Tuesday, August 11, 2009
This is an edited version of the speech I delivered at the annual SNAP convention in Washington D.C. on August 8, 2009. Most members of the audience were clergy abuse survivors and supporters who were raised in the Catholic faith.
Baptist-land: Mapping the terrain
So what’s the story with Baptists?
Where do we stand in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination?
The short answer: Baptists are about a decade behind the Catholics, maybe more.
Someone once said that Baptists are “the lasteth with the leasteth.” That’s sure true on how they handle clergy sex abuse.
A few numbers to give you some sense of the scale of things:
Southern Baptists are the second-largest religious body in the United States – second only to Catholics. They’re twice as big as the next largest Protestant group – the Methodists. I tend to talk mostly about the Southern Baptists because I was raised Southern Baptist and because they’re by far the biggest. But there are actually about 25 more kinds of Baptists, and if you count all of them, Baptists are about 4 times as big as any other Protestant group.
Baptists are spread all over the country, but in the South is where they absolutely dominate. There are huge parts of the South where Baptists are 25 to 50 percent of the population, and there are some areas where Baptists are MORE than 50 percent. That gives them a whole lot of power and influence in the South.
Averaged across the whole of the country, about 1 in 6 Americans identify themselves as being Baptist.
What this means is that a whole lot of kids are at risk in this faith group.
Population-wise, Baptist-land is about the size of Canada.
And it’s a wide-open, lawless land. Baptist-land is sort of like the Wild West about 150 years ago.
These are the Badlands. The canyons are deep. The land is parched. Marauders run free. And there aren’t any sheriffs in Baptist-land. Each and every little church is a law unto itself.
That’s what makes Baptist-land different from Catholic-land. Each and every church – nearly 45,000 of them among Southern Baptists alone – is a law unto itself. At least that’s what Baptists say.
It’s what they call their “congregationalist polity.” Each and every church is on its own. There’s no heirarchy. There’s no supervisory authority. There’s no chain of command.
Some of you who have spent so many years watching how little most Catholic bishops do may see some humor in this. You know what Baptist leaders say for why they can’t do anything about clergy sex abuse in their churches?
“Because we have no bishops.”
That's what they say. That’s their reason for why they can’t do anything.
“Because we have no bishops.”
They wring their hands. They talk about how powerless they are -- "powerless" -- this denomination that takes in $10 billion a year. But they can’t do anything about ministers who are reported for abusing kids. Why? “Because we have no bishops.”
They can’t remove them from ministry, they say. Why? “Because we have no bishops.”
They can’t even keep records on men who are reported for abuse. Why? “Because we have no bishops.”
Now I know what you’re thinking. BULL -- right? But the thing is, it works -- for them. It stinks. But it works.
It gives them this great First Amendment freedom of religion argument. They get to structure their religion however they want – they say that’s the way the Bible tells them it’s supposed to be – and then they structure it as a buck-stops-nowhere organization – and the law can’t touch them. Everyone except the perp himself and possibly the little local church is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment... or so Baptist leaders say... and so far... what they say has worked.
There’s no oversight mechanism and no supervisory authority.
As a Baptist historian once pointed out, when things go wrong, there is no one who has the power to intervene. That’s how the whole system is set up. “When something goes wrong… there is no there out there.”
If you’re an old Star Trek fan, it’s kind of like the Romulan spaceship with its cloaking device. Baptists are a denomination only when they want to be. When something goes wrong, the denomination disappears. “There is no there out there.”
As a practical matter, what that means is that everyone just stands silent while an accused minister saddles up his horse and heads on down the road. Then he shows up at some other church in Baptist-land. No one assigned him there. He was just allowed to go there.
But of course, for kids, it doesn’t make much difference. Whether a minister is “assigned” or “allowed,” the kids are still just as molested, just as raped, and just as wounded.
But that’s how it is in Baptist-land. Predators can wander from town to town, church to church – they wander at will – they roam freely. Whenever the territory gets a little hot – whenever someone starts to suspect or if someone starts talking – then they just move on. And for miles and miles of that Wild West Baptist-land, they won’t encounter anyone who’s gonna stop them.
You could end the statute of limitations in every state in the country. You could get windows legislation in every state – which is extremely important. But even if THAT happened, you would STILL not have very many lawsuits against Baptist organizations, and you would STILL not have very many lawsuits that would gather much media attention.
It’s why Baptist leaders don’t worry much about the efforts to reform statutes of limitation. They’ve got this HUGE other wall of protection. And so far, no one has gotten past that wall.
Now I personally believe that, sooner or later, that wall WILL come tumbling down. But remember... these are the Badlands. It may take a very long time to bring the law out here to the Baptist Badlands. Because the way it works now, it’s almost impossible to ever find a hand on the gun. That’s how their religion works.
The bullets are blazing, but there’s no hand on the gun. It’s as though there’s a bunch of rifles stuck up there in the rocks above the canyons, and those rifles are triggered to fire when a kid trips a wire, but no one ever has to take responsibility for putting the rifles there to start with. It’s as though the rifles got there all on their own.
A lot of Baptist leaders know about a lot of those rifles up in those canyons. They know. But the thing is – the way their religion is structured, they don’t ever have to take ownership of knowing. So those Baptist boys are just yuk-yukking it up, playin’ dominoes and swiggin’ back some Texas tea, and they’re laughin’ at all those fools out there tryin’ to figure out who put the rifles in the rocks.
In my own case, 18 Baptist leaders in 4 different states all knew about my molester. At least one of them knew about it ever since I was a kid. But they all just yuk-yukked it up and did nothing and the man kept right on as a children’s minister. Those leaders got certified letters. Another minister swore to his knowledge of the abuse. Nothing happened. Eighteen of them. And every one of them was able to say “I’ve got no authority. We don’t have that kind of structure. Not my problem.”
It’s like this whole wide Baptist-land is infested with rattlesnakes. But nobody actually “assigns” any particular rattlesnake to be at a particular canyon. “We have no bishops” in Baptist-land. Nobody assigns anybody. The rattlesnakes are just “called by God” to be there in that particular canyon at that time – at that particular church.
And if one of the other preachers in the church – a deacon or pastor – starts to hear the sound of the rattle, they don’t have any obligation to look too closely or to figure out whether that rattle is really attached to a snake. So they just tell the minister to slither on down the road. They don’t assign him to go elsewhere. They just turn their backs and allow him to go elsewhere.
After all . . . if God called him to go to some other canyon, then that’s God’s business.
There’s no structure that says it’s anyone else’s business. “We have no bishops.”
But we sure got plenty of rattlesnakes.
Posted by Christa Brown at 8:42 PM