Remember the “what’s wrong with this picture” feature in Highlights magazine? As a kid, I would huddle in a library corner, studying the two seemingly identical pictures and trying to figure out what was wrong with the second one. Sometimes I’d spot a rabbit in the bushes that wasn’t in the first picture, or maybe an additional squirrel scurrying up a tree. Sometimes, the second picture would erase things instead of add things. I’d count the stripes on a girl’s skirt because there might be 8 stripes in the first picture, and only 7 in the second. Or maybe a boy’s hat would have vanished. You had to look at everything very closely.
That’s how I feel whenever I see news on the Arkansas case involving the prominent First Baptist Church of Benton. There is something wrong with the picture.
On Friday, April 24th, Sheriff Bruce Pennington announced the arrest of Southern Baptist music minister David Pierce on one count of sexual indecency with a child. The sheriff himself made the arrest. The sheriff is a member of the church. That was the first thing that didn’t look quite right.
Pastor Rick Grant then issued this statement: "First Baptist Church has terminated the employment of David Pierce, our longtime music minister, as a result of serious moral failures on his part. The events for which he was terminated occurred several years ago, but left the church no alternative other than to dismiss him."
The official Baptist Press hopped on top of this story. That was sure weird. The Baptist Press ignores almost all other Baptist clergy sex abuse stories. So why did they hop on this one?
In not just one, but two articles, they painted a picture of church officials who “immediately” terminated Pierce and who contacted authorities “upon learning of the allegations.” In local media as well, the pastor said the church had terminated Pierce “when the allegations were made.” This claim was repeated so often that it almost looked like bragging… as though the church had done everything right.
But there’s something wrong with this picture.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that three adult men said Pierce had abused them years earlier. According to the Democrat-Gazette, when church leaders became aware of the teen’s claim of abuse, “they contacted authorities and provided investigators with the names of the three adult church members who also said they were abused by Pierce when they were younger….”
What’s wrong with this picture?
Gmommy saw it right away. “I'm wondering why it was the pastor who gave that info to the police after their music minister was arrested,” she asked. Gmommy had seen how things played out at the prominent Bellevue Baptist Church, where the pastor kept quiet for 6 months about a staff minister’s admitted abuse of a kid. So she readily saw what looked like a possible similar pattern at First Baptist of Benton.
I saw it too.
And the Benton Courier gave us still another piece that made the picture look all the more wrong. It reported that, on April 23, the church’s senior deacon, Paul White, spoke with a detective, and “at that time,” deacon White “provided the names of three men who allegedly told the church pastor, Dr. Rick Grant, that as teenagers they had been victimized by Pierce.”
Did you get that? On April 23 -- the day before Pierce was arrested on the charge involving the teen and the day before Pastor Rick Grant issued his rather minimizing statement -- church leaders already knew about 3 adult men who said they were sexually abused by Pierce when they were younger. But their claims were too old to prosecute.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
How did it happen that, at the very moment when Pierce was being arrested on an allegation involving a teen whose claim could still be prosecuted, church leaders were able to readily provide investigators with the names of 3 adults who said they had been abused as teens? When -- exactly -- did church leaders know about the earlier allegations? And if church leaders already knew about 3 others, why hadn't Pierce already been removed from ministry, pending at least a church investigation?
And why wasn’t Pastor Grant totally transparent in his initial statement on April 24th? Why didn’t he tell people from the get-go that others, who are now adults, had also reported abuse by Pierce? Why did he leave people to puzzle over trying to figure out what’s wrong with the picture?
Pierce has now been charged with 53 more counts of sexual indecency with children. The charges involve 4 boys, all of whom are “still teenagers,” and so they’re within the time limit for criminal prosecution. Authorities say the charges are based on “incidents” within the past three years, but that “the kind of activity … is believed to date back as far as 15 years.”
Given that “the kind of activity” can be traced back 15 years, you have to wonder whether there could be victims with allegations dating back even further -- victims who are still quiet. After all, Pierce was at that church for 29 years.
Why aren’t all the FBC-Benton pastors who served with Pierce taking public and pro-active measures to reach out to additional possible victims? A lot of kids were under their pastoral care during Pierce’s 29-year tenure. If you were a Pierce victim, don’t you think it might help if the pastor of your childhood reached out to try to help you?
Pierce had a scheduled court hearing a couple days ago, on June 15th, but the hearing was continued. The attorney needed more time to review “the extensive evidence in the case.”
After the hearing, a member of First Baptist Church of Benton, Greg White, talked to reporters and said this: “I believe it’s important if a Christian brother asks for forgiveness, we as Christians should accept that.” Greg White is also a member of the Benton City Council.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Imagine this: You’re a man who was sexually abused by Pierce when you were a kid. Maybe you even told the pastor about it, as the Courier reported that some did. Are you going to speak up and tell all that you know about how church officials handled your report, or didn't handle it, when you can readily see how the deck is stacked -- a prominent city councilman preaching “forgiveness,” the sheriff himself singing the church’s praise, and the senior pastor giving the scene a lovely feel-good gloss. Are you going to be the one to point out what’s wrong with that glossed-over picture?
Now take a look at some of the comments that people in the community left on this early article about the Pierce case. Stuff like this:
- “Most out-of-the-family child abuse is caused by uninformed children. They need to know what is appropriate and what is not.” (4/25/09 7:55)
- “To those who have never met David Pierce you really should not judge. This man has helped many people during his 30 years of ministry.” (4/25/09 8:05)
- “He should be forgiven because: Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” (4/29/09 3:14)
- “You are now murderers for if you say things y’all are saying you are destroying a church of God in his eyes - you are murdering his people.” (5/1/09 1:30)
- And allegedly, a Friends of David Pierce account was opened at the local bank to raise money for Pierce and his family. (5/9/09 9:33)
Still think you’re going to speak up if you live in this community? If your parents and family members live in this community? If they still go to this church?
Baptists don’t make it easy for clergy abuse survivors. There’s just way too much that’s way too wrong with the picture.