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.

7 comments:

gmommy said...

This is exciting news!!! Something to celebrate!

Interesting that just last night I listened to a woman Episcopalian bishop on NPR radio. I was so touched by what she said her job was as a pastor...very different from all the "authority" junk coming down from the SBC.
She talked about servanthood....and protection (safe haven)...go figure.

I am over joyed by the action taken...even 35 years later!!!! (Remember with the SG/PW cover up we kept hearing..."it was 17 years ago"...so long ago!!!)

Jeri said...

Thank God somebody has shown moral decency and the fear of God in these matters!

Phyllis Gregory said...

Christa,

Concerning your statement, "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".

That statement is key to it all and it makes me very sad because opening their hearts and hearing those cries is exactly what the SBC has chosen not to do. They teach and preach that we are to be Christ-like, while they are anything but that. They tell us to help the poor, but they refuse to admit that their pews are full of people who are poor in spirit. They tell us to love but they can't show us how because they don't even know the meaning of love. These men and women, the SBC, say all the right words but they are empty words because there is no heart and soul.

Junkster said...

Christa said...
(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.)

It's not limited imagination, just realism. This is one way in which the "autonomy" argument actually applies. SB ministers are not ordained or credentialed by the denomination, only by an individual local church. Since neither the SBC as an organization nor SBC leaders put men into ministry, they can't remove ("oust") them, either.

However, 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 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.

Christa Brown said...

Yes, Phyllis. It's extremely sad. With "no heart and soul," they would be dead. Or like "whited sepulchres."

More and more, I often ponder whether many, and perhaps most, of the SBC's leaders are literally incapable of compassion toward those wounded by sexual abuse. In-ca-pa-ble.

If this is so (and more and more I think it likely is), then they will never do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. They will do the right thing when massive media pressure compels them to. When lost dollars, lost membership, lost power, lost prestige compel them to try to regain THOSE things. When that day comes, they may institute accountability procedures similar to what other faith groups have instituted, and in so doing, they may wind up putting some people onto review boards who will still retain genuine compassion and who will also have the experience and training to respond appropriately. Maybe then there will be leaders in SBC life (i.e., review board members) who will actually hear the cries of the wounded.

Christa Brown said...

"However, 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."

Exactly, Junkster!

RM said...

Since I am definitely not a fan of Paige Patterson (nor of women pastors), I thought you would understand how vile and corrupt the SBC is after these comments from the SOUTHWESTERN NEWS (Fall, 2008 edition, just released):

President's Letter (by PP himself):

"As this issue of the Southwestern News will indicate, Bible-believing Christians have never believed that women are inferior to men."

"Southwestern is deply committed to doing the following things in preparing women for Kingdom ministries:

2. To graudate women thoroughly tutored philosophically, theologically, and exegetically to teach the Bible to women and provide an alternative to the shrill, unthoughtful feminism of the postmodern era in churches and schools.
3. To equip women--whether single or a wife and mother--as missionaries who wil put everyting on the line for Christ."

"Those who rail against womanhood as taught at Southwestern, including the God-assigned roles for men, women, and children, not only usually misrepresent our position but also reveal their own hearts and unfortunately the status of the world that their views have produced."

Wow! Now that's a man that I can't believe is President. I'd nearly like to send my degree back to them...

Further comments from the publication:

"Master of Divinity, Women's Ministry. Possesses a significant focus in theology and biblical languages equipping students to integrate theology, faith, and practice in order to lead a MINISTRY TO WOMEN through local church ministry."

The greatest line of all:

"You will find no wimps at Southwestern."

I guess that means we all need to put stuffed elephant heads on our walls to be a real man in Jesus' eyes.

What a sad commentary on the state of affairs at Southwestern Seminary. (My alma mater but one I am truly ashamed of today.)