Friday, January 23, 2009

Don't ask don't tell, Baptist-style

Last Wednesday, former Southern Baptist minister Marshal Seymour pled guilty to molesting three boys. Police said they were aware of eight more boys, but as part of the plea deal, the police agreed not to press charges related to the additional “known victims.”

Eleven boys. My heart breaks for them.

They were middle-school and high-school age boys who attended one of the most prominent Southern Baptist churches in the country, the First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Florida. That’s where Seymour was working as a volunteer youth minister.

Eleven boys. And that’s just the ones the Florida police know about. Seymour probably hurt many more kids, not only in Florida, but also in Alabama and Mississippi.

That’s what makes this story all the more gut-wrenching. Those eleven Florida boys could have been spared.

Marshal Seymour never should have been allowed to work with kids in that Florida church. He could have and should have been stopped a lot sooner.

In the early 1990s, Seymour worked at an Assembly of God church in Biloxi, Mississippi. While there, he was caught three times in “inappropriate situations” with boys from the church. Reportedly, he went skinny-dipping with kids; he pulled down the “britches” of a boy while shooting baskets; and he was found alone with a boy, giving him a massage. Despite these incidents, the church allowed Seymour “to leave in good standing.”

Seymour went to Mobile, Alabama, where he was hired as a youth pastor at another Assembly of God church.

In 1999, Seymour was arrested in Mobile on charges of sodomy and sexual abuse of a 16 year old boy.

The Alabama case was plea-bargained. Seymour pled guilty to a lesser assault charge and the sodomy charge was dropped. His one-year jail sentence was suspended and Seymour moved to Florida.

That very same year, in 1999, Seymour began working as a volunteer youth minister at the First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland.

Even as Seymour went right on working with kids at the Florida church, a civil lawsuit went forward against his Alabama church. Lawsuit papers alleged that Seymour had molested a boy at least 9 times. The suit was settled three years later.

So here’s the question: Why did the First Baptist Church at the Mall allow this man to work with kids despite the multiple allegations against him, despite a civil lawsuit for sexual abuse, and despite a prior conviction?

Why didn’t the First Baptist Church at the Mall find out about Seymour’s sordid past?

After all, that’s exactly how Southern Baptist leaders claim that Baptist churches will be able to protect kids. Local churches can conduct background checks and talk to ministers' prior churches, they say.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t work because churches don’t ask and churches don’t tell.

Of all the 43,000 Southern Baptist churches in the country, you might think that surely this one would be capable of getting it right. First Baptist Church at the Mall has 8,000 members and extraordinary financial resources. Its senior pastor, Jay Dennis, was the 2001 president of the Florida Baptist Convention.

“If a church such as this one couldn’t manage to uncover prior allegations and charges against a minister, how likely is it that other churches can?" That's what I told the Associated Baptist Press.

After all, most Southern Baptist churches would probably consider it a good Sunday if they had 100 people in the pews, and their financial resources would pale compared to First Baptist Church at the Mall. So why in the world do Southern Baptist leaders imagine that ordinary Southern Baptist churches can do any better at protecting kids than this Florida megachurch did?

I know what some of you may be thinking. You want to believe that the failure at First Baptist Church at the Mall was somehow exceptional.

Consider this: The church of the 2002 Florida Baptist Convention president also managed to hire a children’s minister who had sexually abused a kid in a prior church. Dwayne Mercer's church, First Baptist of Oviedo, hired Tommy Gilmore as its children’s minister. Did they not check with Gilmore’s prior Dallas church where there was a music minister who knew about Gilmore’s abuse of a kid? Or did the Dallas church not tell them?

The megachurch of former national Southern Baptist Convention president Charles Stanley also hired Tommy Gilmore as a children’s minister. Again… did Stanley's First Baptist Church of Atlanta fail to check with Gilmore’s prior Dallas church or did the Dallas church not tell them?

And consider the saga of former Southern Baptist pastor Doug Myers, who was allowed to move from church to church, always under a cloud of suspicion but with no one stopping him. He left a Maryland Baptist church “amid issues with three teenage boys.” Then, at his Alabama church, he liked to go skinny-dipping with the 10 to 12 year old boys, and the chairman of deacons ultimately told Myers that his behavior with a particular boy was “unacceptable.” Myers moved on to Florida, and while at his second Florida church, a woman turned him in for molesting her grandson. Myers was sentenced to seven years. According to a pending civil lawsuit, the Florida Baptist Convention itself had recruited Myers as a “church planter” to start up new churches in the state.

So… did the Florida Baptist Convention fail to check with Myers’ Maryland and Alabama churches, or did the churches fail to tell?

And let’s not forget about the First Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina. It’s the megachurch pastored by Wendell Estep, the 2001 president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. It’s a church that tragically allowed a deacon to work with kids even though the deacon had a prior child molestation conviction in Maine.

Such dreadful failures in such prominent churches demonstrate how delusional it is for Southern Baptist leaders to persist in expecting local churches to ferret out clergy predators on their own.

When the leaders themselves can’t get past the “don’t ask don’t tell” roadblock, why do they imagine that ordinary pastors will be able to do what they themselves cannot?

16 comments:

Elisabeth said...

One of the articles did say that the Church in the Mall did do a background check and it didn't uncover the Alabama conviction. Another reason why relying on background checks alone is bad. And another article said he has not been credentialed as an Assembly of God minister since 2000. Could it be because the AoG does have a central credentialing agency and once the guy had been caught there was no way he could be an AoG minister anymore? And could that be why he changed denominations?
Things that make you go hmmm.....

gmommy said...

There were so many opportunities for Seymour to be stopped. Besides all the ministers who allowed him to continue "with good papers"....why was his jail sentence paroled?

I know how confused his wife was and how much she didn't want to believe her husband was a monster but there was proof...and she had a child to protect.
I can imagine her psychological profile...but I wish she would have done something to keep him from taking another job with children.

There are SO many leaders in the church, ministers, and friends of Seymour who are responsible for the hell these kids will go thru for years to come.
No one looks out for them the way these self anointed monsters cover each others backs.

Christa Brown said...

"And could that be why he changed denominations?

If Southern Baptists don't start instituting the sorts of accountability measures that other faith groups do, they may well become the safe-harbor hide-out for clergy-predators. What better place for a predator than a place where everyone automatically trusts you and there's no oversight? Former Southern Baptist president Frank Page inadvertently admitted this reality when he told the press that "What we know happens with true abusers, they just switch to another denomination that doesn't access a denominational database."

"There are SO many leaders in the church, ministers, and friends of Seymour who are responsible for the hell these kids will go thru for years to come."

That's exactly what people need to understand. This problem isn't just about the perps. The perps are able to persist because of SO many others.

Lin said...

That's exactly what people need to understand. This problem isn't just about the perps. The perps are able to persist because of SO many others.

January 24, 2009 6:50 AM

This is exactly right. So many in our pews are being fed that this is a private matter and we should handle it inhouse. We want no bad publicity to hurt our witness. (DUH. They HAVE NO WITNESS)

They end up revictimimizing the victims over and over. I blame the pew sitters for not opening their bibles and only believing what the hirlings teach them. Most of our churches have hirlings who only want to build a big church/and have power and influence. How can I make a general statement like that? Because of the vast amount of situations there are out there.

We have become more perverted than the world. The world calls the police. The world tolerates this less than the churches do.

Christa Brown said...

"The world tolerates this less than the churches do."

I agree. Other institutions would generally be LESS tolerant of this sort of abuse and would have MORE systems in place to foster the accountability of leadership. As best I can tell, Southern Baptist leadership is generally operating at a lower standard than leadership of the average tobacco company.

gmommy said...

Christa,
Until Oprah, I think Facebook would be a good way to get the word out about clergy sexual abuse.
There are groups that "friends" become members of and invite their "friends" to become members of. If nothing else...more people will become aware of what's happening. There are plenty of SBC and Christian groups...some very frivolous ...like a fan club for a minister or music director.

Not only will more people become aware ...and possibly protect their children but maybe another avenue to stop Baptist leaders from lying, denying, and procrastinating.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
john said...

Let's face it, this is an industry wide problem. Denominations are so busy trying to raise funds and out do their copetition that being careful about who they use as workers is way down the list. My brother recently was hired as the Church Administrator of an SBC church. Being aware of my concern about this problem he immediately questioned the background check policy of the church. What he found was a stack of applications that had never been followed through on. He insisted that he be allowed to spend the money necessary to at least do a nation wide background check. The church agreed and he is in the process of doing that. Until religious bodies all over the country come together with a common commitment to love and protect their people what he has done is all that is available to him.
You know the heart of Jesus must be breaking to see his church change his teaching on children from "suffer little children to come unto me" to "bring little children imto the church to suffer!"
What a shame and disgrace!!!

Phyllis Gregory said...

We want no bad publicity to hurt our witness.-- Oh my gosh! Does that bring back childhood memories. OUR WITNESS was the reason they did not smoke, drink, dance, or cuss. They just quietly molested children in secret.

I blame the pew sitters for not opening their bibles and only believing what the hirlings teach them.--Amen and Amen! We(baby boomers anyway) were taught/told to believe what we heard from the pulpit--Period! Don't ask, don't question, do not ever think for yourself.

We have become more perverted than the world. The world calls the police. The world tolerates this less than the churches do.--How very true and how tragic. Why do you think vast numbers of adults, abused as children by church leaders, never again step foot inside a house of God. Because most of us know that God is found anywhere but in that house.

gmommy said...

"OUR WITNESS was the reason they did not smoke, drink, dance, or cuss. They just quietly molested children in secret."

I had to smile, Phyllis. (better than crying at this point)

I used to say my Christian parents could scream "Jeesus" in public then secretly sacrifice their child to whatever predator...as long as there was something in it for them.
BUT... we did NOT drink, dance, or divorce!
Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse....not so bad to them.

Baptist preachers have been using their positions of trust and authority over vulnerable kids and teens for at least 40 years that I am aware of personally.

I was naive enough to think that when I joined an SBC church...the big, educated, seminary required (it used to anyway)kind...there would be accountability.
The preachers' hair isn't as big as it was when I was a younger but not much has changed.

I was totally freaked and only able to talk about it now ....when I read about the old minister (dead now,of course)who took the liberty of kissing his young members. There is so much of the "scary/grooming talk" that goes on with the kissing and touching.
Back then and today...the response from the good Baptists is the same ...it's not that big of a deal.He didn't mean it in a bad way. Don't make a fuss. It wasn't sex....no one was really HURT....or my favorite....He only did it once

I'm really looking forward to the time when God repays everyone of these people for NOT hurting so many.
In the mean time...every dirt bag that gets prosecuted is a small victory for the thousands who carry the scars.

Christa Brown said...

Anon 11:25 - Thanks for your information, but I felt I had to delete the name. If you have a news link or news clipping, please send it to me.

I'm not surprised by the name -- a high-honcho of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and a member of the Executive Committee of the national Southern Baptist Convention. Of course, I hear abuse and cover-up information about far too many powerful Southern Baptist Pulpit Pounders and Pious Pontificators. Most of it never sees the light of day. I think if ordinary decent people had a clue about the extent of clergy abuse cover-ups in this denomination, Southern Baptist churches would likely empty out.

Christa Brown said...

No drinking, dancing, or cussing... but "quietly molesting children in secret" was okay.

That rings so painfully true. And of course, once upon a time, as a kid, I bought into all of it.

In fact, I bought into that way of thinking so much that, after I had been repeatedly molested by the minister for months and then ultimately raped - awfully - and then, after the minister told me I harbored Satan and made me kneel for what seemed like forever while he prayed for God to cast Satan from me, I was left trying to figure out what I had done wrong. What had I done that opened the door to Satan and allowed Satan to enter in me? And in my adolescent good-church-girl brain, the only thing I could figure out was that I had danced. I had joined the school drill team and was out on the football field on Friday nights, "dancing" out in public at half-time. It was as normal and American as apple pie. But somehow, THAT's what I figured I had done wrong. I still marvel at the memory of my own twisted thinking.

berta n. said...

Why are people who molest children EVER let out of jail??? Do you know people serve more years for the average pot possession conviction than for the average child molestation conviction? Where are our priorities? This man never should have walked free. There is a free pastor in my community who was convicted of sex crimes against minors-- house arrest for one year and then he's free to reoffend!! NO jail time!!!???

Christa Brown said...

Welcome here, Berta N.

Your questions are good ones: "Where are our priorities?" We have an epidemic of child sex abuse, and yet we are doing so little to combat it. And with too many religious leaders, the priority seems to be "protect the image" rather than "protect the kids." As John so aptly said in his comment above: Too many churches have changed the teaching of Jesus from "suffer the little children to come unto me" to "bring little children into the church to suffer."

Christa Brown said...

gmommy said: "Back then and today...the response from the good Baptists is the same ...it's not that big of a deal. He didn't mean it in a bad way. Don't make a fuss. It wasn't sex....no one was really HURT....or my favorite....He only did it once."

It would be lovely to believe that people handle things better nowadays, but the reality is exactly as gmommy describes -- the same persistent patterns of minimization and denial.

Anonymous said...

In reading some news on national policies coming down the pike, pediophiles will even have more access and liberty. The Baptist leadership must step up even moreso.