Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Unconscionable

Last week in Memphis, pastor Steven Haney pled guilty to sexual abuse of two teen boys.

For people with eyes that are open, this single case reveals so much about what is so wrong with how Southern Baptists deal with clergy sex abuse.

Heaping hate onto those who speak out

In a plea agreement intended to allow the victims to avoid the stress of trial, Haney was sentenced to just eight years of probation on the sexual abuse charges. (He still faces federal charges on child pornography.)

For those of us who have lived through the hell of clergy sex abuse, it’s not hard to understand why the young men who were Haney’s victims may have felt enormous stress. The charges against Haney had been pending for almost two years.

To make matters worse, the victims were receiving anonymous mail from supporters of pastor Haney. The prosecutor described the mail as “unconscionable.”

But why should anyone be surprised by such hatefulness?

After all, this is a faith group whose highest leader wrote a column in a widely-dispersed Baptist publication saying that clergy abuse survivors were “nothing more than opportunistic persons.” And another former Southern Baptist president said we were “evil-doers,” and “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”

When high religious leaders indulge such hateful remarks, they encourage a climate of hatefulness. Their words effectively tell others that meanness toward clergy abuse survivors is okay.

Others follow the example of such leaders and often take the hatefulness a step further.

I’ve been told about vandalized houses and awful name-calling, not to mention grocery-store glares. Many clergy abuse survivors and their families simply move away from their communities because the ugliness of what surrounds them becomes too unbearable.

I suppose the name-callers and anonymous letter-senders think they’re serving God? That thought only makes such hatefulness seem all the more frightening.

Rather than helping to fuel such hate, why don’t church and denominational leaders speak out publicly and persistently against it? I suppose it’s because what they really want is for clergy abuse survivors to shut up and go away so that the truth of their stories won’t reflect poorly on the faith. The more hate they fling, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to make that happen.

But of course, it seems like a feeble faith if it can’t tolerate truth. Maybe that’s why they resort to such hatefulness to try to silence abuse survivors. Maybe they’re afraid the smallness of their own faith will be revealed to them, and maybe what they really fear is seeing that smallness inside themselves.

Putting it in the past fast

Haney’s prior church decided to put the past behind and start fresh. The church changed its name from Walnut Grove to Gracepoint.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if a simple name-change could put it in the past for clergy survivors? But of course, it’s not so easy for the survivors, particularly when they’ve not only been abused as kids by a pastor-perpetrator, but have also been further wounded by the hatefulness of so many others.

And let’s not forget that, according to news accounts, there’s good reason to believe that these aren’t the first of Haney’s victims. This is a church that tried too fast to put it in the past once before.

Ignoring prior accusations

In the mid-1990s, there were allegations that pastor Steven Haney abused another teen. Thirty families left the church at that time.

What else could they do? There wasn’t any sort of state or national denominational review board where they could have taken their concerns. There still isn’t.

So, despite dreadfully serious accusations, there was no one in Southern Baptist leadership who would even look into it. Haney wasn’t thrown in jail and so he was free to stay in a Baptist pulpit.

And what happened? More kids got hurt. Haney was allowed to pervert faith and pastoral authority into weapons for child molestation.

Perhaps Haney’s more recent victims could have been spared if only someone in denominational leadership had cared enough to responsibly assess the prior allegations against him. And perhaps Haney’ prior victim could have been spared the additional anguish and betrayal of seeing that no one in his faith community cared enough to actually do anything.

The message that Southern Baptists’ do-nothingness sent to Haney’s prior victim was “you don’t matter.”

The message that Southern Baptists’ do-nothingness sent to Haney was “carry-on.”

Those are messages every bit as unconscionable as hateful letters.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

With the passage of House Bill HR 1913 by the Democrat House of Representatives, pedophiles are now a protected class. The Democrat Senate has this bill and it is assured of quick passage. Mr. Obama said he would sign it.

Phyllis Gregory said...

I am not familiar with this Bill so I cannot comment on it. Why does it matter if a bill is passed making pedophiles a protected class. They are already a protected class in most SBC churches -- in fact in most evangelical curches. And I do not believe that there is a person out there who can dispute that. Just try it and I will see how many thousands of sexual abuse survivors I can get to rise up against you. I am angry and I am afraid I am becoming bitter. I thought for a long time that i needed to stay in church because that is what God would have me do. Now, I don't even know that I believe God is in church -- any of them.

Phyllis Gregory

gmommy said...

Surely you jest about this bill.

Phyllis, you're right about them being a protected class in the SBC!!!

Elisabeth said...

NOWHERE in HR 1913 does it say pedophiles are a protected class!!! I just read it!!!

I know the "right" doesn't like this bill, partly because it does include sexual orientation and gender identity with some of the things that crimes against which could be hate crimes, but it also includes disabilities. I think the main reason the "right" doesn't like this is because the "left" does.

Christa Brown said...

I have no clue what HB 1913 says, and frankly, I doubt that this particular Anon does either. In any event, what Phyllis says is true... pedophile clergy, deacons, honchos, etc. are protected and well-hidden within most of the SBC... and within most other Baptist and evangelical churches.

"I am afraid I am becoming bitter."

Me too, Phyllis. I fight against that same fear. But the other side of that fight is that I simply don't believe it constitutes bitterness to speak the truth. Truth isn't inherently bitter. It is simply what it is... truth. We didn't create the truth. We simply speak it.

Phyllis Gregory said...

Thanks, Christa. You are right about that. But, and here I go again, we (I) were not taught to speak the truth -- for me that was at home and at church. And that goes back to doubting myself and my sense of reality because what was real and what was "supposed" to be real were not one and the same. So, when I really speak what I know to be true, I am suddenly filled with angst and self doubt. Crazy isn't it! PG

Christa Brown said...

"Il n'y a peut-ĂȘtre rien de si fou que de croire avoir toujours raison." - Voltaire

Translation: "There is perhaps nothing crazier than to believe that you're always right."

Phyllis, I subscribe to an email service that sends me a French maxim of the day. This was the maxim in my box this morning. So... by this standard, a lot of the SBC guys are a whole heckuva lot crazier than you or me.

That said... I hope you realize that I'm not in any way minimizing how you feel. I think profound (and often flat-out debilitating) self-doubt is one of the psycholgical hallmarks of sexual abuse survivors. And it would sure be nice to have a little less of that "angst" that accompanies it, wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

Don't you think one of the most discouraging moments in a victims life is when they finally realize that the people who could have done something about their victimization didn't help because they JUST DIDN'T CARE what happened to you? I am sorry, most pastors, counselors, church members, cops, the legal system.... just DON'T care when people are victimized in the church. When you finally realize that, something in you dies. Its like you start to think...does God care either? (which I really still believe He does)

Phyllis Gregory said...

I believe God cares, too. I just don't think the church or anyone in the church cares -- and that comes out in the form of denial -- denial that anything bad could come from a man/woman called of God to do His work.

Being "involved" in church was my life -- as a child, teenager, young adult, and middle-aged adult. I thought God was there and I was to seek Him and His will. Now, as an older adult I have my doubts about that. I now think God resides in the hearts of His people -- and those are not necessarily "church going" people.

I agree that something in you dies when you realize these awful things, but I also believe you are given new birth because for the first time ever you realize you cannot put God in a box like you have been taught to do. You realize that God is so big and so wonderful and so much more than you ever gave Him credit for being. And then you realize that He was always there even in your darkest moments when the people you thought you could trust the most were violating you.

Christa Brown said...

"What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander." - Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate

Anon 10:57 - I absolutely agree with you that the most painful part of all is the realization - the continuing realization - of how many others could have helped but just didn't give a hoot.

Sister Twister said...

I'm so glad that we don't have any of those Baptist pedo-people in our church.

john said...

Amen Phyllis

Elisabeth said...

I just looked up your profile, Sister Twister! I think you don't have any in your church because you don't go to church!

You seem to have a cool sense of humor, BTW. Very dry!

Anonymous said...

"Me too, Phyllis. I fight against that same fear. But the other side of that fight is that I simply don't believe it constitutes bitterness to speak the truth. Truth isn't inherently bitter. It is simply what it is... truth. We didn't create the truth. We simply speak it."

Friends, this is the most insidious teaching out there: That speaking negative truths means you are bitter, angry, unforgiving and refuse to move on.

Oh, it is taught everywhere in churches and for the reason of protecting the church. And it is taught on big things like sexual perversion and little things like disagreeing on a secondary non salvic doctrine.

But the irony is that there IS NO CHURCH when negative truths cannot be spoken and dealt with. There is NO witness. No Body of Christ. No ministry. It is a sham. An organization that benefits a few. Folks in these institutions are fooling themselves.

God hates injustice. We see this all through the OT and He never changes. He does not accept it now because of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That Sacrifice was not a license to ignore rampent sin in the church. (Can you say Ananias and Sapphira?)

We even have government instituted for these injustices and we see our leaders work AGAINST it for the sake of those who mock the Sacrifice and ignore civil laws.

I would worry for us if our hearts did not get angry over these issues. The least of these are stalked and preyed upon by those who call on the Name of the Lord and tell us they represent Him on earth!

How insidious! It is not something to be swept under the rug. It is something to be proclaimed and warned against. We owe it to the REAL Body of Christ. We owe to those who are going to perish in hell for mocking God to repent. And quick!

Phyllis Gregory said...

Anon: I do not know who you are but I agree with you word for word.

Elisabeth said...

Anon @ 5/7 at 2:48pm You speak the truth. And it's a truth that too many at this point do not want to see.

Anonymous said...

An old quote that is still true today:

“The first reaction to truth is hatred” - Tertullian quote

Heath Buster said...

I am a pastor in a Southern Baptist Church. I am actually a fourth generation SB pastor, and I will say very loudly that the actions those who sexually abuse anybody--children, woman, or man--is deplorable, especially when perpetrated by someone in a place of authority and trust.

However, to generalize the entire SBC as having knowingly having abusers in leadership positions is quite faulty. Most SBC churches are small churches in small communities where most of the leaders have grown up in the church. There are definitely cases that need to be addressed. Although our belief in the autonomy of the church does preclude the SBC from mandated a database, I believe we should have a volunteer form to fill out. I believe most churches would be willing to comply. I will also say that we are encouraged by our insurance company, as well as the SBC, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and several other entities to run background checks on all leaders who would deal with teens and youth.

My personal policy is that I am never alone with a teen or child, especially a female, and refuse to council a female adult privately. I always recommend them wise female and with children or teens, make sure there are witnesses, preferably a parent or other trusted adult.

Again, though, do not lay this at the feet of all Southern Baptists. Most would have some disagreement with the handling of this by the some of our leaders. By we do not answer to our leaders, they answer to us. If we need leadership change, then that needs to be addressed by members.

Christa Brown said...

"...we do not answer to our leaders, they answer to us."

And it's high time they did. But they will do so only when Southern Baptists care enough to demand accountability from their leaders. Wake up!And about background checks... less than 5 percent of active child molesters have ever been convicted of any sex crime, and so they aren't likely to have any record that will show up in a background check. That's why other major faith groups in this country now provide a heckuva lot more in the way of institutional safeguards than mere background checks. Oops... and even that's more than what Baptist leaders do. As you say, Heath Buster ... they merely "encourage" background checks.

Background checks aren't anything to brag about. They're essential, but they're just the bare basics of good business practice. Baptists are far behind the curve compared to what other major faith groups are doing.

I realize that most SBC churches are small. It's why they need denominational leadership on this. Real leadership... not just talk. Thinking that every SBC church has the resources to independently deal with and prevent clergy sex abuse is like thinking that every municipality can independently prevent terrorism. They can't. It needs a strong, united, cooperative effort.

Christa Brown said...

Since Heath Buster talks about how the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma encourages churches to run background checks, let's remember that the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma itself sat on a letter in which a minister admitted to sexually molesting a kid... and the man continued in ministry. The letter simply sat in a file cabinet at the BGCO.

That minister could go to work at another Southern Baptist church tomorrow and those letters would not show up in any background check. Yet that is precisely the sort of information that parents in the pews need to know.

John Doe said...

I am glad to see that I am not alone where it related to the bitterness I have often felt as a survivor of abuse by a minister.

I am nearly 40 years old this year. I have grown up in the system. My childhood was spent living with many different people who served many different gods. I've been to a half dozen or so denominational churches from Catholic to Baptist to Seventh Day Adventist. I met my wife 23 years ago as a high school student and started going to her church -- the Church of Christ (not the Mormon's). I have been in the CoC, somewhat faithfully, for the past 22-23 years. Our kids have been raised in the CoC.

Yet, I have serious moments of bitterness and my bitterness transcends the abuse I endured at the hands of a trusted 'Man of God'.. Yes, my bitterness is present even today in my own church as I truly believe there are better 'non-Christians' in the world than many who proclaim to be 'Christian'..

The SBC and the CoC are full of people who talk the talk but don't walk the walk. I am sure this is probably the case in any church, any religion. It is truly sad.

When I talk about the CoC in this light, I am not talking about abuse because I don't know, nor have experienced, any in the CoC although I presume abuse is happening there as it is everywhere.

I suppose, being an abuse survivor, that I have a hightened sense of fairness, of justice, in all things. Yet, even the church has let me, like many of you, down.. They seem to do this continually.

I've always felt, if you can't feel safe at church, then there isn't a safe place on earth. People, in every church will let us down. Yet, as a survivor, it seems like victimization all over again every time this happens.

Yes, bitterness -- from our individual experiences, it seems a logical feeling when those who could do something positive choose to ignore the pain right in front of them.

Keep fighting on.

John Doe

Phyllis Gregory said...

Dear Mr. Buster,

To say I disagree with every word you say is an understatement. I was raised in OK in SBC churches -- always First Baptist -- Claremore, Cushing, and Stillwater. My father was chairman of the deacons and my mother was GA director and/or WMU director. They LOOKED the part and they definitely talked the right talk -- but their walk was somewhat skewed. They also sexually abused me.

I feel that Baptists, for the most part, live in a state of denial. And I really do not think they want to look at the possible vile behavior that goes on within the walls of some churches.

Heath Buster said...

I am sorry for what happened to you. I do not understand, however, how you can disagree with me completely. I do not claim to understand your situation, because I have not walked in your shoes. I have been connected with over 25 different Southern Baptist churches either directly or indirectly through family members. I agree that many in churches (not just Southern Baptist) are oblivious to many of the problems of some working in those churches. Much of this is a downfall of the individual churches themselves, including the members who are part of those churches. However, for myself and the most of the pastors with whom I have worked, take abuse of any kind very seriously.

Again, in no way am I trying to minimize the trauma that these predators have caused. I am just trying to point out that to dump 15 million members of Southern Baptist churches in as mean-spirited or ignorant of the facts is also somewhat ignorant. I believe we need to hold individuals and churches accountable for their sin in action and inaction.

Phyllis Gregory said...

Don't you see, though, that in SBC churches it is the outward appearance that matters. If you look, act, and smell good, then you must be good. If you don't drink, cuss, and commit adultery, then you must be a good person. That is just not how it is though.

Look, I never questioned anything I ever heard from the pulpit until I was 40 years old. I believed it all. I believed all pastors were men of God, sent by God to minister to His people. If I was so delusional (sp?) don't you think plenty of other people sitting in the pews are, too.

Heath Buster said...

I agree that too many people "drink the kool-aid" of too many religious leaders, not just pastors and certainly not just in Southern Baptist churches. People should be taught to think critically about their faith. God created them with a mind as well as a heart. I always tell my congregation that they are there to hold me accountable as well as each other. Pastors have been placed on pedestals by too many people, and they are human, too. They have sin in their lives like everyone else. They should be held to a high standard. Again, though, don't you think it is a little unfair to lump all SBC churches in with the muddy water? I am not saying the leadership of the convention has taken the right road. I find myself in constant disagreement with them as to how they handle many situations. Again, though, I do not answer to them. I must hold myself to that high standard given by God, and my church must take the high obligation of holding me to a standard of becoming Christlike, while striving for that same standard.

Heath Buster said...

I must say, though, that I am quite disturbed by the fact that people who feel the way you do are not given a real voice in the Southern Baptist Convention. I believe that as a Christian my first obligation is to God, then my family, my church & community, and finally to the convention. I myself have seven children whom I love very much. I am very protective of them, and watch with a careful eye all people with whom they come into contact.

Let my also say here that, although I am not in much of a position to do much, I have always fought for leadership of all churches holding themselves above reproach, and being held accountable for any sin/destructive behavior they exhibit. I have prayed diligently today for your needs and the needs of all those like you, and pray all people in trusted positions will take that responsibility with the utmost respect and reverence.

Christa Brown said...

"...most of the pastors with whom I have worked, take abuse of any kind very seriously."

Talk is cheap and easy. Talk does not amount to taking it seriously. I will begin to believe that Southern Baptist pastors and churches take clergy sex abuse seriously when they start cooperating together to address it in a systematic manner, similar to what other major faith groups are already doing.

My own perpetrator, a very prominent children's minister, was on his church's committee to establish policies to protect against child sex abuse -- i.e., to establish the sorts of policies that you describe, Mr. Buster -- policies such as never being alone with a teen or child. I'm sure everyone thought he took abuse "very seriously."

Everyone says they take abuse "very seriously"... including the clergy-perpetrators themselves and including those who have kept quiet about abuse and covered up for it. Everyone.

I have never said or suggested that the 15 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention are all "mean-spirited." However, as a denomination, there is no question but that Southern Baptists are way behind the curve on addressing clergy sex abuse.

"...don't you think it is a little unfair to lump all SBC churches in with the muddy water?"

Southern Baptists themselves are the ones who allow the water to be so muddy. I know that most Baptist pastors are not predatory, but I also know that, without effective systems of accountability, it is impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. If a sewage drain is allowed to drip into a full bucket of pure water, the full bucket becomes polluted even if the drip is quite slow.

"...I am not in much of a position to do much..."

Do you imagine that any of us are in a position to do much? Why does the burden of trying to do something rest on the shoulders of the abuse survivors themselves?

"I have prayed diligently today for your needs and the needs of all those like you..."

Frankly, from my perspective, too many Southern Baptist pastors use the "I have prayed diligently" line as little more than an easy means to assuage their own consciences. I believe God expects more than prayer from us. He expects our best efforts and energies toward protecting the young and vulnerable and ministering to the wounded. If Southern Baptists cannot bring themselves to undertake cooperative efforts for the protection of the young, then they rightly lose a great deal of moral capital. Indeed, I believe they already have.