voluntarily network together for the pursuit of greater good.

But however voluntary the network may be, the SBC is still an organization.

So why don’t SBC officials see the need for their own organizational apology? Do they just not believe in apologizing?

Or are they so accommodated to unaccountability that they don’t even notice when mistakes are made?

Before showing up in Nashville, SNAP had asked SBC officials to launch an investigation into the abysmal mishandling of my own abuse report so as to learn from it and make changes. My report showed that it was substantiated by another Baptist minister, who eventually made a sworn statement attesting to his knowledge of the abuse.

Yet, the SBC wrote that it had no record the perpetrator was still in ministry.

Many months later, and with no help from church or denominational leaders, I learned that my perpetrator was actually still working in children’s ministry at a Southern Baptist church in Florida. He had been in children’s ministry all along, including a long stint at the church of former SBC president Charles Stanley and a stint at the church of former Florida Baptist Convention president Dwayne Mercer.

But despite his prominent connections, I’ll simply assume for the sake of argument that no one at the SBC actually knew where the man was. Even so, wasn’t it still a mistake for the SBC to write that they had no record he was in ministry – when in fact he was?

SNAP lost a brush-off letter, and we made an organizational apology for that mistake even though neither Clohessy nor I had any personal knowledge about the letter’s existence. Our lack of knowledge didn’t alter the fact that the letter was actually there in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the SBC “loses” a reported clergy child molester, and gives out the misleading information of saying there’s no record he’s in ministry, and to this day, the SBC has made no organizational apology. Even if it’s true that SBC officials didn’t personally know about him, it doesn’t alter the fact that the man was actually there in Florida working as a Southern Baptist minister.

Do you think SBC officials even realize that a mistake was made?

Or are they so accustomed to being in a “buck-stops-nowhere” organization that they don’t even notice their organization’s mistakes?

Certainly, the SBC’s mistake was one that carried far graver potential consequences than the loss of a brush-off letter. Yet, it’s a mistake for which the organization has made no apology.

Why doesn't the SBC expect of itself the same sort of organizational accountability that it expects of other organizations?

The SBC still owes an apology, not only to me, but also to all those Florida parents whose kids they left at risk.

The SBC’s organizational apology is long over-due, of course, but better late than never.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Baptist abuse survivors envy Catholics

Baptist clergy abuse survivors often tell me how much they envy Catholic survivors.

Their feelings aren’t based on any notion that Catholic victims endure any less trauma from the abuse itself. Rather, Baptist survivors’ feelings of envy are based on what they often see in the press about how Catholic abuse survivors get treated when they report their abuse.

Consider this recent article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The wife of a 42-year old man reported to the Fort Worth Catholic diocese that her husband was abused three decades ago by a now-deceased priest.

What did the diocese do?

  • The diocese forwarded the abuse report to a review board, which determined the report to be “a credible allegation.”

  • The diocese immediately offered counseling to the victim.

  • The diocese contacted the local newspaper in accordance with its “policy of openly airing allegations of sexual abuse.”

Thus, even when the perpetrator was dead, the diocese still made the “credible allegation” public so as to reach out to other possible victims.

The diocese’s public acknowledgement was also important because, even when a perpetrator is dead, it can still help toward the healing of the victim when he is able to unburden himself of such a horrible secret and receive help from the faith community in which the abuse happened.

But where would a Baptist abuse survivor go to unburden himself? Who in the faith community would do anything about it? Who would help him?

For this Catholic survivor, he only needed to make a single report to one office, and action on the report was immediately commenced.

Can you even imagine such a reaction for a Baptist abuse survivor? I can’t.

Typically, a Baptist survivor goes from office to office, trying to find someone who will do something. And no one will. Everyone turns away and essentially says “Not my problem.”

With Baptists, the buck stops nowhere. No one even takes responsibility for looking into clergy abuse allegations, much less for warning others or helping the victim.

Ultimately, the Baptist abuse survivor usually gives up. He gets no help from the faith community nor even any acknowledgement of the wrong that was done to him.

With such a do-nothing response, the Baptist faith community betrays the survivor all over again. Instead of helping the survivor who reports abuse, the faith community winds up deepening his wounds.

And while the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese has a “policy of openly airing allegations of sexual abuse,” the Baptist General Convention of Texas still keeps a confidential file of ministers who have been reported by churches for sexual abuse. (They don’t even bother with reports from mere victims.) There’s no such thing as any “open airing” and no one even bothers with an objective assessment of whether a victim’s allegations are credible.

Even when the clergy-perpetrators are still alive, and even when they are still in pulpits, and even when they are still ministering to children, the Baptist General Convention of Texas doesn’t even undertake to warn the congregations (much less to remove the men from ministry as other faith groups do).

And while the Baptist General Convention of Texas has long provided counseling for clergy-perpetrators, it has no policy or practice of providing readily available counseling for clergy abuse victims. Baptist clergy abuse survivors are left to struggle on their own.

Is it any wonder that Baptist abuse survivors feel envy when they read articles like this one in Fort Worth?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Baptists vet songs but not ministers

All things bright and beautiful,
All things great and small,
All things wise and wonderful;
Our Father made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings;
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

When you see those words, do you sing along in your head? I do. It’s almost impossible not to.

“All Things Bright and Beautiful” is a song that’s been in my head for as far back as I can remember.

As a child, I sang it in countless Sunday School circles. I remember how much I liked the line about “tiny wings.” I would picture pretty birds, and then in my heart, I would say “thank-you” to God. It was the pure, unfettered gratitude of a child.

“All Things Bright and Beautiful” was a song that, in childhood, brought me closer to God. I loved the song, and I loved the feeling of God’s presence that was so often there with me when I sang it.

So I was heartbroken today to learn that Southern Baptist leaders have decided to jettison “All Things Bright and Beautiful” from the Baptist Hymnal.

According to the Nashville press release, “a committee made up of theologians and musician/theologians was compiled to look at every hymn and make certain the theology was trustworthy.”

“All Things Bright and Beautiful” didn’t meet their standards. The committee didn’t consider it to be one of the “most theologically sound songs” So they deleted it.

I’m having a hard time understanding why this pains me so much. After all, why should I give a hoot about the Baptist Hymnal? I never go to church.

Yet, it does pain me. Perhaps it is simply the power of music that it affects us in ways outside our understanding.

Of course I realize that “All Things Bright and Beautiful” may not have been a favorite hymn for most of you. But even if you don’t care about this particular hymn, there are still some questions that are raised by this whole vetting of the songs business.

If Southern Baptist leaders can vet the suitability of music for the hymnal, why can’t they vet the suitability of ministers for the pulpit?

If Southern Baptist leaders can compile a committee of expert "musician/theologians" to assess every hymn, why can’t they compile a committee of sexual abuse experts to assess every abuse allegation against a minister?

If Southern Baptist leaders care so much about which songs carry the Baptist “brand” in the hymnal, why don’t they care just as much about which ministers carry the Baptist “brand” in the pulpit?

Even with the new hymnal, any Baptist church could still get the music for “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and could still choose to sing it. The committee’s assessment of the song, and its deletion from the hymnal, doesn’t intrude on the autonomy of individual churches.

Similarly, if a committee assessed a clergy abuse report and determined it was a credible accusation, that assessment wouldn’t intrude on the autonomy of individual churches. It would instead provide churches with the resource of objective, expert assessments.

And isn’t a hymnal, in essence, a sort of database of songs? If Southern Baptist leaders can provide for churches a database of the “most theologically sound” songs, why can’t they provide a database of ministers who have been credibly accused of molesting kids?

A database provides information; it doesn’t impose authority.

From the appearance of things, Southern Baptist leaders are more concerned with protecting children against a song like “All Things Bright and Beautiful” than they are with protecting children against ministers who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

They vet the soundness of songs, but not the safety of ministers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I’m afraid my “Am I bitter?” posting may have confused some people. So let me be very clear: I am not at all critical of clergy abuse survivors who feel angry. To the contrary, I think anger can be constructive and good when it is appropriately directed.

That’s the tricky part. For many abuse survivors, their anger winds up being inappropriately self-directed.

Then, the misdirected anger toward self causes all sorts of trouble -- alcohol abuse, drug abuse, depression, self-cutting, self-loathing, and detachment from others. Of course, that’s just for starters. I’m sure some of you could come up with other examples.

For many abuse survivors, a significant part of the healing process is learning to direct that anger away from self and toward those who deserve it -- i.e., toward those who abused us and betrayed us.

We don’t need Baptist leaders telling us to “forgive and forget” or to “move on.” And we sure don’t need to have them chastising us for being bitter or angry.

What we need is help in learning to deal with the anger that we rightly feel. What we need is help in learning to recognize the anger for what it is and in realizing that the anger needs to be directed outward instead of inward.

In fact, if Baptist leaders actually cared about clergy abuse survivors, you might think they would be happy when they begin to see our anger directed outwards. For many of us, that means we’re further along on the rocky road of healing.

Perhaps if Baptist leaders had ever focused their attention on providing counseling for clergy abuse survivors, they would better understand this aspect of the healing process. But of course, for the past couple decades, they’ve been too occupied with providing counseling for clergy-perpetrators. (Oops… there’s that attitude again… am I bitter?)

But hey… I’m no psychologist. These are just my thoughts.

What I hope for all clergy abuse survivors is simply that they find a path toward healing. And it pains me greatly – and yes, angers me – that the faith community does so little to help with the healing of those who have been so terribly wounded within it.

I’m not ashamed of my anger, and I hope you won’t be either.

Feel your anger. Know it. Become friends with it. Own it. Learn from it. Use it.

But in the words of Bruce Springsteen, I hope you’ll also remember this: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Shine on, survivors!