Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Miracle Land

In California, the youth group leader at Miracle Land Korean Baptist Church in Cypress was sentenced to 90 days for having sex with a 15-year-old girl.

Miracle Land is a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to prosecutors, youth group leader Timothy Han smoked marijuana with the girl and had sex with her in the church parking lot. He met the girl at the church.

Nevertheless, his attorney argued that Han did not in any way abuse his position in the church.

So . . . I guess in Baptistland, having sex with an underage church girl in the church parking lot doesn’t constitute “abuse”?

And gee whiz, I guess we’re supposed to just overlook the fact that he also gave her drugs in the church parking lot?

But hey . . . I guess none of that constitutes any sort of "abuse" for a Southern Baptist youth leader.

For his 90-day sentence, Han will do only 45 days in jail and 45 days in a work-release program.

Thirteen Han supporters, including two pastors and a minister, attended the sentencing hearing. No mention is made of any church people who attended to show support for the victim.

Don’t even get me started.
___________________

Update 1/1/2010: See BaptistPlanet's 12/31/09 comparative analysis, “Two churchmen sentenced for sex crimes, one so inadequately.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Magic-word Lullaby

“How do these men sleep at night?”

That’s the question I often ask myself about Baptist officials.

How do they sleep when they leave reported clergy child molesters in their pulpits . . . and do nothing?

How do they sleep when they know their own inaction will carry the consequence of countless more kids being molested and raped by religious leaders whom they trusted completely?

How do they sleep when they know that clergy predators can church-hop with ease through the porous Baptist network and yet, though they hold the power, they do nothing to plug the holes?

I’ve pondered these questions so much that I finally came up with the magic-word lullaby that Baptist officials must surely sing to themselves. How else could they possibly sleep?

It’s to the tune of “Lullaby and Goodnight.” Imagine it in the voice of your favorite do-nothing Baptist official.

Au-to-no-meeee
Keeps us safe
From those evil-doer
Op-por-tu-nists.

They’re just bitter
“Nothing more.”
Au-to-no-meeee
Means not our chore.

All those kids
And clergy rapes.
Not a worry.
Au-to-no-meeee.

Raped by pastors?
Not our problem.
‘Cause we’ve got
Au-to-no-meeee.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

To serve churches with information

Just before Christmas, GuideStone released a press statement about the 2010 church compensation survey of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the SBC’s financial services arm, GuideStone provides retirement and health benefit plans for ministers. The compensation survey is designed to give churches accessible online information so that they can see how much other churches pay their ministers. Presumably, it also provides ministers themselves with the information to know whether they should pressure their churches to pay them more or go in search of greener pastures.

The survey is being conducted “through the joint efforts of Baptist state conventions, LifeWay Christian Resources, and GuideStone Financial Resources.” All of these are Baptist entities under the big-tent umbrella of the tentacular Southern Baptist Convention.

The chief executive officer of GuideStone, O.S. Hawkins, gave the following explanation as the reason for the survey:

“The 2010 SBC Church Compensation Survey is another avenue by which we all can work together to serve our churches with information to help them adequately compensate their ministers and employees.”

Did you get that? They want “to serve our churches with information.”

That’s fine and good. But how about serving the churches with information that’s even more important than how much other ministers make?

How about serving the churches with information about ministers who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse?

For that sort of information, Southern Baptist officials consistently say it would violate local church autonomy. But for information about how much ministers should be paid, they say the information works “to serve” the churches.

I don’t see the difference.

The compensation survey has been conducted every two years for the past 12 years. Baptist officials have explained that the data is made available “with complete respect for the autonomy of each church.”

“How each church uses this information is up to each local church,” they say. “The information can be a useful tool to help a church be more objective in its consideration of staff compensation.”

Wouldn’t it also be “a useful tool” for Baptist officials to provide local churches with information by which they might be more objective in their consideration of clergy sex abuse reports?

Why do Baptist officials view it as “a useful tool” when they provide information to help churches adequately compensate ministers, but as violating church autonomy to provide information that might help churches know whether ministers have been credibly accused of child molestation?

In response to church questions about “what should we do” with the compensation information, Baptist officials said this: “Many churches have viewed the information and intentionally made sure their minister’s compensation is higher than average because they recognize they have an above-average minister serving their church.”

What about ministers who are below-average? What about ministers who are so far below the boundaries of acceptability that they have been repeatedly accused of sexual abuse? What about ministers who hide evil deeds behind a mask of respectability?

Wouldn’t it be helpful if churches could also view information by which they might make sure their minister was not someone who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse?

If Baptist officials can provide information so people in the pews can make sure to pay their ministers enough, why can’t Baptist officials provide information so people in the pews can make sure their ministers haven’t been credibly accused of child molestation? Both are a matter of providing information. Neither violates church autonomy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Southern Babtoys Corporation

Imagine a company called Southern Babtoys Corporation. They market a game-toy that has a pervasive problem. At least 3 out of every 100 -- and probably more -- will blow up in a kid’s hands, hurling tiny fragments far and wide.

Typically, the exploding babtoy injures the kid quite seriously, though the pieces are so tiny that the kid often doesn’t realize his injury at the time. He may see only a scratch on his forehead and doesn’t know that some of the tiny pieces have actually penetrated his skull.

To make matters worse, the tiny pieces contain a radioactive compound that releases slowly and ripples destruction outward. So, over time, the damage in the kid’s brain grows worse. But though the damage is very real, it manifests slowly. So people don’t usually trace it back to the toy.

It’s the sort of toy that kids play with in groups. So a single toy will often hurt dozens of kids.

Southern Babtoys knows this is happening. But they don’t do anything about it.

They don’t institute any sort of quality control measures to prevent it.

When reports about the problem crop up, they issue public statements that minimize it. And they never, ever acknowledge the seriousness of their quality control problem or how widespread it really is.

Instead, they talk about a few “isolated cases” and chalk them up to all sorts of other things. The kid didn’t follow instructions. The parents didn’t supervise. The toy had been altered. The kid is a whiner. They’re just “opportunists” who are trying to get money.

Southern Babtoys has a whole list of these kinds of statements, and their public-relations people rotate through them when they talk with the press.

The flawed toys are actually made by a whole slew of small companies spread all over the country. But to better market them, the companies stick a Southern Babtoys label on the toys. Then Southern Babtoys takes a percentage of the revenue from the sale of the toys.

It’s a sweet deal. The local company sells more toys because people trust the Southern Babtoys name. And Southern Babtoys takes in multi-millions with its percentage. Its executives get super-high salaries, and the company gets the prestige of promoting itself as the largest toy-maker in the country.

But what about the kids who get hurt? It’s not such a sweet deal for them. Or for their families. Or even for their future families. They wind up dealing with the brain damage for a very long time.

The few who try to call the monolithic Southern Babtoys Corporation to account get met with a stone wall. If they persist, they get run into the ground by the mega-monied media arm of the SBC. Because its resources are so enormous, Southern Babtoys can spin things however it wants, and to a large degree, the public sees only what the SBC wants it to see.

If push comes to shove, Southern Babtoys pulls forth its most golden “not our problem” excuse of all.

“The toys aren’t even made by us,” it says. “It’s all those small local companies who make the toys, not us. And the fact that the Southern Babtoys brand is on them is irrelevant. Those local companies are all autonomous, and we don’t have any control over them.”

Most people in America wouldn’t accept such a ridiculous line from a secular corporation. So why do they accept it from a religious organization?

Most people in America would expect the brand-holder, Southern Babtoys Corporation, to bear some accountability for those who make use of the brand.

Why do people let religious organizations off the hook at a LESSER standard of accountability than secular organizations?

_____________________

This is a revised version of my December 22, 2008 posting.

Merry Christmas to all!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Local church autonomy: Theory or Reality?

“All Baptist churches are autonomous.”

That’s the line that Baptist officials hide behind to avoid taking action against clergy predators in their denomination.

It’s a good-sounding line, but is it a true line? Or is it just talk?

It’s a line that has allowed state and national Baptist entities to avoid legal responsibility for a whole lot of years. But is it true?

Let’s take a look at what Dr. Nancy Ammerman says about Baptists’ claim of local church autonomy. Ammerman is a professor in the School of Theology and Department of Sociology at Boston University. (That’s her in the photo.) Ammerman’s book, Baptist Battles, was named the 1992 distinguished book of the year by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. In it, Ammerman points out that Southern Baptists have been “among the most tightly-knit, hierarchically functioning denominations in America.” (Baptist Battles at 270)

So . . . according to Ammerman, while Southern Baptists claim to be non-hierarchical, they are in reality “hierarchically functioning.”

What does that mean? It means that, in reality, Southern Baptists are “45,000 autonomous churches choosing autonomously to do exactly what Nashville tells them to do.” (Thanks to a reader for bringing us this quote from Ammerman’s public speeches.)

In Baptist Battles, Ammerman explains the “how” of this “hierarchical functioning.” The Cooperative Program, she says, means that all funds go through one channel, and that almost all churches shape their identities and activities in a denominationally-prescribed manner.

Ammerman discusses a scale that three sociologists developed for quantifying denominational differences in local church autonomy. The results were reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 1983. Here’s how Ammerman summarizes what that study said about Southern Baptists:

“Sociologists…have developed a scale with which to measure the degree of parish autonomy that exists in a denomination. But even their questions illustrate the difficulty in making clear distinctions between local and nonlocal control. Of the fourteen questions on their scale, Southern Baptists clearly submit to nonlocal control on only one, the requirement of yearly demographic reports. On five items, power is in local hands (ordination, accounting procedures, the legal officers of the corporation, and the like). But on eight items decisions sometimes (or always) are made in consultation with nonlocal entities. Even the disposal of property, for instance may not be a purely local matter if the church has a loan underwritten by the Home Mission Board. If the church receives Church Pastoral Assistance, it is not in full control of its pastor’s salary (or even choice of pastor). And churches always depend on local and state denominational officials for pastor search help. Beyond the everyday ways in which the denomination shapes local church life, even in these legal and personnel decisions, Southern Baptist congregations are not always autonomous entities.” (Baptist Battles at 260)

Okay . . . so Baptist churches aren’t really so autonomous after all. But what difference does it make? Why is this polity-stuff important?

Is that what you’re wondering?

Here’s the answer.

By now, Baptist officials have demonstrated that, until they are forced into it, they will not implement the sorts of institutional safeguards that other faith groups have for the protection of kids against clergy-predators. Until the law forces them to accept legal responsibility, Baptist officials will not recognize their moral responsibility.

But their steady drone of a mantra -- “all Baptist churches are autonomous” -- is what has allowed denominational entities to avoid legal responsibility. That’s the wall they hide behind, and until the law sees how thin that wall actually is, kids in Baptist churches will not be made safer.

Judges and lawyers must begin to understand that this wall functions as little more than a stage-set. It lets Baptist officials put on their play of “all Baptist churches are autonomous,” but at the end of the show, the set comes down and the churches “do exactly what Nashville tells them to do.”

In reality, the denomination is “hierarchically functioning.” If Baptist leaders wanted to, they could easily use Cooperative Program dollars to establish review boards for the responsible assessment of clergy abuse reports. The fact that they don’t is not because “all Baptist churches are autonomous.” It’s because Baptist leaders are blind to the reality of moral responsibility.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Get him off the radio!

In Lansford, Pennsylvania, people have put together a petition to get a Baptist pastor off the radio.

It’s pastor Jeremy Benack of the First Baptist Church of Lansford, and he’s on the local WLSH-1410 radio station. According to the online petition, pastor Jeremy Benack is also known locally as “The Bad Shepherd,” apparently based on the title of the article that was previously published in the Nashville Scene.

A lawsuit contends that, for several years, pastor Jeremy Benack groomed the young Shayna Werley for sexual abuse, and then, when she turned 18, put a ring on her finger and gave her that line about being married “in the eyes of the church.”

Reportedly, it was not long after that when Shayna’s parents found explicit photos of the pastor on Shayna’s cell phone.

They turned to the Southern Baptist Convention for help, but as the Nashville Scene explained, they found themselves facing “Goliath.”

According to the Werleys, officials at the Southern Baptist Convention created a treatment plan for . . . guess who?

Shayna.

That’s right. Rather than doing something about the pastor, they created a “treatment plan” that was designed “to shame and punish” Shayna.

Meanwhile, pastor Jeremy Benack still stands in the pulpit, and he even gets radio time on the local station.

Nothing unusual about that -- a whole lot of Baptist pastors are still standing in their pulpits despite reports of sexual abuse.

What makes this story unusual is that, when Shayna finally came to her senses and filed a lawsuit, she sued, not only the church, but also the Southern Baptist Convention itself. The suit is pending. There’s a hearing later this month. Focus your thoughts and prayers on that Pennsylvania judge, in the earnest hope that he may find wisdom and see the truth.

It’s not easy for a trial lawyer to decide to invest time and money in going after the Southern Baptist Convention. After all, in the nearly 50 years that attorney Jim Guenther has represented the denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention “has never lost a lawsuit of any kind.” That’s not just sexual abuse lawsuits. That’s “any kind” of lawsuit.

Attorney Guenther offered this prediction on the Werley case: “It is most likely that the plaintiff will voluntarily dismiss her law suit as to the SBC.... That is what routinely occurs when the SBC is sued in these kinds of cases. If she does not dismiss her suit, I expect the judge will dismiss the SBC on its motion for summary judgment….”

Guenther is right. This is what routinely occurs. Clergy abuse survivors don’t even get to go before a jury to let them consider the evidence. A judge simply dismisses the case.

Of course, most Baptist clergy abuse cases arise in the South. And in the South, a whole lot of judges are Baptist men. So, it’s understandable that they routinely buy the argument of Baptist officials. This does NOT mean that the judges deliberately favor Baptist officials. It simply means that the judges are human.

When a man who was raised in the South, who grew up in a Baptist church, and who likely played basketball with Royal Ambassadors, hears an attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention making an argument about how “all Baptist churches are autonomous,” the argument carries a ring of truth that resonates with the profound familiarity of a well-worn song.

That “ring of truth” may be false, but it is what “sounds right” because it sounds so familiar.

And that “sounds right” hurdle is a hard one to leap.

Augie Boto, the attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, spelled out the odds even more clearly. Here is what he said:

“Though the SBC is named as a party in legal proceedings about twice per year on average...it has not ever had a judgment rendered against it throughout its entire existence (i.e. since 1845). SBC polity is the major reason for its frequent dismissal out of lawsuits on motions for summary judgment.”

Make sure you pay attention to precisely what Boto said there. The dismissal of Baptist clergy abuse lawsuits has nothing to do with the truth of whether Baptist ministers sexually abuse kids, and it has nothing to do with the truth of whether others in Baptist life cover up for clergy abuse. It has to do with “SBC polity.”

It’s that same-old song of “all Baptist churches are autonomous,” and judges just keep buying it.

They have been ever since 1845. No matter the case. . . no matter the facts . . . no matter the egregiousness of it . . . “SBC polity” always wins the day.

But some day, that will change.

In this case, there is not only evidence that Southern Baptist officials could have intervened, there is evidence that Southern Baptist officials actually did undertake to intervene. Indeed, on this very blog, a person who identified herself as “Victoria, the wife in this matter” launched into a little rant about my “Bad Shepherd” posting and then proceeded to confirm exactly what the Werleys have said -- i.e., that a Southern Baptist Convention “representative” had been informed of the situation at First Baptist of Lansford. Victoria also asserted that “the care plan the SBC created” was never voted upon by the church itself.

Now admittedly, “the wife” called it a “care plan” and the Werleys called it a “treatment plan.” But the significance lies in the fact that both parties confirm that Southern Baptist officials created a “plan” to deal with the matter.

They had the power. They used the power. They created a “plan.”

Let’s hope that a judge in Pennsylvania will have the courage to see this sort of evidence for the reality of what it shows about the actual power of Southern Baptist officials.

Let’s hope that a judge in Pennsylvania will have the courage to listen for the truth that lies beyond the familiar refrain of “all Baptist churches are autonomous.”

Let’s hope that a judge in Pennsylvania will have the courage to let all the evidence go before a jury rather than continuing the pattern of routine judicial dismissals.

And meanwhile, as our hearts fill with hope, let’s do what we can to get Baptist pastor Jeremy Benack off the airwaves. Here’s the petition. It requires only your name and email address. And for those of you who prefer a measure of anonymity, you can uncheck a box at the bottom so that your name will NOT appear in the online signature list.

Please add your name to the petition.
___________________________

You can see a picture of pastor Jeremy Benack and wife Victoria here. And if you scan down the page, you’ll see Jeremy’s father, Dr. Wayne Benack, who went to Southern Baptist seminaries and who is also a pastor at the church. On the church's home page, there is a statement saying they are now a “non-denominational independent church.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Menorahs light the night

Elana's father was smuggled out of Germany as an 8-year-old boy. Her grandparents and other paternal ancestors were all annihilated in the Holocaust. Many on her mother's side were slaughtered as well.

Once a week, we walk a loop together around Town Lake. Though Elana is a decade younger, she often seems centuries wiser than me. Maybe it's because she has long pondered the dark side of humanity. Or maybe it's because she carries an ever-present awareness of mortality -- the result of facing down cancer in her 20's. Or maybe it's just in her genes. Whatever the reason, I feel graced by Elana's pragmatic, eyes-wide-open sort of wisdom.

Amidst talk of kids' colds and Texas politics, we also weigh in on weightier matters. Elana was one of the first people to whom I dared mention that I was sexually abused by a Baptist minister as an adolescent girl.

Elana came to a stand-still on the trail. She immediately saw the significance of my small statement and of the fact that I had never previously spoken of it.

Through the pink crepe myrtles of summer and the red sumacs of fall, Elana continued to listen as my story unfolded. While we fended off angry geese, she watched me work at coming to terms with the blasphemous brutality of what a Baptist minister did to me as a kid.

Elana kept on listening. She heard about my efforts at reporting the perpetrator to church and denominational leaders, and about my frustration at their grotesque oblivion.

Finally, she saw me unravel when I learned that, despite all my efforts, the man was still working in children's ministry. That's when Elana started tossing books my way.

She knows my weakness. I'm a bookaholic.

But the kinds of books Elana was tossing made no sense to me. It was all Holocaust literature--essays, poems, and memoirs. I couldn't imagine how any of it could possibly have any bearing on the problem I was encountering.

"Denial," she said. "You need to understand a whole lot more about the dynamics of mass-scale denial."

I kept reading, but I resisted the analogy. I was uncomfortable with any comparison to the Holocaust because it seemed to trivialize the incomprehensible horror of it.

But Elana insisted. "The most important lesson of the Holocaust is about denial in the face of evil," she said. "If people think they're going to wait to see a genocide before they apply the lessons of the Holocaust, then the lessons of the Holocaust are lost."

Evil is a shape-shifter. Recognizing it with the benefit of hindsight is not so hard. The trick is seeing it when it's there in front of you, and finding a way to confront it at the time.

Why do good people do nothing in the face of evil?

That's the question posed by the Holocaust. It is an ancient question that has arisen in countless other contexts.

Incomprehensible evil is done by trusted ministers who use spiritual authority to violate kids' bodies for their own depraved ends.

Baptist leaders clearly have the power and the resources to cooperatively confront this pervasive evil. Yet they collude through silence and denial.

They blind themselves behind a self-made wall built with a perversion of autonomous polity and a faulty forgiveness theology. It is a wall that shields clergy predators and leaves kids in harm's way. No amount of labeling it "religion" will change what that wall really is.

It is moral and spiritual cowardice. It is denial in the face of evil.

As menorahs begin to light the night, I thank God for the goodness of Elana's life and for the courage of a few individuals who saw evil and took action to smuggle a small boy to safety.

And I wonder how many more seasons will pass before Baptist leaders open their eyes to the evil of clergy sex abuse and take action to keep kids safe from horrible harm.
________________________________

Reprint of my guest column published in EthicsDaily on December 14, 2006.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Clergy slide in ethics ratings

According to Gallup’s annual Honesty and Ethics of professions poll, “the percentage of Americans rating the honesty and ethics of clergy as ‘very high’ or ‘high’ is down to 50% in 2009.” This is the lowest percentage it has been in the 32 years that Gallup has measured it.

“Ratings of the clergy dropped from their 2008 levels among both Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and non-regular churchgoers.”

Personally, I think it is good that people are beginning to view clergy with a greater measure of skepticism. That sort of skepticism may serve to make kids safer.

And note that the skepticism is rising among both Protestants and Catholics. That too is good. Maybe it is, in part, a sign that people are beginning to understand that clergy sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem. After all, the honesty and ethics rating for clergy has now dropped even lower than it was in 2002, the year that most consider to have been the peak of the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis. Yet, the public’s perception of clergy has continued to slide even further downward . . . perhaps because the slide now affects all clergy.

Historically, the problem with clergy has been that people trust them too much. Most ordinary people have a natural tendency to give others the benefit of the doubt -- but only up to a point. With clergy, people often extend that point too far and give them too much the benefit of the doubt. Clergy have been so highly respected that ordinary people give them the benefit of the doubt even past the point of rationality . . . and even when the trust isn't deserved.

Other sorts of professionals recognize the trust and power their status confers, and so they try to protect the public by monitoring members of the profession. For example, a lawyer need not be convicted of a crime in order to have his professional status removed. The profession itself, through review board processes, can consider a lawyer’s conduct and can choose to discipline, suspend, reprimand or even disbar him.

Such a professional review process is what’s needed for Baptist clergy. As things now stand, a Baptist minister can remain in the pulpit unless and until he’s thrown in prison. That’s a remarkably low standard, and it leaves far too many hazardous people in positions of high trust.

Heck … Baptist clergy don’t even have any sort of entry hurdle for the profession. No special training or degree is required, nor any sort of certification. Baptist clergy aren’t even required to go to seminary, like clergy in many other faith groups.

The only thing needed for a Baptist pastor to gain entry to the profession is to convince a group of people that he was “called by God.” Because most of them are, by nature, pretty good talkers -- they are, after all, preachers -- it’s the perfect set-up for con-men.

Of course, most preachers are not con-men. And many may indeed be “called by God.” But surely all of them are not, and it’s unsafe to simply take their word on it, without any system for professional oversight.

After all, the very thing that makes clergy predators so awful is the fact that what they prey on is people’s goodness. Most other sorts of con-men prey on people’s weakness. For example, they might prey on a person’s desire for an easy buck. But clergy-con-men are just the opposite. They exploit the good in people. They prey on people’s faith and trust. They prey on the faith of their young victims in order to abuse and violate them. And they prey on the trust of the congregation to get away with it.

And unlike virtually every other sort of professional, Baptist clergy have no system of oversight. There is no place to turn when things go terribly wrong.

Thank God people are waking up to the need for greater skepticism of clergy! Maybe when the largest Protestant denomination institutes clergy oversight systems, then clergy may be a bit more deserving of trust.

Until then . . . beware!
________________

Update 12/11/09:
See also “Clergy drop in poll rating honesty and ethics of professions,” and in the Sacramento Bee, a timely article on the "increased awareness" of "pastors' spiritual abuse."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Are Baptists hopeless?

Some have criticized me for giving hope where, realistically, there is none.

Some have told me that I should content myself with ministering to the wounded, but that it’s hopeless to try to get anyone in Baptist leadership to actually do anything.

“Hopeless.”

To me, that’s like saying you have a cholera epidemic in Baptistland, and all you can do is put washcloths on foreheads.

I just can’t accept that.

For me, it only makes sense that people should at least try to find the contaminated wells.

How can we not at least try to spare others?

It’s like a preventable disease. Maybe you can’t eradicate it, but you can greatly reduce its incidence.

Because most child molesters have more than one victim, the best way for Baptists to prevent clergy sex abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past.

But that doesn’t happen in Baptistland.

And more and more, I find myself wondering if those who say Baptists are “hopeless” are right.

Maybe they are.

Maybe the Southern Baptist Convention is simply too protected by its self-designed radicalized autonomous polity. And as long as state and national organizations think they can hide behind their radicalized autonomy to avoid legal responsibility, they see no reason to concern themselves with moral responsibility. Nor do they see any reason to concern themselves with the safety of kids.

Maybe Baptists will never institute any clergy accountability mechanisms like other major faith groups, and maybe clergy-predators will continue to roam among them with no one in leadership doing diddly-squat.

Maybe clergy accountability won’t come to this faith group for another 20 years . . . or maybe it will take 200.

Or maybe this denomination will simply die.

Maybe that’s reality. And maybe I just can’t accept it.

Some Baptist abuse survivors have told me they feel just as powerless now as when they were kids. They muster all their courage and they try to tell about their perpetrators . . . and nothing happens.

It’s too late for criminal prosecution; denominational leaders ignore them; lawyers won’t take their cases (because Baptist cases usually have more hurdles than Catholic cases); reporters won’t write about their perpetrators (because there’s no lawsuit or denominational review to report); and without media exposure, the perpetrators simply stay in their pulpits.

I’m sorry.

I can’t make Baptist leaders remove perpetrators from pulpits. I can’t make them listen compassionately to those who try to report abuse. I can’t make them responsibly assess abuse reports. I can’t make them keep records on credibly accused clergy. I can’t make them warn people in the pews.

In fact, I can’t do much at all.

But here’s what I know for sure. Whatever else may or may not happen, I cannot and will not join in the nothing-but-platitudes pretend game that this denomination plays.

I will not pretend that clergy sex abuse is no big deal. I will not minimize it. I will not put a pretty gloss on it.

Clergy sex abuse is ugly and awful. And I will tell the truth about it.

Perhaps I cannot do much. But if nothing else, I will bear witness.

I will bear witness to the horror of what this denomination is allowing to happen to kids.

I will bear witness to the horror in how its leaders treat survivors who speak of it.

I will bear witness to the horror in the do-nothing response of this denomination’s leaders.

I will bear witness.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Defiance

A Southern Baptist minister at a prominent Florida mega-church is charged with sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl.

The first line of the first comment under the December 1st Associated Baptist Press article says this: “It’s unfortunate that the person charged and his love interest couldn’t wait a couple of years.”

“Love interest.”

Such extraordinary ignorance . . . or as another commenter described it, “fundamental cluelessness.”

How do you even begin to address people who think like that?

What was done to the 14-year-old in that Florida mega-church -- and what was also done to me in a Baptist church -- is something that doesn’t deserve the respect of even being considered “sexual,” much less “love.”

It’s not love. It’s hate.

And it doesn’t deserve to be called anything other than what it actually was.

I am not ashamed. I refuse.

If my arm were blown off by a terrorist bomb, the shame would not be mine. Likewise, having my brain blenderized by a clergy terrorist is no shame of mine.

And why do they call it “brainwashing” anyway?

It ought to be called “brain-dirtying.” Or “brain-defiling.” Or “brain-desecrating.”

Then, as if it weren’t enough to be molested and raped in the name of God and with words of God . . . to top it all off, the clergy terrorist’s own filth renders the victim untouchable by others in the faith group.

But I am not ashamed. I refuse.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Jezebel rant

Someone sent me this video excerpt of Southern Baptist uber-pastor Steve Gaines preaching about Jezebel just a couple weeks ago.

“Jezebel.” It’s a name some Baptist pastors like to fling at women who don’t keep quiet when they’re told. It's been flung at me a few times.

“Jezebel.” She was thrown out a window, trampled by horses, left for dead, and devoured by dogs.

So you know they don’t mean you well when they call you a “Jezebel.”

But even though I knew that being called a “Jezebel” wasn’t a compliment, this video sheds a whole new light. Gee whiz, according to pastor Gaines, you’d think “Jezebel” women are responsible for every bit of e-e-e-e-e-e-e-vil in the world.

It’s no wonder so many Baptist men can get away with so much and are held so unaccountable. They blame everything bad on “Jezebel” women and so they never bother to take a good look at themselves.

In fact, what makes this version of the “Jezebel rant” so ludicrous is that it’s being delivered by a man who knowingly kept quiet about an admitted child molester on his ministerial staff. Furthermore, he even allowed the child-molesting-minister to serve as a counselor for congregants who said they had been molested in childhood. So, a known child-molesting-minister was able to sit in a church office and feed off asking molested individuals for details about exactly what happened.

Sick, huh?

Yet, here’s this man, Steve Gaines, masquerading as a voice of moral authority and ranting about “Jezebel,” when he himself didn’t even have enough moral sense to remove a known child molester from ministry.

To quote the former Southern Baptist pastor Robert G. Lee, who first delivered the “Jezebel rant” years ago . . . “What a ridiculous picture.”

Be sure you don’t miss the part toward the end where pastor Gaines manages to impugn all of Southern California, despite the countless good, decent, hard-working people who live there. Rather than ranting about the “moral quagmire of Southern California,” Gaines would do better to take a good look at the moral quagmire of his own mega-church, Bellevue Baptist in Memphis. It’s a church in which at least 10 other church leaders and staff also knew about the child molesting minister, but they followed the example of their morally-blind pastor and kept quiet.

The creepiest part of Gaines’ “Jezebel rant” is the part at the very end when you hear the sound of people applauding. Why are those people of Bellevue still placing themselves under the claimed pastoral authority of a man so obviously lacking in moral authority?

And why are those people of Bellevue so utterly oblivious to the message their church sends by continuing to retain Steve Gaines as senior pastor?

It’s a message that shouts loud and clear: “Clergy sex abuse cover-up? No big deal.”

Without further ado . . . here is Southern Baptist pastor Steve Gaines performing the “Jezebel rant.” Have a laugh, if you can.

video

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's a Baptist issue

I’ll just call her Linda. She goes to First Baptist Church of Terrell, Texas.

Last week, Linda wrote to tell me that my work to educate people about sexual abuse was “at the expense of integrity.”

Ouch.

She said: “I was deeply disappointed to see your notice about Salvador Mata and linking him as a Baptist when his abuse occurred in a public school and not a church.”

Huh? Salavador Mata? It was a name that triggered not even the tiniest glint of a memory.

Of course, by now, I’ve posted on the StopBaptistPredators website literally hundreds of Baptist-related abuse articles, and I guess I’m past the point of remembering all the names. It’s sad because, for each of those articles, there are kids and congregants who were deeply wounded. Their stories bear witness to the extent of this problem, and their stories should be remembered.

But I couldn’t remember.

Then Linda bragged about how the reason the abuse occurred in a public school and not at the church was because the church has “strong policies.”

“I didn't see any of that posted on your site,” she ranted. “It's like a half-truth to feed a cause, losing sight of honesty in the process.”

By now, I’m wondering exactly what was on the website that so offended this woman. So I searched the site.

The only thing I found was this reference on the News 2008 page:

Terrell teacher accused of abusing additional students, Dallas Morning News, 6/19/08 (Salvador Mata, a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church of Terrell, Texas)”

That was all there was -- a link to a 2008 Dallas Morning News article with a short parenthetical. Yet this woman was off and running with her rant because she was offended by the mere sight of her church’s name on the site and because she wants me to also post information about how good her church is for having “policies.”

But of course, a whole lot of churches with “policies” have also been churches with predators. Heck, I’m told that my own perpetrator sat on the policy-making committee at the prominent First Baptist of Oviedo. He helped write the policies. But of course, that was just part of his mask.

I worry that policies like the ones Linda is bragging about -- policies like always having 2 adults in the room -- sometimes do little more than give church people a feel-good sense of complacency.

Predatory people think in predatory ways. To imagine that they will be stopped by “policies” is dangerously na├»ve. That doesn’t mean policies are pointless, but it means they aren’t nearly enough. Without any denominational system for actually listening to people who try to tell about abuse, these sorts of “policies” amount to little more than window-dressing . . . and the windows are still wide-open.

Besides, just because Linda is so all-fired confident that nothing happened at her church doesn’t mean nothing happened at her church. We don’t really know. Maybe some kid who was molested in the church happened to overhear or intuitively absorb the “not in our church – no way” attitude of people like Linda, and so the kid kept her mouth shut.

Maybe it will be 20 years later when that kid will try to tell about what happened. That’s the more typical scenario -- abused kids talk about it years later in adulthood. But who in the church or denomination will listen to her then?

The investigation of Salvador Mata began with a single complaint when the relatives of a 9-year-old school girl called the police. According to the last account I saw, Mata ultimately stood accused of sexually assaulting 4 kids. But police were very clear in stating that they had “information that leads us to believe there are additional victims.” Mata was not only a school teacher but also a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist of Terrell.

But Linda still insists: “Salvador Mata was not a Baptist issue.”

Her “not a Baptist issue” insistence reminds me of how some religious leaders minimize the reports of ministers who abuse their own kids. When the kids grow up and try to report it, they get told it’s “a family matter” -- not a church issue.

But of course, the kids are still just as abused.

First Baptist Church of Terrell, Texas, had a Sunday School teacher who became an accused serial child molester. The fact that he was a Sunday School teacher was newsworthy, and that’s why it was reported in the newspaper, and that’s why I included a link to it on the website. It's that simple.

In the process of considering Linda's email, I found still another article on the Salvador Mata case, and this one contained a statement by the pastor of First Baptist of Terrell.

“It knocks you back,” said pastor John Lowrie. “But what an incredible opportunity for God to prove himself.”

Huh?

Sunday School teacher Salvador Mata stood accused of sexually assaulting four young girls. They were third-graders. With medical exams that were publicly reported, two of the kids showed signs of sexual penetration, and a third showed signs that penetration had been attempted. Police were talking about “additional victims.”

Personally, I don’t think God needs facts like these in order to “prove himself.” And God doesn’t need Baptist pastors like John Lowrie to proclaim that facts like these provide Him “an incredible opportunity.”

God grieves. Jesus weeps. That’s what I believe.

And yes . . . I also believe that, when a Baptist Sunday School teacher sexually abuses kids, it’s “a Baptist issue.”
__________________

First Baptist Church of Terrell, Texas, is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention.

(Photo of First Baptist of Terrell by Jim Klenke, Terrell daily photo)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Worse to have a woman

The Georgia Baptist Convention has disfellowshipped the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia.

Why?

Because the church has a woman serving as pastor. Her name is Julie Pennington-Russell. (That's her in the photo.)

Apparently the Southern Baptist principle of local church autonomy just goes out the window when a church indulges the “sin” of having a woman in the pulpit.

It’s only for “lesser sins” . . . like indulging clergy child molesters and cover-uppers . . . that local church autonomy really matters. Then it’s all up to the local church and whatever they do or don’t do is just fine.

Who they “call” as a pastor and who they keep as a pastor is up to the church . . . so long as it’s not a woman.

Heck . . . they can even keep a reported clergy child molester. At least he’s not a woman.

With reported clergy child molesters, the Baptistland view is like the Billie Holliday song: “Ain’t nobody’s business.” It’s solely a matter for the local church, and the denomination simply turns its back.

So here’s the reality of how it works in Baptistland. It’s worse to have a woman than . . .

  • A pastor who kept quiet about a minister’s admission to sexually abusing his young son, and with that sort of pastoral example, at least 10 more church staff people also knew and kept quiet.
  • A former California Southern Baptist Convention president and still-prominent pastor who said he “erred on the side of grace” when he kept quiet about a deacon’s molestation of children in his church.
  • An Illinois Baptist children’s home director who urged no prison time for a Southern Baptist pastor convicted of sexually abusing a teen in the church.
  • A former Arkansas Baptist State Convention president and still-prominent pastor who urged leniency and no prison time for a Southern Baptist minister who sexually abused dozens of adolescent church boys.
  • An Oklahoma Baptist director who did nothing when a former Southern Baptist pastor got a job at an independent Baptist church, despite holding a letter in which the man admitted to sexually abusing a kid.
  • A Texas minister who kept quiet about another minister’s sexual abuse of a kid, while allowing the minister to move on to work in children’s ministry at other churches . . . and he said the minister’s abuse of the kid was “consensual.”

  • A still-in-the-pulpit Texas pastor whose best defense to an accusation of having sexually abused a church girl was to say “I did not have sex with her when she was 16 or under.”

  • Texas church leaders who gathered a $50,000 “love offering” to send their pastor on his way after he admitted that “proper boundaries were not kept” and paid “hush money” to try to silence the report that he had abused a 14-year-old church girl.

  • An Arkansas pastor who, when confronted with accusations about a staff minister’s abuse of a boy, quietly accepted the accused minister’s explanation that “it was a one-time run of bad decision-making.”

  • A former Florida Baptist convention president and still-prominent pastor who harbored a clergy child molester on his staff, apparently without checking with his prior church employer who knew (or else the prior church didn’t tell), and who later “put on trial” a church secretary who reported sexual harassment by church staff.

  • A Texas denominational director who acknowledged keeping a confidential file of ministers reported by churches for sexual abuse, specifically “including child molestation,” but who failed to warn people in the pews.

  • A Florida pastor who, according to news reports and a “smoking-gun” tape-recording, “knew for years” that the church’s founding pastor was a pedophile and participated in covering it up.

  • A Texas Southern Baptist church whose officials “said nothing” when other churches called for references even though their former staff minister had been twice-reported for sexual abuse.

  • A former Southern Baptist president and still-prominent seminary president who, while head of a Baptist college, turned his back on numerous college girls and young women who tried to report the sexual abuse and assaults of a pastor whom the president was mentoring.

In none of these instances was there any sort of denominational rebuke, much less any denominational action.

The reason for denominational do-nothingness? “Local church autonomy.”

But oh gee whiz . . . let a congregation hire a woman pastor, and a shout goes up from the Baptist hordes: “Oust them!”
___________________

For those of you who might be interested, Miguel De La Torre, professor at Iliff Theological Seminary, provided an enlightening history in quotes of the church’s “anti-woman legacy.”

Update 11/20/09: “Does the SBC respect local church autonomy or not?” by Wade Burleson, Associated Baptist Press, 11/20/09.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

No hand of hope from Texas Baptists

The Baptist General Convention of Texas is convening its annual hoopla November 16-17 in Houston. The theme is “Texas Hope 2010” as they focus on how “to bring hope to the people of Texas” next year.

For the sake of truth-in-advertising, I feel as though they really ought to add some fine print: “Texas Hope 2010 (but not applicable for Baptist clergy abuse survivors).”

Dee Miller saw the hopelessness of the Baptist General Convention of Texas a long time ago.

They may talk the talk of caring, but they won’t walk the walk.

That’s why Dee Miller said the BGCT dishes out “false hope.” And that’s why Dee said she couldn’t recommend that survivors report clergy abuse to the BGCT -- or to any other Baptist agency -- because what they actually do is to re-victimize the wounded.

I agree with Dee that what the Baptist General Convention of Texas does is to re-victimize the wounded. Clergy abuse survivors should be warned: the leaders of this organization will not help you, and they will more-than-likely hurt you.

But Baptist clergy abuse survivors are given few options in their struggle to protect others. Of course they should report the abuse to police, but the vast majority of cases cannot be criminally prosecuted, and all experts know that. (Baptist leaders also know that.)

So, for abuse survivors who are able to get supportive counseling and who are feeling strong, I still believe there may be value in reporting Baptist clergy perpetrators to denominational leaders, including leaders at the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Put that mantle of knowledge onto their shoulders.

Oh sure … they’ll likely shrug off the knowledge of a reported clergy child molester as if it were nothing more than a raindrop on vinyl. But their shrug is their own failure . . . not yours.

Over the course of a dozen years, Dee has heard the stories of hundreds of clergy abuse survivors and she knows of what she speaks in talking about the “false hope” of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and its re-victimization of the wounded. Dee was one of the first to write about my own story and to use it as an illustration of that “false hope.” Here’s an excerpt from what Dee wrote:

“When C. Brown submitted a written report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) and First Baptist of Farmers Branch in July of 2004, she wasn't totally broken. Victims who bring forward allegations of sexual abuse never are! That's because a totally broken person can't find the strength to make a report. Her requests were for counseling costs, a written apology, and some symbolic gesture of support--something that would show that the church stood in solidarity with victims of clergy sexual abuse.”

“She believed, like all of us who have ever made reports to any denomination, that people recognized by the denomination as authorities, would understand her requests. She believed they could and would immediately take action to protect others who could be harmed. . . . . Taking action looked to Brown like a logical and relatively simple task for people in authority, people who were far more powerful than a local church . . . . She wanted the BGCT to provide guidance to Farmers Branch, guidance that she expected would be designed to benefit survivors and protect others. . . . . “

“When Brown met with leaders of the BGCT four months later... she was not nearly as hopeful because of a threatening letter sent to her in August from … the attorney for both the First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch, Texas AND the BGCT. [He] suggested that the church might seek “recourse” against Brown if she pursued in trying to expose the abuse and shocking collusion. . . .”

“The inaction of the BGCT, as in every case I've known, is ‘justified’ because . . . the very structure protects ministers from accountability, both the abusers and colluders, and nobody seems to be interested in changing that!! Yet using attorneys who protect the church from taking actions to promote accountability, while re-victimizing the wounded, is in no way a Christian action. . . . ”

“Any belief she had that denominational leaders would care about protecting others was a hope completely destroyed.”

Dee was exactly right in her conclusion: my belief that Baptist leaders would care about protecting others was “a hope completely destroyed.”

Destruction of hope is a natural consequence of how the BGCT deals with clergy sex abuse.

Why?

Because the hand that delivers threats and bullying to clergy abuse survivors becomes the hand that burns the bridge to belief in Christian care.

Because the hand that dishes out do-nothing double-faced duplicity to clergy abuse survivors is the hand that teaches the fraudulence of the faith.

Because the hand that shields the institution rather than protecting kids is the hand that shows the cowardice of Baptist belief.

For many clergy abuse survivors, that hand belongs to the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
______________________

Survivors: Please be sure to observe my cautionary words. Any clergy abuse survivor who even contemplates making a clergy abuse report to the BGCT, or to any other Baptist entity, should have supportive counseling in advance and should be feeling strong before starting. And whatever you do . . . don’t go alone.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Once every two weeks for Texas Baptists

“Southern Baptist churches in Texas must stop hiding sexual abuse by clergy and provide outreach to victims.”

That’s what Phil Strickland told the delegates of the Baptist General Convention of Texas exactly 10 years ago when they gathered for their annual meeting in El Paso.

Phil Strickland, who was executive director of the BGCT’s Christian Life Commission, presented a report to the 2000 Texas Baptists gathered there, and said: “There is increasing evidence that clergy sexual abuse is a significant problem among Baptist ministers.”

How did Phil Strickland know this back in November 1999?

Because this sort of knowledge was part of his job.

As Strickland explained, the Baptist General Convention of Texas “gets a call about once every two weeks from someone wanting to report abuse.”

“Once every two weeks.”

So that would be about 26 calls per year from people wanting to report clergy sex abuse to the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Do the math.

Over the past 10 years, from 1999 to 2009, this would mean that about 260 people tried to report clergy sex abuse to the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Then consider this. Phil Strickland worked for the Baptist General Convention of Texas for nearly 40 years, and when he made those remarks, he had been at the post as executive director of their Christian Life Commission for about 19 years.

If, as Strickland said, he had been getting a call about “once every two weeks” for the 19 years prior to his remarks, then that would be 494 more people who called the Baptist General Convention of Texas to try to report clergy sexual abuse.

So, if we take Phil Strickland at his word, this would mean that about 754 people tried to report clergy sex abuse to the Baptist General Convention of Texas between 1980 and 2009.

Who are those Texas ministers whom people tried to report? Where are those ministers now? How many more kids and congregants have been hurt by those reported ministers?

And where are the records on those 754 reports of clergy sex abuse?

In response to Phil Strickland’s 1999 plea, the Baptist General Convention of Texas put out a glossy brochure. It also started keeping a confidential file of ministers reported by churches “for sexual misconduct, including child molestation.” Information included in the file specifically includes “sexual abuse of children.”

But note the Catch-22: the file includes only those ministers who are reported by churches, and everyone knows that, in the normal scenario, the churches don’t report clergy abuse. “They just try to keep it secret.” So most of those 754 reports probably didn’t make it into the official file. Were they placed in some unofficial file, or were they just trashed?

Even in the extremely rare case when a church actually does report a minister’s sexual abuse, the Baptist General Convention of Texas simply keeps the information in a file cabinet. The minister can continue working in a different church or in a different state, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas won’t undertake to warn people in the pews.

That’s what happened in my own case. My perpetrator was reported to the BGCT, not only by myself, but also by a church. And his name simply sat in the BGCT’s file cabinet while he continued working in children’s ministry in Florida.

According to Phil Strickland, there are probably about 754 more reported cases of clergy sex abuse that the BGCT did nothing about.

Personally, I think Phil Strickland would likely turn over in his grave if he could see what became of his 1999 plea to Texas Baptists.

Phil Strickland talked about “a counseling program for victims.” But as Dee Miller reported, “About the assistance to victims . . . it appears that strings are attached when one seeks assistance from the BGCT.” Counseling for victims may be available if the victims grovel and if they sign a contract agreeing to never speak of it. I know from personal experience that Dee’s report is exactly right.

It’s the sort of system that ensures secrecy. It doesn’t work to protect others.

And about that “crisis intervention” for churches that Phil Strickland talked about? In actual practice, what that means is that the Baptist General Convention of Texas may send out its own long-time attorney to “help” the church handle the crisis. And the way the attorney “helps” the church is by threatening to sue the victim if the victim doesn’t shut up.

Again, it’s the sort of system that ensures secrecy. It doesn’t work to protect others.

Meanwhile, “once every two weeks,” those people who are trying to report Baptist clergy sex abuse wind up hearing the “because there are no bishops” excuse. It’s Texas Baptist leaders’ self-serving rationalization for do-nothingness.

Or they hear the “go to the church” line, which almost always inflicts even greater wounds. Telling clergy abuse survivors to “go to the church” is like telling bloody sheep to go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It’s cruel to the victims, and it doesn’t work to protect others.

In his last speech before his death, Phil Strickland talked about “the capacity to grieve about injustice, to quit pretending that things are all right, to imagine that things could be different, and courageously to say so . . . .” He wondered aloud about where this had all gone in Baptist life.

I wonder the same thing.

When will Texas Baptists quit pretending? When will they choose to see the people whom they prefer to remain invisible -- the people who have been sexually abused by Baptist clergy? When will they open their eyes to the consequences of the denomination’s do-nothingness? When will they step beyond their fear of risk and step forward with courage toward protecting the innocent and healing the wounded?

Ten full years have passed since Phil Strickland’s words, but for Baptist clergy abuse survivors, virtually nothing has changed. “Once every two weeks,” their voices still fall on deaf ears at the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

The only thing that has changed is that Houston is hosting their annual hoopla this year. It convenes next week, November 16-17.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tom Messer is speaker for Florida Baptist Convention

Tom Messer is scheduled as a featured speaker for the Florida Baptist Convention when it meets November 9-10 in Pensacola, Florida. Messer, who is pastor of Trinity Baptist in Jacksonville, is shown on the speakers’ line-up for the Monday morning pastors’ conference.

My question is this: Why?

Why are Southern Baptists of Florida holding up Tom Messer as an example of pastoral leadership?

For starters, Tom Messer’s church isn’t even affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s an independent Baptist church.

More importantly, Tom Messer is the pastor who, reportedly, participated in a huge, long-standing cover-up of the child sex crimes committed by his church’s founding pastor, Bob Gray.

“A TV station in Jacksonville, Florida reports that leaders in a prominent Baptist church in the city knew for years their former pastor was a pedophile, but covered it up for fear public knowledge would harm the church’s ministry, shipping the minister to Germany where he served 10 years as a missionary, possibly with access to other
children.”
At the top of that list of accused cover-upping Trinity Church “leaders” was pastor Tom Messer.

Consider these excerpts from the First Coast News report, “Tape-recording called ‘smoking gun’ in alleged Trinity cover-up:”

“A First Coast News investigation has uncovered an audio tape recording of a meeting at Trinity about a few weeks before Gray's arrest in 2006….

On the tape were . . . current Trinity pastor Tom Messer, and two Trinity leaders, including a Deacon.

To understand the comments on the tape we need to go back to 1992 . . . . Ann Stewart, a former Trinity member . . . [and] a pastor's wife now in North Carolina, says she was molested by Bob Gray when she was a young girl . . . . She says finally, at age 21, she went to Tom Messer, she hoped, to expose the truth. She told about the incidents, she says, but her words were twisted to ‘lie to the congregation.’

In 1992, church members recall, there were crazy allegations against their pastor at the time, Bob Gray.

Dennis Cassell was Athletic Director at Trinity back then. He remembers Gray told the congregation that there was an indiscretion but it was ‘neither sexual nor immoral.’
Stewart says, ‘It was just a cover-up.’

But those words, ‘neither sexual nor immoral,’ have been repeated at Trinity for years, as if Trinity was all above board and Gray had done nothing wrong . . . .

When asked if there was no cover-up at Trinity, Stewart says, ‘No, that's a lie.’

Stewart and the Cassells both listened to the tape.

Pat Cassell, Dennis's wife, says, ‘The victims are vindicated. The kids are vindicated. Tom (Messer) knew and covered it up for years.’

Dennis Cassell says, "The truth is finally out and that's what we've been praying for many years."

What's on the tape?

Messer acknowledges he knows the meeting is being recorded.

Also, Messer is asked about that well-known meeting in 1992 in which Gray said he had done nothing ‘sexual nor immoral.’

A woman, who wants to remain anonymous, says, ‘People sitting in Trinity still do not believe that there is anything that Dr. Gray ever did anything sinful. Remember, Tom, it was an indiscretion. It was not of a sexual nature. That is not true.’

Messer replies on the tape, ‘No, I've never doubted that what he said that first night was inaccurate. I've never doubted that . . . .’

Later in the tape Messer talks again about Gray's statement using the term ‘erroneous.’

To 'John,' Messer says, "You want the erroneous statement that was made by Dr. Gray to be corrected."

'John' also asks Messer, ‘Let me ask you this question because I think it's important. Do you feel like he's disqualified himself from the ministry?’

Messer's reply is, ‘Yes, I do from pastoring.’

"John" says he urged Messer to make a statement in front of the church admitting Gray's 1992 statement was inaccurate and admitting Gray molested children.

Messer on the tape says, ‘I have a draft statement’ . . . .

But Messer says on the tape he can't promise it would happen.

It never did.

'John' says the date scheduled to tell the church supposedly was Sunday, May 21, 2006.

Bob Gray was arrested and charged with capital sexual battery three days before.

Still some want Messer to speak, they say, the truth.

Stewart says she isn't holding her breath, though.

She says, ‘I believe Tom Messer has entangled himself so much with lies and deceit for many years that it's impossible for him to face the people and tell the truth. That would be his demise at Trinity.’”

Ultimately, over 20 people came forward saying they were sexually abused as children by Trinity’s founding pastor, Bob Gray. That’s just the ones we know about. One woman’s claim dated back to 1949. Most of the claims were too old for prosecution, but Gray was eventually charged with capital sex crimes against 3 girls and a boy. He died before the case could be brought to trial, but before his death, he talked openly with the police about “french-kissing” little girls and about how he held them in his lap. He also admitted that the reason he went to Germany in 1992 was because he received a visit from a child protective services investigator and because he wanted “to avoid problems for the church.” (You can read excerpts from the police interviews here.)

Victims talked publicly of Gray’s abuse and of their attempts to tell Trinity church officials about it. One woman said, “The church knew what happened in Gray's office decades ago, years that the victims silently ‘suffered broken marriages and broken lives.’"

Another woman, who said she was molested by Gray when she was 12, told TV reporters that “officials at Trinity knew what was going on but failed to take action.” She said that she herself told church leaders about it in 2004 and again in 2006. On television, she read aloud an email she had sent to pastor Tom Messer.

Still another accuser had a letter on Trinity letterhead, signed by a church official, acknowledging the allegations.

Yet, through it all, pastor Tom Messer two-stepped around the evidence of a church cover-up and remained in the pulpit.

Of course, it probably helped him that, during the midst of the scandal, former Southern Baptist Convention president and celebrity evangelist Jerry Vines spoke as a guest at Trinity and publicly praised the church “without mentioning the fact that a local TV station was accusing it of covering up sexual abuse.”

How do you think that sort of whitewashing looked to the many victims who were seeking accountability?

And now, here we are again with still more Southern Baptist leaders who are propping up and promoting Tom Messer.

Why?

Wouldn’t you think they could present a better example of pastoral leadership than the man who was at the helm of one of the biggest clergy sex abuse cover-up scandals in all of Baptistland?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Church records

He complained that I offered only media reports and insurance data.

“The greater number of sex abuse victims and abusers never come to public attention via either set of data,” he said. “Church records” are where the greatest number of priest abusers can be found, he insisted.

“I could not possibly agree more,” I answered. “The greater number of sex abuse victims and abusers never come to public attention” via media reports or insurance data. “But among Baptists, there are no church records being kept and so the possibility of data via church records simply doesn't exist.”

So ended still another dialogue with a person trying to persuade me that the problem of clergy sex abuse could not possibly be as prevalent among Protestants as among Catholics.

“Church records.”

That’s always the trump card for those who make this argument to me.

I point to the data gathered by the Associated Press from the companies that insure the major Protestant groups. It’s data that shows, over a 10 to 20 year period, a consistent average of 260 sex abuse reports per year involving Protestant clergy and staff. Baptists are the largest of the Protestant groups reported in that data.

This 260 per year average for Protestants “is a higher number than the annual average of 228 ‘credible accusations’ brought against Catholic clerics.”

Though this 260 to 228 comparison is far from perfect, it does raise some troubling questions. As a FOX News commentator noted: In the Catholic context, the 228 per year number “includes all ‘credible accusations,’ not just those that have involved insurance companies, and still is less than the number of Protestant cases.”

By the same token, I can’t help but wonder if the 260 per year number would be even greater if the largest Protestant denomination -- the Southern Baptists -- would bother to assess ‘credible accusations’ in the way Catholics do. As it is, the only numbers that get reported for Baptists are cases that are likely on the verge of a lawsuit . . . and yet the Protestant number is still bigger.

The 228 per year Catholic number derives from a study that the Catholic Church commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It was a study that mined the Catholic Church’s own records and that looked at clergy abuse reports through 2002.

But more current “church records” show that the numbers are even higher, I’m told.

There it is again -- the trump card. Catholics have “church records” because Catholic canon law requires record-keeping.

But “church records” stacked up against “no church records” doesn’t equal bigger numbers.

It means nothing more than that one group kept records and the other didn’t.

Personally, I don’t understand why some people seem so intent on persuading me that Catholic clergy are “the worst.” I don’t believe it, but more importantly, I haven’t seen any data to support that conclusion.

I also think it’s a dangerous conclusion. It puts “clergy sex abuse” in a deceptively little box and lulls Protestants into thinking it’s something that only affects “others.” It allows too many Protestant faith leaders to sit back thinking “Bad Catholics” when in reality they need to be looking at themselves and cleaning out their own ranks.

Because make no mistake about it . . . clergy sex abuse is a scourge that knows no bounds of theology or denomination. Regardless of who may have a bigger number, clergy sex abuse is a serious problem for all faith groups.

I yearn for the day when I can answer one of these “Catholics have the most” arguments by saying: “You’re right -- Catholic church records show a higher percentage of clergy child molesters than Baptist church records.”

If I could say that, it would mean that Baptist leaders finally cared enough to at least start keeping records on clergy sex abuse. And that alone would be a huge step forward in Baptistland.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Three years for sex with a horse

Today, a South Carolina man was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually abusing a horse.

Meanwhile, in case after case, we have seen Southern Baptist leaders who keep quiet about Baptist ministers who sexually abuse kids and who urge "no prison time" for them when they are finally caught.

What message do you think they send to the kids who are abused?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Happy Birthday to Plano-man!

Today, the New BBC blog offers warm birthday wishes to Plano-man. Be sure to check it out!

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while are familiar with Plano-man. His comments are an endless pit of venom and vitriol, inanity and misogyny. And what you've seen is just the tip of the iceberg. I delete a whole lot of his comments.

New BBC describes him as "a potty-mouthed character." That's kind.

Read what New BBC has to say about Plano-man -- or is it "RM" or "Brady" or "Cooper"? Apparently, mine isn't the only blog he frequents, and New BBC offers some illuminating insights into the multiple identities.

Incidentally, Plano-man claimed to have "influential Baptist friends." Do you think they're the ones who taught him those "potty-mouth" ways?

He once signed off as "Plano Prestonwood Man." Did he learn those "potty-mouth" ways at the mega Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano?

Or did he learn those "potty-mouth" ways as "RM" while he was at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary?

Don't miss New BBC's post: Happy Birthday, O Purveyor of Baloney!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

What a difference a database may have made

Former Southern Baptist pastor Ralph Lee Aaron “is now facing charges on 152 ‘atrocious acts’ stemming from allegations he sexually abused and tortured young boys” while on church camping trips. Numerous charges of possessing and disseminating child porn are also included within the 152 counts.

The case came to light because a mother “heard rumors of a previous incident” involving pastor Aaron,” and she sat down and talked with her young son. The mother determined that her son may have had inappropriate contact with pastor Aaron, and so she went to the police.

That mom’s action served to get an alleged serial predator out of the pulpit. That mom’s action will work to protect other kids in the future. That mom’s action will mean that kids who have already been wounded may get help sooner rather than later.

Thank God for that mom.

But no thanks to any Southern Baptist leaders.

The “previous incident” that the mom heard “rumors” about stemmed from a 2005 complaint when pastor Aaron was at Victory Baptist Church in Andalusia, Alabama. No criminal charges were filed in 2005 because the statute of limitations had run out by the time the complaint was filed.

But even though no criminal charges were filed, the people at Victory Baptist were apparently concerned. According to a comment under the Andalusia Star-News article, Victory Baptist fired pastor Aaron. So . . . they got him out of their own church, but what did they do to protect others?

After leaving Victory Baptist, pastor Aaron went to Grace Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational church in the same town of Andalusia, Alabama. Do you think Victory Baptist warned the people at Grace Christian Fellowship?

Or did it all become nothing more than a “rumor” in that town?

A “rumor” that apparently only one woman had the gumption to take seriously.

I don’t know exactly what Victory Baptist did or didn’t do, but I know what typically happens. Churches don’t tell. They’re afraid the pastor will sue them for ruining his career.

In describing how another Baptist pastor was able to go from church to church despite multiple abuse allegations, writer Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly magazine explained it this way: “To avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy.”

That’s Baptistland. It’s the place where preacher-predators can simply church-hop through the porous sieve of the Baptist network.

Apparently, this wasn’t the first time pastor Ralph Aaron church-hopped. A couple more comments under the Andalusia Star-News article say that, before arriving at Victory Baptist, pastor Aaron worked at still another Southern Baptist church in Samson, Alabama. One person, who says that Aaron was his pastor for 6 years at Samson, tells of how Aaron was “mysteriously fired” from that church. “One Sunday he was there and the next Sunday the deacons had ousted him,” he states.

So . . . it sounds as though the deacons at the Samson church may have also known something about pastor Aaron.

But did they warn others?

I doubt it. It was probably easier just to let him go rather than to look too closely.

And there’s nothing in Baptistland that requires anyone to look too closely.

That’s the problem.

If there were a professionally-staffed denominational review board -- people tasked with looking closely -- then maybe the deacons of the Samson church could have reported pastor Aaron and gotten some help with whatever the reasons were for their alleged “mysterious” firing of him.

And maybe if such a review board had existed, and if it kept records on clergy abuse complaints, then pastor Aaron may not have been placed in a new position of trust as pastor of Victory Baptist in Andalusia.

And even if Victory Baptist had hired Aaron anyway, if a denominational review board had existed, then maybe Victory Baptist could have reported the complaint made at its church, and perhaps Aaron would not have been able to get still another pastorate after leaving Victory.

And maybe if there had been some Southern Baptist database of clergy abuse complaints that Grace Christian Fellowship could have checked, then perhaps they would have decided not to hire pastor Aaron.

And maybe if there had been a denominational database as an authoritative source for information about pastor Aaron, instead of just local “rumors,” then maybe the people at Grace Christian Fellowship could have at least been warned.

Authorities now say that Aaron “had multiple male victims ranging in age from 8 to 10.”

There’s the tragedy of Baptist do-nothingness.

If Southern Baptist leaders had cared enough to create a denominational review board and a database of abuse reports, then maybe some of those 8 to 10 year old boys could have been spared.

________________

Update: BaptistPlanet reports that Ralph Aaron is still listed as a dean at Covington Theological Seminary in Opp, Alabama.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Catholics were hellfire wrong

I grew up believing Catholics were wrong. Very wrong. We’re talking hellfire and damnation kind of wrong.

According to my childhood pastor, Catholics could expect to spend eternity in hell with the smell of their own flesh burning.

But the hellfire would never be so merciful as to burn them up. Instead, it would just keep on burning and burning and burning. For all eternity.

That’s how wrong the Catholics were.

And that’s why this earlier comment by Junkster rang so true to me:

"Baptist leaders are quick to say that the Southern Baptist Convention can't do anything about abusive ministers because of the doctrine of local church autonomy. This indicates that autonomy is such a highly prized doctrine that it over-rides pretty much everything, including concerns about protecting children. In essence they say, 'Catholics can handle the problem differently than we can because their church government is structured differently; our hands are tied by our form of church government.'

"Yet Baptists believe in (cling to) the doctrine of autonomy not just out of tradition, but because they believe it is right. They believe it is what the Bible teaches, and that other forms of church government (like the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church) are unbiblical. Put another way, Baptist believe that the way Catholics are organized is wrong, just as they believe Catholics are wrong on their doctrines of justification, sanctification, purgatory, saints, Mary, etc.

"All that said, wouldn't if follow that when the Catholic church as an organization removes a priest's ordination and refuses him a place of service in any Catholic church, according to Baptist doctrine, the Catholic church is wrong for doing so? I mean, if Baptists believe they are right about church government (autonomy) and Catholics are wrong (hierarchy), then doesn't that mean that the Catholic church is wrong when they act according to their wrong doctrine?

"But I have yet to hear a Baptist leader say that. They simply throw up their hands and say, 'Oh well, Catholics do things differently than we do; we can't do what they do.'

This raises the question . . . if autonomy is really the primary concern, and if it is so strongly believed to be true Bible doctrine, why do Baptist preachers not have the courage of their convictions to come right out and say, 'What we are doing [leaving it to local churches] is right and what the Catholics are doing [handling it as an organization as a whole] is wrong'?

I will answer my own question . . . because they know how bad it would sound. It would be plain for all to see that they are saying that it is preferable to allow abuse to continue in order to protect autonomy. And that is one reason I believe autonomy to be just a smokescreen, a convenient excuse to do nothing.

There may be many reasons the Southern Baptist Convention has chosen not to address this issue as it should (fear of lawsuits, pride, potential loss of esteem and power, laziness, apathy, etc.) but autonomy is not the reason; it is just an excuse."

Over 700 Catholic priests have been removed from active ministry based on “credible accusations” of child sex abuse. Only about 3 percent were ever criminally convicted. If Catholic leaders still followed the same tragically low standard as Southern Baptist leaders, about 679 of those “credibly accused” priests could still be in ministry and working with kids.

So who's more wrong?