Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Two Rivers in the dumpster

This Sunday May 4th, Two Rivers Baptist Church will vote on whether to follow pastor Jerry Sutton’s lead and purge itself of the 71 members who sued the church for access to financial records. (Be sure to look at the photo so you’ll know what rabble-rousers and renegades actually look like.)

Two Rivers is the home church for many of the people who work at Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville. This means that Jerry Sutton is the pastor to people who do the day-to-day decision-making of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Spend a little time on the site and you’ll get some idea of why this is a “denomination in decline” and why it is so rife with problems.

Here’s what those 71 church-members wanted: Accountability and transparency. Imagine that.

Last week, pastor Sutton sent out a letter to the flock, urging that the behavior of these 71 truth-seekers was “not consistent with the Word of God” and that they must apologize for their actions in order to remain in the fold.

This is the sort of example set by the pastor who shepherds the decision-makers of this denomination. See the problem?

Back when all this got started, Two Rivers’ executive pastor Scott Hutchings responded by accusing these people of “causing division” within the church body.

“There has to be submission and authority,” he insisted.

So the battle lines were drawn: Submission & authority vs. Accountability & transparency.

I know which side I’m pulling for.

The same battle lines are at the root of the Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse scandal. And I’ve seen up-close what the lack of accountability and transparency does in that arena. It’s pretty ugly.

Meanwhile, back at Two Rivers, the renegades aren’t apologizing. They’re busy sifting through thousands of financial records that were recently found in a dumpster behind the church. The renegades believe they’re records that church leaders never wanted the members to see.

“Denomination in decline”? Maybe it’s already in the dumpster.
Update: The vote was reported as 663 to 337 in favor of ousting them, but that was 4 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed under the church's by-laws. So the renegades were NOT ousted.
Additional update: Two Rivers re-voted on May 11 and ousted the "renegades." In essence, the church decided not to count the votes of the "renegade" members themselves, and by excluding their votes, the balance was tipped in favor of ousting them. Read the Nashville Scene's scathing parody: "Two Rivers Baptist to advise Zimbabwe regime."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Love thy neighbor

When asked about the problem of clergy sex abuse and church cover-ups, one of the religious leaders who was a lawyer said, “Our polity requires that we protect the autonomy of the local church. This has been our law for generations, and the Bible commands us to preserve it.”

But Jesus said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

You notice, of course, that Jesus didn’t say to merely “love the people in your own autonomous church.” He said “love thy neighbor.”

And Jesus didn’t build in any exclusions to that commandment. For example, He didn’t say that you should love the children in your own autonomous church but not worry about the children in the church of another town. He said “love thy neighbor.”

And He didn’t say that religious leaders outside the local church are exempted from the commandment’s obligation because each autonomous church looks after its own. He said “love thy neighbor.”

And He didn’t say that clergy abuse survivors are excluded from the category of "neighbors" because they bring such deeply troubling news that no one wants to hear it. He said “love thy neighbor.”

So how loving is it when Baptist leaders respond to reports of clergy sex abuse by washing their hands of the problem and saying “it’s a local church matter”?

How loving is it when they do that even while knowing that the result of their hand-washing will mean that child molesting ministers may more readily move on to molest again?

How loving is it when Baptist leaders insist that any review of clergy sex abuse allegations should be done by criminal authorities in the secular world rather than by any denominational review board? How loving is it when they say this, even while knowing that most child molestation cases cannot be criminally prosecuted and that their refusal to intervene will likely mean that credibly reported clergy-predators may move on to molest again?

And how loving is it when Baptist leaders persist in saying that each autonomous church should handle a clergy abuse problem on its own, despite the difficulty of the problem and the dire risk of additional wounds inflicted by poor handling? How loving is it when they say this, even while knowing that most churches cannot properly handle a clergy abuse report on their own for the simple reason that they lack the objectivity to assess allegations against their own beloved pastor?

Where is there anything in this great commandment to “love thy neighbor” that excuses people who proclaim the autonomy of local churches from the moral obligation to protect children in other churches?

How can it possibly show “love” when religious leaders use the legalism of autonomy to turn a blind-eye to the molestation and rape of church kids by clergy?

And when did Southern Baptist leaders develop such a knee-jerk version of autonomy that they couldn’t even imagine the possibility that a clergy abuse review board might be instituted in a manner consistent with autonomous principles? When did they become so focused on their own self-serving, radicalized version of autonomy that they failed to notice that some other Baptist groups, who also have autonomous churches, are already implementing denominational review board processes for clergy abuse?

When did the Baptist doctrine of church autonomy get so degraded that it functionally serves as a shield for allowing clergy child molesters to persist in their pulpits with impunity?

When did “autonomy” become a catch-word with such over-bearing importance that it replaced the great commandment to “love thy neighbor”?

[Some of the thought behind this posting was inspired in part by Jeri Massi’s new book, “Schizophrenic Christianity.” Thanks, Jeri.].

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Bad Shepherd

Today’s Nashville Scene carries the story of Shayna Werley’s lawsuit against the Southern Baptist Convention.

Werley alleges that she was sexually abused by pastor Jeremy Benack at the First Baptist Church of Lansford, Pennsylvania. When her parents found out, they say they contacted the Southern Baptist Convention to lodge a complaint. (Seems like the rational thing to do, right?)

But the subtitle of the article sums up what happened: “An alleged victim of sex abuse turns to Nashville’s Southern Baptist Convention for help but finds herself facing Goliath instead.”

Werley’s parents contend that the SBC “had a hand in creating a farcical treatment plan for their daughter – one that forbade her from being alone with men and that seemed to have been designed to shame and punish Werley while Benack faced few, if any, ramifications.”

In fact, according to court documents, “Rev. Benack continues to serve as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lansford and continues to counsel and spend time with young members of the congregation.”

When contacted about the case, SBC legal counsel Jim Guenther reportedly said, “The law does not hold persons liable for things they had nothing to do with.”

Here’s how that translates for lay-people: “Not our problem”

Guenther also said this: “If we knew anything about it, we could not have provided any relief or prevention.”

Got that? When it comes to clergy sex abuse, the SBC can’t, won’t, and won’t even try.

The Southern Baptist Convention claims that, even if it knows about an abusive pastor, it CANNOT do a darn thing.

Do you believe that? I don’t. This is a powerful organization with a lot of resources at its disposal. If its leaders wanted to provide “relief or prevention,” they could find a way.

But apparently the SBC doesn’t want to. So, what Guenther’s words say to clergy abuse victims is this: “The Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t give a hoot.”

Guenther’s remarks are revealing of the true attitude of this organization’s leaders. And since Guenther has been the SBC’s lawyer for a great many years, he knows of what he speaks.

But here’s what I really want to know. Follow me now….

Guenther told the Nashville Scene reporter that “he determined” that a call from the Werley family “never came in to Nashville headquarters.” A month ago, Guenther made a similar statement to a reporter for The Morning Call when he told him that the SBC “never received a call from the Werley family or heard anything about the allegations against Benack.”

How would Guenther know? How did Guenther make his determination that a call from the Werley family “never came in”?

Keep in mind that Guenther doesn’t even work in the Southern Baptist Convention building. He has an office a couple miles away at his Nashville law firm.

So who did he check with at the SBC headquarters building to determine that the Werley family had “never” called?

What record, file, log-book, or data did he look at?

Here’s my point. For Guenther to even make such a statement suggests that there is someone in the SBC building who logs calls or keeps records related to allegations of clergy sex abuse. Otherwise, how would Guenther know one way or the other?

For Guenther to say that the Werleys “never” called suggests that Guenther must have at least looked at a call-log to see the absence of a call from the Werley family.

If no one at the SBC is keeping any records on reports about clergy sex abuse, what possible basis would Guenther have for saying “yea” or “nay” about whether the Werley family contacted the SBC?

If no one at the SBC is keeping any records on reports about clergy sex abuse, then Guenther should have simply said, “I don’t know whether the SBC ever received a call from the Werley family because the SBC doesn’t keep any records on clergy sex abuse reports.”

But Guenther didn’t say that. He said the SBC had “never” received a call from the Werley family. And he said it twice.

So here’s what I think.

I think the SBC already does keep records on clergy sex abuse. I think the SBC keeps some sort of shabby secret file, and Guenther knew about it.

And I think the SBC does diddly-squat with the information in that secret file, and it chooses instead to leave kids and congregants at risk of reported clergy-predators.

What do you think?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How it hurts

In June 2002, clinical psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea was invited to speak before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as they considered how to address the problem of clergy sex abuse. These are her words as she attempted to provide them with some understanding of the experience of sexual trauma through the lens of the victim.

“Sexual abuse victims often are young people for whom something or someone is missing. They yearn for an adult who sees them, hears them, understands them, makes time for them, and enjoys their company. Unfortunately, the sexual predator is exquisitely attuned to the emotional and relational needs of the potential victims…. Sexual abusers ingratiate themselves into the lives of their victims, evoking respect, trust and dependency long before the first touch takes place. The confused child or adolescent is frequently so emotionally entwined with his victimizer… that he readily and silently complies with the sexual activities imposed upon him.

There are those who devalue survivors of childhood and, especially adolescent sexual abuse for not disclosing their victimizations when they were occurring. Secrecy, however, is the acknowledged cornerstone of sexual abuse… Sexual abusers may also blame the victim, accusing her of seducing the predator, thus filling the victim with the shame and self-loathing more appropriately experienced by the victimizer. In a more covert covenant of secrecy, the abuser provides the victim with gifts and special privileges that both silence and instill terrible and long-lasting guilt.

In addition many abused minors maintain silence because they accurately perceive that there is no one in their environment who will help them if they disclose…. Finally, children and teenagers do not disclose the sexual abuse secret because they care for the perpetrator. A central cruelty of sexual abuse, in fact, is the perpetrator's trampling of the young person's generously and freely bestowed affection or respect.

It is from this epicenter of betrayed trust that the mind splitting impact of sexual abuse ripples outward…. It is simply too much and the resulting fracture of the victim's mind and experience often leads to a debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder that affects every domain of the victim's functioning and lasts for years and years after the abuse has stopped.

Let me now guide you on a tour through the corridors of a psyche twisted by sexual transgression. It is a trip through a traumatogenically constructed, psychological House of Horrors in which experiences of self and other are grotesquely distorted and terrifying images unexpectedly pop out from seemingly safe places. The visitor lurches from one emotional shock to another in an interior atmosphere of darkness….

When a young person is being abused, the psychological shock is so great that the normal self cannot absorb or make sense of what is happening to it. In a valiant attempt to cope with the overwhelming overstimulation and sense of betrayal literally embodied in sexual trauma, the self splits using the psychic mechanism of dissociation. The normal operation of dissociation allows, for example, each of us to drive ten miles and then "come to" with no memory of the time just past. For the victim of child or adolescent sexual violation, however, dissociation is an exponentially more dramatic process, one that serves as both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, by entering into an entirely different state of consciousness while being abused, the victim preserves a functional and safe self who is removed from the trauma and is therefore able to learn, grow, play, and work…. On the other hand, the curse of dissociation condemns the state of self who experienced the abuse to a trapped existence in the inner world of the survivor, a place dominated by terror, impotent but seething rage, and grief for which there literally are no words.

Because trauma impels the brain to process events quickly and in a state of hyperarousal, verbalizing pathways are bypassed. Instead, the sexual violations are encoded by the child and retrieved by the survivor as non-verbal, often highly disorganizing feelings, somatic states, anxieties, recurring nightmares, flashbacks, and sometimes dangerous behaviors.

Often, the adult survivor's life is wracked by unexpected regressions to his victimized self that are triggered by seemingly neutral stimuli. Much as the Vietnam Vet who hits the floor during a thunderstorm… so too the sexual abuse survivor may be triggered into a regression by something or someone reminiscent of his earlier traumas. No longer firmly located in the present, the survivor thinks, feels, experiences his body, and behaves as the victim he once was, badly confusing himself and those around him....

Coexisting with the violated, terrorized, grief stricken victim self, the adult survivor of sexual abuse has within her a state of being that is identified with the perpetrator. Through this unconscious ongoing bond to the predator, the survivor preserves an attachment to the abuser….

There comes a day in every survivor's recovery upon which he fully comprehends what was so cruelly taken from him. Further personal growth and healing requires that the survivor then mourn the childhood or adolescence that never was, the defensively idealized caretakers who never existed, and perhaps most poignantly, the self that could have been had trust, hope, and possibility not been so brutally shattered.

I cannot exaggerate nor can I adequately convey the soul searing pain of this phase of recovery….

Quite understandably, the sexual abuse survivor may act to avoid the ultimate mourning necessary to move on from the abuse and all that was stolen from him. Launching a lawsuit against the perpetrator or against those who abetted the abuser may be one strategy employed to deny unrecoverable loss, while instead pursuing an illusion of full restitution of that which, tragically, never can be restored. No matter the amount of the ensuing financial settlement, a residue of emptiness and lost hope persists. At the core of the survivor's being, the worst has happened yet again; he has been paid off to go away while life goes on relatively untouched for the perpetrator and those who shielded him.

Now let me be absolutely clear. Money can be a little better than nothing…. Many survivors, in fact, resort to lawsuits only after being stonewalled in their quest for more personal reparative gestures. Legal action, in this situation, represents a last ditch effort by the survivor to become an agent in his own life. Further, a lawsuit, when all else has failed, puts into action an understandable demand that the truth be told one way or another. In addition, many survivors need financial assistance for therapy, substance abuse rehabilitation, and educational or vocational training previously unattainable because of post-traumatic stress symptoms plaguing the victims. But money is not nearly enough, no matter how much it is….

Leaving the realm of sexual abuse survivor's organization of self, we enter a related corridor on our tour, one in which we explore typical characteristics of the victim's interpersonal relationships.

A survivor's relationships with other people are hued and shaded by expectations and anxieties forged during their traumatic experiences. Approaching others from within the psychological confines of post-traumatic stress disorder, the trauma survivor exhibits rapidly shifting relational stances, painfully lurching from periods of extremely dependent clinging, to those marked by vicious rage aimed at the same person. Stark terror and tears can switch in an instant to cold aloofness, while warmth and vivacity may turn kaleidoscopically to paranoid suspicion. All this, of course, leads to many chaotically unstable relationships, often alternating with stretches of the loneliest isolation.

Perhaps needless to say, normal sexual functioning is almost impossible for most survivors until well into their recovery. Too often, sex, even with a trusted other, triggers terrifyingly disorganizing flashbacks during which survivors sometimes literally see the face of their abuser superimposed on the visage of their sexual partner and experience dreadful relivings of their sexual traumas. In addition, survivors frequently are disgusted by and ashamed of their own bodies and sexual strivings. Unreasonably blaming the abuse on their own sexuality, they often desperately insist that it never would have happened were it not for their self-perceived horribly seductive bodies and deplorable sexual desires…. Sexual abuse survivors of all genders and sexual orientations are deprived of the right to grow gradually into a mature sexuality and, instead, are forced or seduced into premature sexual encounters they are emotionally ill-equipped to handle. As adults, therefore, these men and women often spin between periods of promiscuous and self-destructive sexual acting out and times of complete sexual shutdown during which, like burn victims, they experience the gentlest physical contact as excruciatingly painful.

Finally, there is a characteristic relational stance assumed by many sexual abuse survivors that is particularly germane to these proceedings. It involves others who did not abuse them but also did not protect them.

If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse one so that whenever a minor is sexually violated, someone's eyes are closed. Throughout history and in every segment of society, the most common response to the suspicion or even the disclosure of childhood sexual abuse has been self-defensive denial and dissociation. No one finds it easy to stand in the overwhelming and destabilizing reality of sexual abuse. Thus, blindness, deafness, and elective mutism are responses endemic to many confronted by a victimized child, an adult survivor, or a perpetrating adult. To the extent, however, that the sexual victimization of a minor depends upon the silence of adults who knew, suspected, or should have known about the abuse, the burdens of shame and reparation reach beyond the perpetrator…. Zero tolerance must include the silent as well as the predatory.

What is important to recognize…is that adult survivors of sexual abuse frequently are, at least initially, even angrier with adults who failed to protect them than they are with the perpetrator himself….

Now turning down another corridor on our tour of a psyche ravaged by early sexual trauma, we examine the impact of sexual abuse on the cognitive functioning of the victim and survivor. Part of what is overwhelmed during sexual abuse is the young person's ability cognitively to contain, process, and put into words the enormity of the relational betrayal and physical impingement with which he is faced. It is striking and often bewildering to observe in adult survivors completely contradictory thought processes that ebb and flow with little predictability. One moment, you are speaking with an intelligent adult, capable of complex, flexible, abstract, and self-decentered thinking. Under sufficient internal or external stress, however, or in situations somehow reminiscent of past abuse, the cognitive integrity of the survivor shatters and becomes locked in rigidly inflexible, self-centered thought patterns, simplistic black and white opinions devoid of nuance and an immutable conviction that the future is destined to be both short and unalterably empty….

If a survivor's cognitive functioning is severely ruptured by sexual abuse, his affective life, the next stop on our tour, is even more impaired. When a young person is sexually traumatized, the hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system and the body's subsequent attempt to restore order disrupt the brain's neurochemical regulation of emotion. In addition, we are now learning that attachment relationships also impact upon the brain's ability to modulate feelings, with traumatic attachment experiences interfering with effective neuropsychological regulation of affect. The brain of the sexually abused minor thus suffers a double assault. Both the sexual traumas themselves and the betrayal of an attachment relationship assail the flow of affect modulating neurochemicals.

As an adult, the survivor shifts--sometimes quite rapidly--between states of chaotically intense hyperarousal and deadened states of psychic numbing. This inability to modulate emotional arousal often leads to interpersonally inappropriate verbal or motoric actions when the survivor is hyperstimulated, and to similarly inappropriate emotional and psychomotor constriction as the individual moves into psychic numbing. Further, autonomic arousal becomes a generalized reaction to stress in the midst of which the sexual abuse survivor is unable to discern realistically the severity of a perceived threat. Instead of reacting at the actual level of psychological danger, the survivor may engage in seemingly irrational behaviors like temper tantrums or terrified withdrawal. These behaviors do not fit the present day situation but are perfectly complimentary to the now affectively revived earlier trauma.

Because of the damage done by sexual abuse to affective brain functioning, adult survivors often need psychotropic medications for periods of time during recovery. For some, their impairments are sufficiently intractable to require lifelong medication….

We now are almost finished with our psychological tour and are about to enter what can be the most shocking corridor of all. Also partly due to disrupted brain functioning, sexual abuse survivors often display a truly spectacular array of self-destructive behaviors. They slice their arms, thighs, and genitalia with knives, razors, or shards of broken glass. They burn themselves with cigarettes, pull hair from their heads and pubic areas, walk through dark parks alone at night, play chicken with trains at railroad crossings, pick up strangers in bars to have unprotected and anonymous sex, drive recklessly at high speeds, gamble compulsively, and/or further destroy their minds and bodies with alcohol and the whole range of street drugs. Both male and female prostitutes tend to have backgrounds of early sexual abuse. Survivors also are two to three times more likely than adults without abuse histories to make at least one suicide attempt in their lives. Sometimes they die.

Survivor self-abuse performs a myriad of functions… A quick inventory of a survivor's motivations to act self-destructively includes: punishment for the abuse he blames himself for; mastering victimization by taking charge of the timing and execution of harm; self-medication of turbulent affective storms; and unconsciously seeking states of hyperarousal that then trigger the release of brain opiods, providing the survivor with a temporary sense of calm….

As we exit now from our tour of the terrifyingly disorienting psychological House of Horrors, constructed amidst sexual abuse, and maintained by its aftermath, it should be clear that a survivor's recovery is a long, complicated, sometimes treacherous process….

Psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold entitled his book on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, Soul Murder. I do not think that early sexual trauma necessarily has to result in soul murder but it most surely batters and deadens the soul of the young victim and the adult survivor. That this ravaging of souls has been administered by clergy entrusted with a sacred covenant to protect and enliven souls is despicable; it is evil itself.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

U.S. Baptist kids like Third-World Catholic kids

Southern Baptist kids have as little protection against clergy sex abuse as Catholic kids in Third-World countries.

This reality was driven home during the Pope’s visit, when SNAP focused its energy on urging the Pope to establish a worldwide policy on protecting children against clergy sex abuse.

Back in 2002, Catholic canon law deemed that the protective policies adopted by United States bishops were “particular” laws, applicable only in U.S. dioceses and not in other parts of the world. From Thailand to Turkey, from Kenya to Columbia, Catholic children worldwide do not get the sorts of protections that Catholic children in the U.S. now get.

Bishops in the United States created the Office of Child and Youth Protection “to provide a vehicle of accountability and assistance to dioceses” and in an effort to work cooperatively toward ridding the ranks of clergy predators. It was an incomplete effort, and the policies have been inconsistently implemented, but at least it was a start.

Bishops in the rest of the world have done virtually nothing.

Dioceses in the United States now have lay-person review boards to assess whether priests have been ‘credibly accused.” Dioceses in the rest of the world do not. Dioceses in the United States now operate under a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” policy. Dioceses in the rest of the world do not. Dioceses in the United States now provide counseling to those who bring forward reports of clergy sex abuse. Dioceses in the rest of the world typically do not.

It would require a change in Catholic canon law for dioceses worldwide to be able to remove abusive priests from ministry based on “credible accusations” in the way that U.S. dioceses now do. It’s a change that is much needed.

On Wednesday, a Duluth News-Tribune editorial pointed out, without the sort of policies that were adopted by U.S. bishops, “one can only shudder at the possibility for abuse against an impoverished child in an unempowered Third World family.”

Yet, kids in Third World countries are just as needy of protection as kids in the United States.

Likewise, kids in other faith groups are just as needy of protection as Catholic kids. Most other major Protestant groups seem to have recognized this by instituting review board policies of their own, but Southern Baptists still have not.

Sometimes “credibly accused” pedophile priests flee this country for the less-constraining territory of a Catholic diocese abroad that isn’t subject to the sorts of safeguards that U.S. bishops adopted. By comparison, Southern Baptist ministers don’t even have to leave the comforts of the U.S.A. Even when child molestation accusations are substantiated, there is no Southern Baptist policy or procedure for removing the man from ministry or even for warning people in the pews. Typically, an accused Southern Baptist minister can simply move to another state. Or maybe even to another church just down-the-road. No one in Southern Baptist circles is likely to stop him.

Not a single one of the statewide Baptist conventions is even beginning to address the clergy abuse problem in the way that most U.S. Catholic dioceses now do. And we sure haven’t seen much leadership on this from Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville.

The tragic truth is that Southern Baptist leaders are so far behind the curve on addressing clergy sex abuse that they haven’t yet even seen their way to the starting blocks.

Why shouldn’t Southern Baptist kids have at least the minimal sorts of protection that are now provided for Catholic kids in this country?

Why shouldn’t Southern Baptist leaders institute their own child and youth protection policies and start warning people about “credibly accused” clergy?

Finally, the Pope’s visit serves as a reminder of how far SNAP has come in its work of exposing clergy abuse and cover-ups. SNAP was out there working in the trenches a full twelve years before the 2002 Boston scandal tipped the scales with enough media glare to compel U.S. bishops toward action. Now, in almost every article about the Pope’s visit, there has also been mention of the sex abuse scandal. With extraordinary perseverance, SNAP successfully brought this dire problem to public consciousness.

Sooner or later, if Southern Baptists do not get on board the train of clergy accountability, SNAP will also succeed in mustering sufficient media glare that Southern Baptist leaders will be compelled to action.

Of course, we hope it will happen sooner and that Southern Baptist leaders won’t wait until they are compelled. We hope they will voluntarily get on board, before countless more kids and families are wounded.

But one way or the other, SNAP is in this for the long haul.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Schizophrenic Christianity

Jeri Massi’s new book is called “Schizophrenic Christianity.” You’ll want to read it.

Jeri often comments on this blog, and her comments are always insightful. Her book is no exception. It successfully illuminates many aspects of this battle for clergy accountability and shows how Christian fundamentalism allows monstrous men to prey on the flock while still maintaining a mask of goodness.

The book tells the real deal on “big bad Baptist business as usual,” and Jeri tells it out of love for her faith.

She shows how, in this “business,” the value of human life is traded off for the power and image of the religious leaders.

Using case studies of Independent Fundamental Baptist pastors accused or convicted of child molestation, the book reveals how pastors’ young victims become nothing more than a cost of doing business for a religion gone horribly wrong.

The autonomous churches provide a porous structure that abandons accountability in favor of independence and immunity for the leaders. With no system for oversight, wolves are able to infiltrate with ease.

“If a man has charm and natural charisma, it’s harder for a man to get a driver’s license than to become an IFB preacher,” explains Jeri.

At the same time, the highly authoritarian theology of Christian fundamentalism renders the sheep all the more trusting, submissive and vulnerable. They are effectively indoctrinated to become perfect prey.

It’s a sick system designed to depersonalize and ostracize any who question.

With still more insights drawn from psychological research, Jeri points out that one of the defining characteristics of a sociopath is the strong desire for personal autonomy and control over others. What better place for a sociopath to achieve that end than in autonomous churches where pastors carry such prestige and authority that their words are not questioned and where systems of oversight are nonexistent?

It’s a scary picture, but it’s a picture that many of us have seen up close for ourselves. We know it to be true.

Jeri focuses primarily on IFB pastors, but a similar sick system facilitates clergy abuse among Southern Baptists and others who adhere to such a radical form of autonomy that it dispels accountability.

Watch out for your children, folks, ESPECIALLY if they’re in autonomous Baptist churches!

Schizophrenic Christianity is due out on April 28th. I was privileged to be able to see an advance copy – thanks, Jeri! The book will be available on

Monday, April 14, 2008

Congregants stand by their man

In early March, I did a posting about Debbie Vasquez and the abuse she suffered at the hands of Dale “Dickie” Amyx, the pastor of Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger, Texas. (That’s him in the photo.)

A few days ago, “Sharyn” left a comment expressing her support for pastor Amyx. “I will stand by him and his family through thick and thin,” she says.

Because Sharyn’s comment is revealing and few are likely to see it on the old posting, I’m reposting it here.

“How can any of us cast stones on anyone. I believe that none of us know all the facts of this story. I believe yes, the adultery is wrong. Yes, the deceit is wrong. Have anyone of you stopped to think what the family of the accused is going through and what they have gone through before all of this. Ok so some poor judgements were made on his part in his younger years but isn't our walk with God constant learning. Learning from our mistakes and making them right. This is a man who has done nothing but help his community, friends and family for as long as I have known him. To walk with God is to forgive those in our path - that is what we are taught. It is 2008 and who has met someone in this lifetime who has never sinned. We all sin. I believe that when you can look in the mirror and truly believe that you have never sinned, then express your opinion - till then all need to hold their tongues. This is a story that is about a man who not only taught me God's word on Sunday mornings but he has pulled me from darkness many, many times in my life. I will stand by him and his family through thick and thin. As Christians our walk with God is a daily struggle. The devil is around every corner. God's hope is that even though we may sin but learn from that sin. A sin is a sin whether I steal a piece of gum, gossip about my neighbor, or shoo someone in anger. In God's eyes they are all the same and we are taught that all we need to do is ask for forgiveness and it is forgotten. Don't you believe that. I believe that and I believe that he has done that. Let's let everyone please get back to their lives and stop the gossip.”

I’m sure many of you could go through this comment line-by-line, and address the flaws in Sharyn’s thinking. We’ve seen these sorts of minimizations and rationalizations countless times before, haven’t we? All the talk about forgiveness, casting stones, and “sin is sin”… as though any of it could possibly excuse a minister’s sexual abuse of a church kid.

Sharyn’s comment illustrates why Southern Baptists need the resource of a professionally-staffed, independent board to review clergy abuse reports. Congregations CANNOT do this on their own. They are incapable of it. People who love and trust their minister cannot objectively assess whether he has committed sexual abuse.

Even when confronted with extraordinary evidence, congregants typically find ways to mentally minimize the truth. Why? Because they love their minister and because believing in his goodness is fundamental to their own sense of well-being in the world.

What Sharyn sees in Dickie Amyx is “a man who has done nothing but help his community, friends and family for as long as I have known him.” She clings to her memory of “a man who not only taught me God’s word…but…pulled me from darkness many, many times.”

I don’t doubt Sharyn’s memories. Dickie Amyx has probably preached many a good sermon, visited many a sick person in the hospital, stood by the side of many a grieving widow, married many couples, and ministered to others in countless ways. But no amount of good can lessen the harm that is done by the evil of clergy sex abuse.

If a man does good 360 days a year, but molests kids for 5 days a year, do the 360 days outweigh the 5? Of course not. This is not a balance that anyone has the right to strike.

You cannot offset the horrible harm done to a kid when a trusted minister molests her by weighing it against the good that the minister may do in other parts of his life. That scale will not balance. You cannot ignore such terrible evil no matter how much good is stacked up on the other side.

But that is exactly what congregants are inclined to do, and it is why clergy abuse reports must be assessed by persons outside an accused pastor’s congregation.

Finally, for those of you who haven’t followed the Debbie Vasquez story, let me just point out that, contrary to what Sharyn suggests, the evidence against pastor Dickie Amyx went way beyond the level of mere “gossip.” This is a minister who, in sworn testimony, admitted to having sex with Debbie 20 to 40 times but defended his actions by saying “I didn’t have sex with her when she was 16 or under.”

Debbie says the abuse began when she was 14 and that Amyx raped her when she was 15. I believe Debbie, but even if people choose to believe Amyx, it’s wrong to keep a Southern Baptist minister in the pulpit whose only defense against sexual abuse is to say “I didn’t have sex with her when she was 16 or under.” Someone needs to tell those people that. It’s wrong.

As other evidence, Debbie obtained a tape recording of Amyx talking about it and she also has a paternity judgment against Amyx. Yeah… that’s right… she had to go to court to get this so-called man of God, pastor Dickie Amyx, to even support his own kid.

But congregants will almost always find ways to overlook and minimize such evidence. They cannot escape their natural inclination to “stand by their man.” It’s exactly why outsiders must be brought in to assist when allegations of clergy sex abuse are raised.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gilyard back in the SBC

According to comments on the Tiffany Croft blog, Darrell Gilyard preached from the pulpit of First Timothy Baptist Church in Jacksonville last Tuesday. I’ve also gotten a couple emails about this.

First Timothy is a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

As many of you probably recall, Gilyard is the pastor who was previously mentored by two former Southern Baptist presidents, Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines. News reports reflect that dozens of sexual abuse and sexual assault allegations were made against Gilyard at 4 churches in Texas and Oklahoma, but he was always able to simply move on to another church. He finally moved on to Florida, and is now facing charges of lewd conduct and child molestation.

So ask yourself this: Given how much energy Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines put into promoting Gilyard, why don’t they now put the same amount of energy into trying to protect people against this minister they built up?

Why aren’t Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines using their power and influence to persuade First Timothy’s pastor, Fred Newbill, of the dreadful error in allowing Gilyard to preach or teach?

Why aren’t Patterson and Vines going out into the Jacksonville community to reach out to other possible victims, to minister to those already wounded, and to warn others about Gilyard?

Why aren’t they doing everything possible, from press releases to personal ministry, to attempt to ameliorate the harm that they permitted with their years of promoting Gilyard and of allowing him to continue in ministry despite so many abuse allegations?

Why is it that the people who struggle to warn and protect others are the victims themselves and their supporters? Why aren’t Southern Baptist leaders stepping up to the plate to warn and protect others?

When Gilyard left the SBC years ago, Southern Baptist officials acted as though they could simply wash their hands of him, with no obligation to warn people in the pews since he was now in an independent Baptist church rather than a Southern Baptist church. But now it appears that Gilyard is back in the SBC.

So what’s the excuse of Southern Baptist leaders now?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Baptists Don't Dance

Once upon a time, I was a Lionette. Every Friday night during football season, I marched out on the field in a cowgirl hat, white boots, and a short skirt. By today’s drill-team standards, my uniform was positively prudish, but back then, it was short enough to raise eyebrows… at least among the ministers and deacons of my Southern Baptist church.

Of course, there was way more to worry about than just the short skirt.

We were dancing. In public. And that was bad. Really bad.

At least that’s what Brother Hayden said.

Sunday nights was when Brother Hayden would sermonize on sins like drinking, smoking, dancing, and cussing. Whenever he got to the part about dancing, he would always glare at Maggie and me, sitting in the back corner of the sanctuary, and we would just duck our heads.

Maggie was on the drill team too. She was also my prayer partner. Together, we sometimes prayed about whether we should stay on the drill team. We heard what Brother Hayden was saying, but we took the question straight to God and asked Him. And God never said we should quit.

But after months of being molested by a youth and education minister, who step-by-step said it was God’s will, I wound up as a pretty mixed up kid. After the molestation escalated to rape, I wound up more than mixed up. After all, I couldn’t even label it as “rape” because “rape” was something bad guys did, not ministers.

After I tried to talk to the music minister about it and he said not to tell anyone else, I was completely alone with my traumatized thoughts. After I was made to apologize to the perpetrator’s wife, I heard my own voice say “it was all my fault.” After the perpetrator told me I harbored Satan and made me kneel while he stood, praying aloud to cast Satan from me, I felt like evil incarnate and became terrified that I would burn forever in a literal hellfire. After Brother Hayden sent the perpetrator on his way to another church with praise from the pulpit about what a great man of God he was, I knew for sure that it was all my fault. And after Brother Hayden told me I should rededicate my life to Christ, I did, and I prayed that the dreadful darkness would leave me.

It didn’t.

So I gave up my Lionette uniform and quit the drill team.

In my traumatized, terrorized, over-indoctrinated, and brainwashed adolescent brain, I decided that maybe Brother Hayden was right and that maybe dancing was what had caused all the trouble. It was the only thing I could think of that I had done wrong. The drill team was my one act of rebellion.

So I figured that was how I let Satan in the door.

Did I mention that I was a pretty confused kid?

Obviously, I’ve come a long way since then, and I don’t believe much of anything that I learned from Southern Baptists anymore. I don’t wear a Lionette uniform, but I definitely dance.

So, if you aren’t afraid it’ll send you to hell, click “replay” and join me in a bit of a jig with John Calvin. It’s “Baptists don’t dance” with lyrics by Randall Hyde and animation by Roderick Edwards.

Monday, April 7, 2008

On the side of grace

Pastor Wayne Stockstill says he “erred on the side of grace” when he kept quiet about a deacon’s molestation of children in his church.

“Grace.” It burns me that Stockstill would even use the word. What an extraordinary perversion of something divine.

Whatever happened to the notion that grace was the gift of God?

When did so many Baptist pastors start thinking it was their own gift to bestow on child molesters?

Stockstill is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Hesperia, California, a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. He bestowed this “grace” on a church deacon who abused two girls over a four-year period.

Some anthropologist should probably do a study on this. But among the tribe known as Southern Baptists, this amazing “grace” appears to be nothing less than the “grace” of quiet complicity with child sex abuse. Leaders of the tribe bestow this “grace” on other leaders.

Stockstill’s invocation of this bizarre “grace” ritual is just one example among many in this tribe.

The same sort of “grace” was extended by Pastor Steve Gaines at Bellevue Baptist, when he stayed quiet about minister Paul Williams’ abuse of a kid.

The same sort of “grace” was extended by music minister Jim Moore at First Baptist Farmers Branch, when he kept quiet about minister Tommy Gilmore’s abuse of me as a kid.

The same sort of “grace” is extended daily by the Baptist General Convention of Texas as it continues to keep a secret file with the names of ministers reported by churches for child molestation.

The same sort of “grace” was extended by minister James Crittenden when he tried to hush-up the news about pastor Larry Reynolds’ abuse of a kid.

The same sort of “grace” was extended by pastor Mike Roy when he allowed minister Shawn Davies to continue working with kids even while knowing that Davies was under investigation for child molestation.

The same sort of “grace” was extended by Glenn Akins, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, when he fired a Baptist journalist for reporting on pastor Leslie Mason’s sexual abuse of a kid.

The list could go on and on.

If Southern Baptist leaders saw some other tribe protecting those who molest children, they would righteously wag their fingers and rail against it. But when it happens in their own tribe, they invoke “grace.”

And the people in the pews say “Amen.” They themselves extend this amazingly perverse style of “grace” when they quietly tolerate their leaders’ mute complicity in clergy child molestation.

Eleven years later, and only after deacon Roy Long was finally arrested, Pastor Stockstill reportedly admitted that he “made an egregious mistake.” But so what? Does the tribe impose any consequence for such a “mistake”?

Apparently not. Pastor Stockstill is still the pastor at First Baptist Church of Hesperia. The people in the pews choose to keep him as their leader despite his lack of leadership in confronting a church official’s child molestation.

The same is true of Gaines, Moore, Crittenden and a host of other Southern Baptist ministers who stayed quiet about clergy sex abuse. There are no consequences. The churches simply keep these ministers who are complicit with clergy child molestation… as though it were no big deal.

An anthropologist might point out that this amazing “grace” functions in a way that allows tribal leaders to perpetuate their own power and to preserve their own place at the top of the pecking order within the tribe.

And indeed it does… which brings me back to my original question.

When did divine grace get so debased as to be nothing more than a tool for preservation of the powerful?

Update: I just learned that pastor Wayne Stockstill was a 2-term president of the California Southern Baptist Convention in 2003-04. So, he's a high-honcho Southern Baptist leader. Yet he couldn't figure out that he should call the police about a report of child molestation??? Tells you something about the leaders of this denomination, doesn't it?

Stockstill is also an adjunct professor at California Baptist University where he teaches the next generation of Baptists.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"Wolf in sheep's clothing"

The victim said: "I’ve been unable to step in church or rely on faith because of how he used that as part of the abuse…. He would stop at nothing to get what he wanted…. I cannot even walk into a church without remembering all the ways Scott Hoppe used religion to fulfill his own sexual desires.”

The prosecutor said: He is "a wolf in sheep’s clothing." He is "everyone’s worst nightmare…. This is a man who has couched himself as a man of God… Inside, the real Scott Hoppe is very different. He’s evil, manipulative and egocentric."

The victim’s father said: "We teach our children to avoid strangers, to stay away from guys in trench coats that look like monsters. We don’t teach them to stay away from their pastors…. He’s slick. The damage that was done to our family is incomprehensible.”

The victim’s mom said: “I hope he feels remorse, but how would you know with someone who has so skillfully lied?"

The press said: “Scott Hoppe was hired to pray with teens. Instead, he preyed on them.”

The perpetrator’s wife said: "I believe in a God of grace and miracles…. I’m proud of the repentant and changing man he is now. I’m begging for mercy. So are our children."

The judge said: "It is clear he took advantage of his position of pastor and took advantage of a child who was learning her sexuality at the time. This is always tragic. People do things to young people. It just takes something from them and violates their sense of trust. When you do this, you obviously wreak havoc on the life of the victim."

Scott Hoppe was a pastor at Grace Church in Burlington, Wisconsin. On Monday, he was sentenced to four years in prison and six of extended supervision for the sexual abuse of a teen girl.

The church's head pastor was educated at a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary. That, along with the church's online statement of belief, makes it appear to be a Baptist church.

Read more and leave comments:
The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin (This has video of speeches at the sentencing hearing, including speeches from the victim’s family, the prosecution, and Hoppe himself. It also has a place where you can leave comments at the end of the article.)

TMJ4 News – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

50,000 plus

The website broke the 50,000 mark for number of page views. As of today, it’s had 56,502 page views in the last 19 months since the site went up.

Do I wish it were 500,000? Sure. But 50,000 is still nothing to sneeze at. It means a lot of people have received news and information about Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

The website has also been gaining momentum. Last month alone, the number of page views was 12,522.

People are looking.

This blog site has also gotten some good traffic. Since July 2007, when I began keeping track, there have been 18,212 visitors to this blog, and they have come from all across the globe.

Sometimes the blog also has a sort of wave effect, when postings get picked up and reprinted on other sites.

For example, several StopBaptistPredators postings were picked up by, a site that had 2.7 million page views in 2007. A couple other items were picked up by the Faith & Works blog of the Louisville Courier-Journal and by the Religion Blog of the Dallas Morning News. And numerous items were picked up by the blogs of other individuals, who all have readers of their own.

These are numbers worth celebrating. We’re getting stronger. Thanks to all of you for your support.

Whether you’re a quiet viewer or someone who comments, I’m grateful for your interest.

One thing that we as survivors should all know for sure – none of us are alone in this.

Shine on!