Friday, October 31, 2008

Religion may also be a mask

The Associated Baptist Press recently posed the question of whether there should be a religious “test” for public office.

Suzii Paynter, director of the public policy & moral concerns arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, gave a “yes” sort of answer, stating that religious convictions can reveal “valuable insights into a candidate’s character….”

“When people reach a certain level -- whether in politics, business or any other powerful enterprise -- there’s always a temptation to see themselves as above the rules that apply to others,” she noted, apparently concluding that a religious “grounding” might improve their “public ethic.”

I pondered Suzii’s comments. If we could understand how people like Suzii Paynter think, perhaps we could figure out how to persuade Baptist leaders to actually take action against clergy sex abuse.

Remember Suzii “Because-there-are-no-bishops” Paynter?

That was her lame excuse for why Baptists can’t take action against clergy predators in the same way that other faith groups do: “Because there are no bishops.”

A religious leader who thinks “because there are no bishops” is a valid excuse for nonaction on reported clergy child molesters is a religious leader who has lost a moral compass.

But that doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.

Oh sure, there are some monsters in Baptist churches and there are some Baptist leaders so drunk on their own power that they’re utterly corrupt. But I don’t think Suzii falls into those categories; she falls into the category of good people who do nothing.

The good people who do nothing are a much bigger crowd than the flat-out corrupt people. That’s why I’d like to understand how people like Suzii really think.

How do they convince themselves to believe the “we are powerless” propaganda that’s spewed forth from their religious institution?

How do they rationalize that it’s okay for Baptist leaders to look away when confronted with clergy child molestation?

How do they come to meekly accept a twisted “autonomy” dogma so radicalized that it trumps the protection of kids?

How do they look at themselves in the mirror when they use “because there are no bishops” as code for “not our problem”?

Help me understand. How do good people choose to do nothing?

I figure Suzii really believes all the propaganda and public relations spin of the organization she’s a part of -- the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

I figure she really believes that such words -- “because there are no bishops” -- can somehow excuse the reality of a powerful religious organization that leaves clergy child molesters in their pulpits without warning people in the pews.

I figure she’s a loyal foot-soldier for higher Baptist power-brokers and bureaucrats. She trusts in their leadership. And maybe she hopes to become a higher leader herself.

However she may rationalize this travesty, I figure she’s probably a good person.

It is not bad people who are primarily responsible for allowing the evil of Baptist clergy sex abuse to persist. It is good people.

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

So that’s why I found myself pondering Suzii’s words. Obviously she places value on political candidates’ statements about religious conviction. But has she forgotten that the power of “religion” can be used for bad as well as good? Those of us who have experienced the horror of clergy abuse and cover-ups know this reality all too well.

Words of religion can be a mask. They can become a cloak that leaders wear as a costume to conceal their true character and intentions.

And when Suzii talks about “powerful enterprises,” I wonder whether she realizes that religious organizations are also powerful enterprises in which leaders often lose their way and “see themselves as above the rules that apply to others.”

Ordinary decent people would expect a denomination’s religious leaders to take responsible action when confronted with clergy abuse reports. It’s a sort of “rule.” It’s an obligation of leadership. It’s a “rule” that’s now been recognized in other major faith groups.

But so far, Baptist leaders are saying this “rule” doesn’t apply to them. Why? “Because there are no bishops.”

In pondering Suzii’s apparent ease with this religious rationalization, I was reminded of something columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Orlando Sentinel exactly two years ago. She was talking about the “good German phenomenon” and the devastation that is wrought “when good men look away.”

Parker pointed out how “religion” has so often been used to rationalize a blind-eyed view to horror, and she brought up the history of white Christians’ non-responsiveness to racism and race-based terrorism. “Southern white Christians abdicated their moral responsibility,” she said, “and demonstrated their cowardice and complicity by allowing Klansmen to hijack their religion and terrorize blacks in the name of their Jesus.”

I think the same dreadful “look away” phenomenon helps to explain Baptist leaders’ blind-eyed nonresponsiveness to clergy sex abuse. Leaders like Suzii Paynter -- and many more -- have abdicated their moral responsibility and have cowardly twisted their religion to rationalize a do-nothing response to preacher-predators who molest, rape, and terrorize kids.

When good people like Suzii Paynter stop with the make-believe of “because there are no bishops,” then maybe Baptists will begin to move beyond the haunted hinterlands in their journey toward clergy accountability.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An enduring symbolic gesture

A California cathedral dedicated a first-of-its-kind garden to honor victims of clergy sex abuse. The garden has a broken, circular stone sculpture in the middle. Father Paul Minnihan, the provost of the Oakland cathedral said the garden was important “for the victims, and for the church to atone for the sins of its past.”

At the garden's dedication, the bishop of the Oakland diocese made a public apology to clergy abuse survivors, and pointed to the language on the plaque: "We remember and we affirm: Never again."

When I saw this recent news, I couldn’t help but think back to the start of my own journey in dealing with all this. When I reported the minister who molested and raped me as a kid, I asked the church and the Baptist General Convention of Texas for some sort of enduring symbolic gesture to show the denomination’s care for clergy sex abuse victims and as a focal point for awareness of the problem.

I thought my request was so positive in nature.

My first suggestion was for a small basalt millstone sculpture. It would have cost about $5000. But the church immediately rejected this idea as being “too negative.”

So, I next suggested a labyrinth set into a small contemplation garden, and I offered to wield a shovel myself. This was what I really wanted anyway, but I had been trying to give them a more biblical option with the millstone suggestion.

I asked that it have a small plaque, set off to the side, saying:

“Dedicated in prayer for victims of clergy sex abuse
and in honor of their efforts to reclaim life and faith.”

I also asked that it be in a publicly accessible place so that people who might not set foot inside any church would still feel welcome there.

For a while, I actually believed that the Baptist General Convention of Texas was going to do this. They told me face-to-face that they would, and in subsequent correspondence, they even said they were making “headway.”

In hindsight, I think they were probably just stringing me along, hoping I would get tired and go away. Eventually, they cut off all communication with me and told me that, if I had any other requests, I should direct them to their lawyer. It was pretty cold.

But of course, in hindsight, I know a whole heckuva lot more now than I knew then.

Back when I was talking to them about a garden and a labyrinth, I had no idea that my perpetrator, Tommy Gilmore, was still working in children’s ministry. The Southern Baptist Convention had written me, saying that they had no record of him still being in ministry, and I took the letter at face value.

The music minister of First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch had substantiated my report. He knew about Gilmore’s abuse of me even when I was a kid. The Baptist General Convention of Texas had written me that they had put Gilmore’s name in their file of clergy predators. Under their own published policy, they could have put his name in that file only if a church reported Gilmore (not merely me), and only if there was a confession or “substantial evidence” the abuse took place.

Given all of that, I was literally incapable of imagining that Gilmore could still be working in children’s ministry. Incapable.

And I was incapable of imagining that so many religious leaders could know about a minister who had molested a kid, and could nevertheless choose to do nothing. Incapable.

And I was incapable of imagining that they wouldn’t even choose to warn people in the pews. Incapable.

So when I learned that Gilmore was in fact still working in children’s ministry, I realized how naive my request for a symbolic gesture had been. What good was a symbolic gesture of care if no one even cared enough to take the first step of trying to prevent a known clergy-perpetrator from harming others?

You might think that someone who has been molested and raped by a minister would be more cynical. But I wasn’t. Back then, I was still literally incapable of imagining that so many other religious leaders would turn a blind eye. To this day, it’s the part that I can never quite wrap my head around.

Four years ago, for the cost of a $5000 millstone sculpture with a small plaque, I would have gone away and never been the wiser. I would have believed what Baptist officials said; I wouldn’t have bothered to keep looking for Gilmore; and I would have never seen such a cauldron of dissembling and duplicity in this do-nothing denomination.

Now that I’ve seen it, there’s no way to un-see it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

God wants you to...

I get this line all the time from Baptist preachers. They tell me what “God wants” me to do. Or what God has “called” me for.

As if they know.

“God wants you to return to His fold.”

“God wants you to stop attacking the Lord’s churches.”

“God wants you to find healing among other Christians.”

“God wants you to find a new church home and rejoin Southern Baptists.”

“God wants you to stop holding such bitterness.”

“God wants you to find forgiveness in your heart.”

I’ve heard all of these. And they all arrived with a surreal air of authority.

It’s as though these guys simply assume that their own thoughts are the same as what “God wants.”

My personal favorite was the Baptist preacher who told me, “Your calling is to inform -- your calling is to expose.” And he then proceeded to lecture me on how I should stop “bashing others” for not doing “what YOU are called to do.”

Isn’t that a sad hoot? And it’s such a self-serving sort of thought process.

By convincing himself that God called me, Christa Brown, to expose clergy predators, this guy lets himself and other Southern Baptist leaders off the hook. By his reasoning, those guys in Nashville aren’t supposed to concern themselves with protecting kids against clergy predators because God made that MY task.

Where do these guys get such almighty arrogance? Where in the world do they get the notion that they know what God wants from another person? And where do they get the hubris to think they can tell that person what God wants from them?

Of course, the first thing I immediately know when these guys go down that “God wants you to” track is that they haven’t a clue about the dynamics of clergy sex abuse. If they did, they’d realize that their “God wants you to” line mimics the modus operandi of the clergy perpetrator himself.

That’s the weapon of power.

They project their own sick desires onto the face of God, and then instruct the victim as though their own desires were the will of God.

“God wants you to be my helpmate.”

“God wants you to live by faith and lean not unto thine own understanding.”

As a kid, I heard those lines and many more twisted into a weapon for sexual assault. From the mouth of a Baptist preacher, I heard the most perverse “God wants you to” lines that anyone could possibly imagine. And they all arrived with that same air of authority.

So I don’t want to hear anymore of that “God wants you to” line.

The day I ever again listen to a Baptist preacher purport to tell me what “God wants” or what I am “called” to do will be a cold day in hell. Indeed, I consider that to be the very road to hell.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What befell Bob Allen?

Several people have asked me “What happened to Bob Allen?”

I understand their curiosity and concern.

Bob Allen is the fearless journalist who has written more articles on Baptist clergy sex abuse than any other journalist in the country. As the managing editor of EthicsDaily, he put into print more than 75 pieces on Baptist clergy sex abuse. You can see links for a whole lot of them at the bottom of this piece.

Starting two years ago, with SNAP’s first trip to Nashville, Bob Allen worked diligently to cover the news about the Baptist clergy sex abuse problem and the calls for accountability. He was the first to break some of the stories, and he covered some stories that weren’t covered by anyone else.

So I understand how many of you might imagine that Bob’s work didn’t exactly endear him to Baptist leaders. And many of us have already seen the lengths to which some Baptist leaders will go to try to keep ugly news quiet, haven’t we?

Of course, for many of us, it doesn’t take much to imagine bad things happening. After all, we’re people who were terrorized and traumatized by those we trusted most and in places we thought most safe. Then we watched the bizarre surreality of others who covered for the dastardly deeds as though it were no big deal.

For people like us, the world can seem pretty unpredictable and unsafe. We KNOW that the most trusted people can be people who wear masks and who do terrible things that no one would ever believe possible… and that they usually get away with it.

So, it’s not too hard to imagine the dire possibilities of what might have happened to Bob Allen:
  • SBC officials threw Bob in a lion’s den.
  • A certain big-game hunting seminary professor put Bob’s head on a trophy.
  • A prominent Memphis pastor was seen hopping Bob’s fence, and Bob hasn’t been seen since.
  • A Nashville pastor shoved Bob in the dumpster along with the church’s financial records.
  • The FBI put Bob in the witness protection program.

But of course, none of those things actually happened.

Bob Allen left EthicsDaily and went to work for the Associated Baptist Press, which describes itself as “the only independent daily news agency that reports on and for Baptists.” (In other words, it’s not funded by or beholden to the Southern Baptist Convention like the Baptist Press is.)

If you want to continue to follow Bob Allen’s work, you can find his articles at

Hopefully, Bob will continue to chronicle Baptists’ lost-in-the-wilderness journey toward clergy accountability.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What they CAN do

Haven’t we all grown weary of hearing Southern Baptist officials tell us what they CAN’T do?

Haven’t we grown sick of all their tired talk about how they’re powerless and lack authority?

Haven’t we had enough of their mindless mouthing of “autonomy” as though it were a mantra to relieve moral obligation?

All their words of “we can’t” have become an incessant buzzing drone of unaccountability for this denomination’s leaders.

So, it was refreshing the other day when Junkster did a super-succinct job of summarizing what the Southern Baptist Convention CAN do.

In a comment under the prior posting, Junkster pointed out what the SBC is capable of doing if only it would choose to. His words are well-worth a reprint. Thanks for the clarity, Junkster!

“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 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.”

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.

Friday, October 3, 2008

It's not about Baptists vs. Baptists

Baptist minister Timothy Mann was sentenced to 7 years for child sex abuse.

Mann was a popular music minister who worked at prominent churches:
At the time of his arrest, he was at Shades Crest, a flagship church for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Before that, he was at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, which according to its website, is affiliated with both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention. And his prior church, First Baptist of Gaithersburg is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mann was so well-respected that, in 2004, he was the worship leader for the entire general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He also taught at Baptist-affiliated Samson University, and he was active in Youth Choirs, Inc., an interdenominational network promoting youth-choir ministries.

For those of you who don’t follow Baptist arcana (you lucky dogs), what all this means is that Mann worked both sides of the Baptist divide. He worked in both conservative and moderate Baptist churches. And he was a child molester.

The 30-old schism between Baptist conservatives and moderates -- commonly called the “fundamentalist take-over” -- was a civil war that so polarized Baptists that, to this day, they still tend to view almost all issues through that same old cloudy lens.

But when it comes to clergy sex abuse, Baptist conservatives and moderates share a tragic common ground. Both do far too little to protect against clergy abuse or to minister to the wounded. Both do far less than what other major faith groups are doing. Both are big on talk, but small on deeds.

So many people have told me that I should “ease up on the good guys.” Most of the time, it’s people who think “the good guys” are the guys at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Why? Because they’re “moderates” -- or at least they carry that label.

I understand why people often try to peg the “good guys” based on little more than a label. It’s that age-old human desire to believe in the righteousness of the home-team. It’s a sort of tribalism.

But folks, I wasn’t part of the Baptist civil war, and when it comes to clergy sex abuse, I perceive the conservative/moderate labels as being meaningless. Neither side can claim high ground.

Thoughts about Baptists’ conservative/moderate schism came to mind recently when SNAP did a press event at the Baptist General Convention of Texas in Dallas. We were hand-delivering a letter to the BGCT’s new executive director, Dr. Randel Everett, calling on him to protect Baptist kids by releasing the names of ministers who have been reported by churches for sexual abuse.

SNAP’s media advisory went out all over the metroplex, and a reporter emailed his boss to tell him why he wasn’t inclined to cover the event. At least, he thought he was emailing his boss. In reality, he sent the email to a SNAP leader. Here’s what he wrote: “In my view, the Baptist General Convention of Texas has done more than any Baptist group to deal with clergy abuse.”

It’s a revealing message, and based on comments I get, it’s a view that a lot of people share. It’s a view that says, “Why go after the ‘good guys’?” It’s a view that expresses a misperception I continue to battle.

The misperception is that it’s about one Baptist group versus another Baptist group. It’s not.

Think about it this way: If the Catholic Diocese of Dallas kept a confidential file of priests who had been reported for child molestation, but didn’t take action to responsibly assess the reports, didn't remove the priests from ministry, and didn't even bother to warn people in the pews, would we praise the Dallas diocese on the ground that it was doing better than some other diocese, because at least the Dallas officials weren’t calling the victims ugly names?

Surely not. We would expect the Dallas diocese to do a lot better… AND we would expect other dioceses to do better as well.

Similarly with Baptists, the issue isn’t about whether the Baptist General Convention of Texas is doing more than other Baptist groups. The issue is about whether the Baptist General Convention of Texas is doing all that it should to protect kids in Baptist churches.

The answer is obvious: It’s not. The Baptist General Convention of Texas should do a lot better… AND other Baptist groups should do better as well.

The problem of Baptist clergy sex abuse cannot be effectively addressed by looking to the old conservative/moderate labels. This isn’t about Baptists vs. Baptists.

Regardless of what label they wear, the Baptist “good guys” will be the ones who finally step forward with courageous leadership and make kid protection more important than institutional protection.

The Baptist “good guys” will be the ones who finally bring Baptists up to speed with what other faith groups are doing by providing a safe place where victims can report clergy abuse with a reasonable expectation of being objectively heard.

So far, we haven’t seen these basic steps from either the “conservatives” or the “moderates.”

Until we do, I’m not going to pay heed to talk about how one Baptist group is doing more than another. I’m going to keep talking about how much more they ALL need to be doing.
Correction: According to the Birmingham News, Timothy Mann was actually sentenced to 13 years, and will serve 7 years of prison time with the remaining 5 years to be served on probation. Thus, the Gazette headline is incorrect in stating that he was "sentenced to 7 years."