Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Baptist-style evangelism

Today's comic strip Pearls Before Swine is timely. It does a good job of encapsulating my thoughts about Paige Patterson's door-to-door “taking the hill” evangelism initiative at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. (See my prior posting.)

For those of you who don't follow this comic, the crocodiles are always trying new ways to get at their prey -- i.e., the zebras.

Pearls Before Swine is the brilliant work of Stephan Pastis.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not as bad as Paige Patterson

When someone sent me this photo of former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson, he sent it with a caption that said, “Paige sings for you … I did it... MY... WAAAAAAY!!!" ♪♪♪

I laughed.

But the more I looked at the photo, the more I stopped laughing. I couldn’t stop thinking about all those college girls and young women who tried to tell Paige Patterson about sexual abuse and assaults by Baptist pastor Darrell Gilyard.

The women and girls got no help from Patterson.

So pastor Gilyard went on to reportedly abuse many, many more women and girls -- at least 46 that we now know about -- and probably many more.

At that time, Patterson was the president of Criswell College, a school connected to First Baptist of Dallas, and so the female college girls were students under Patterson’s charge.

But Patterson turned a blind eye to Gilyard’s reported abuses and a deaf ear to the young women who tried to get some help.

Finally, after two decades of do-nothingness from Patterson and other Baptist leaders, the law put a stop to Gilyard when it convicted him of molesting a 15-year-old in Florida.

For two decades, so many people were hurt and so little of nothing was done by Paige Patterson.

Yet, Paige Patterson puts on a military camouflage shirt to talk about “taking the hill” for Christ at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is now the president. According to the Baptist Press, Patterson “stormed the stage” in a fast-attack vehicle and then fired off a round of blanks from a .50-caliber Browning machine gun.

So I guess he looks tough? Is that the idea?

But where was that toughness when it came to protecting kids and vulnerable young women against a Baptist preacher-predator?

Standing next to his attack-vehicle, Patterson talked about the “courage to act” on witnessing opportunities. But where was his “courage to act” when college girls under his charge asked him for help in dealing with a Baptist minister’s sexual abuse?

Yet, this tragi-comic character is someone Southern Baptists are proud of. Paige Patterson is a longtime Southern Baptist leader. He’s now the president of a Baptist seminary that trains the next generation of Baptist leaders. Scary, huh?

If I lived on that hill, I’d turn and run if I saw any of Patterson’s troops on my street.

Despite all the times when I sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in childhood, I now find the militaristic view of evangelism to be offensive. It makes sharing the message of Christ into a conquest, and it turns neighbors into “targets.” But I digress. View the “taking the hill” video and decide for yourself.

Here’s the other thing that photo of Patterson reminded me of. It was almost exactly a year ago when I had a troubling conversation with a Dallas reporter. He had sent an email intended for his boss, explaining why he wasn’t going to cover SNAP’s media event in front of the Baptist General Convention of Texas . . . except the reporter plugged in the wrong address and accidentally sent his email to a SNAP leader. So we got to see what the reporter said to his boss.

His stated reason for not covering the event was this: “In my view, the Baptist General Convention of Texas has done more than any Baptist group to deal with clergy abuse.”

I decided to blog about the reporter’s comment because I think it reflects a common misperception about moderate Baptist groups such as the BGCT. After all, if the Catholic Diocese of Dallas kept a confidential file of priests who had been reported for child molestation but didn’t take action to responsibly assess the reports, didn’t remove the priests from ministry, and didn’t even bother to warn people in the pews, would reporters be content to say “The Dallas Diocese does more than any other Catholic group”?

That’s what’s happening with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Perhaps they don’t call clergy molestation survivors “evil-doers” like Patterson did, but they’re just like Patterson in that they don’t actually do anything about reported preacher-predators.

I sent off an email to give the reporter a link to my blog posting and to let him know about his mistake in sending the email to SNAP instead of his boss.

I didn’t name the reporter in my blog posting, but I think he was a bit embarrassed anyway. He called me and tried to explain. He’s a super-nice guy, but in truth, I thought his explanation only made things worse.

“I think you know what I meant,” he said. “After all, people at the BGCT aren’t as bad as Paige Patterson.”

“Not as bad as Paige Patterson.”

Is that the standard?

As long as Baptist leaders aren’t “as bad as Paige Patterson,” then I guess we’re all just supposed to be grateful and keep quiet?

Is that how it works in Baptist-land?

It’s a pretty low standard, if you ask me.

Update: Because the "taking the hill" video has been removed from the seminary's website, I'm adding this link to the Baptist Press article about it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Find the Baptist pastor

Ricky Mill, a Southern Baptist pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina, went to court last Monday to urge leniency for David Chatham, who pled guilty on child porn charges.

What was the reason for urging leniency? According to pastor Ricky Mill, it was Chatham’s “dedication to Christ.”

Chatham, who was a high-level public relations specialist, had started going to Bible study groups after his arrest.

But before his arrest, he had spent 12 years looking at images of children being molested and sexually abused.

Twelve years.

According to the story reported in the Charlotte Observer, Chatham’s computers were “loaded with more than 3,400 images and videos of naked, molested boys and girls, toddlers and teens.”

3,400 images and videos.

How many kids were in those images and videos? Hundreds? Thousands?

How many kids are tormented by the memories of having their bodies used and abused for the sexual gratification of men like Chatham?

That’s David Chatham in the photo. According to the Charlotte Observer caption, his wife stands by while “he uses his cell phone one last time before heading into federal court.”

Before his arrest, Chatham was “a self-assured executive who could manage a crowd.” He hobnobbed with governors and city council members at charity events. He earned six figures.

But what did the money from his success go to support? The entrapment and abuse of children for the child porn industry.

But oh gee whiz… this public relations specialist started going to Bible studies after his arrest and has shown his “dedication to Christ,” says Southern Baptist pastor Ricky Mill. (Do you think Chatham may have made some significant donations to the church? I wonder.)

Ricky Mill is the “associate pastor of shepherding” at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. It's a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It's a church that shows 17 ministers on its “Meet the Pastors” page: David Horner, Mike Williams, Mike Erwin, Joel Leath, Leon Tucker, Joel McDaniel, Kevin Sweat, Matt Morgan, Dave Owen, C. Bug, Brian Frost, Steve Wright, Blake Hickman, George Tissiere, Ricky Mill, Bob Stancil, Eric Hamsho.

Not one of those 17 pastors is shown on the Southern Baptist Convention’s national online registry of ministers.

So imagine this scenario: You’re someone who was sexually abused by one of those Southern Baptist pastors when you were a kid. Twenty years later, you’re psychologically capable of dealing with it and you want to tell Southern Baptist officials about what this minister did. It’s too late for criminal prosecution -- that’s the usual scenario -- but you still think denominational officials should know so that others may be protected. How do you find the guy? You don’t even know what state he’s in. You write to Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville, and they tell you they don’t have him on their list of Southern Baptist ministers.

So what do you do? Do you hire your own private investigator to try to find the guy? Or do you figure that, since he’s not on the Southern Baptist registry, then maybe you don’t have to worry so much about others? It’s already taken all your emotional energy just to get this far. Since no one in Southern Baptist circles is going to help you, and since he doesn’t show up on their registry anyway, maybe you decide to just let it go.

And so, the man continues in a position of trust as a pastor, with full access to kids, and with no one the wiser.

There isn’t anything unusual about this scenario. Lots and lots of Southern Baptist ministers don’t show up on the Southern Baptist registry of ministers. So if all you’ve got is a Baptist pastor’s name, good luck with finding him.

It’s bad enough that Southern Baptists don’t bother with keeping records on ministers who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse, but they don’t even keep basic records on the names of their ministers.

If Baptist leaders won’t do the job of exercising responsible oversight for ministers who bear the Baptist brand, then the very least they should do is to maintain a complete listing of the names of Baptist ministers and their locations. That would at least give abuse survivors, who are capable of speaking out, a fighting chance at finding their Baptist clergy perpetrators and of doing the job of trying to warn others.

It’s the job that Baptist leaders themselves ought to be doing and the job that they would do if they actually gave a hoot about kids.

Incidentally, a study done at a federal prison found that about “85 percent of men imprisoned for receiving or distributing child pornography and who did not have a known history of committing sexual abuse when arrested actually had committed a hands-on offense.”

So … even though the men had never been convicted on child molestation, when they got jailed on child porn, it was discovered that 85 percent had actually committed sexual abuse offenses.

Yet, Southern Baptist pastors like Ricky Mill urge leniency for a man convicted on child porn.

And as for David Chatham . . . he’s now in jail and blogging about his experience at From Shame to Grace.

More information on the study about the incidence of child molestation among men convicted on child porn charges can be found in this New York Times article and in the Journal of Family Violence. Thanks to Baptist Planet for providing these links.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Let us prey (on women)

“Where does the Baptist buck stop?” That was the title of a 2002 column by longtime religion writer Terry Mattingly. He was one of the first to articulate why it is so much more difficult to get a handle on clergy sex abuse among Baptists than among some other faith groups.

Now, Mattingly has written a column about the new study on clergy abuse of adult congregants, and he voices some special concerns about Baptists.

"Abuse happens everywhere, but the abused — in a denominational setting — at least have a hierarchy of some kind to which they can appeal. And then there is the issue of the bottom line: Their lawyers have larger institution to sue that, to one degree or another, is supposed to be monitoring the careers of its clergy.

Meanwhile, the nation is filling up with totally independent, nondenominational churches with few if any ties — especially legal ties — to anyone or anything. Is anyone keeping track of the clergy who serve these churches? Is anyone accountable for them? We are dealing with a form of church government and tradition called the “free church” and, truth is, the clergy in these churches are very, very free indeed.

I do not want to pick on the Southern Baptist Convention . . . The clergy are ordained by local congregations and, while they are registered for pensions and the like, there is not an official system that governs the movement or monitoring of clergy. . . .

The SBC, however, resembles the Roman Catholic Church in contrast with the totally disorganized, non-structured reality that is the post-denominational world."

Terry Mattingly, who knows and understands Southern Baptists quite well, sees the reality of things: Southern Baptists merely pretend to be nondenominational but they're actually quite structured. Yet, on the abuse front, Southern Baptists fail to make their clergy "subject to discipline" in the way that most other denominations do.

You can read the rest of Terry Mattingly's insightful column here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Remember the boys of Benton

When there’s an oil spill, people try to figure out how many barrels of oil went down. They want to know the extent of the damage.

But when there’s a Baptist clergy predator, people hunker down and try not to think about how many kids were harmed. They don’t want to know the extent of the damage.

I think that’s what’s happening at First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas. Now that their longtime music minister has been convicted on child sex crimes, the church wants to close the door on all the ugliness and get back to their comfortable feel-good status-quo.

But something awful happened at First Baptist of Benton, and it’s a mistake to try to put it in the past too fast.

At this place -- First Baptist of Benton -- at least two decades of church boys were sexually abused. And it was more likely closer to three decades’ worth because David Pierce had been the music minister at that church for 29 years.

First Baptist of Benton wasn’t a sanctuary for those boys. It was a snare.

How many boys were abused during Pierce’s 29 year tenure?

Published news reports told of at least seven. Investigators said they had talked with “many.” And one of the victims said there were likely “dozens – maybe triple digits.”

So how many boys were wounded at First Baptist of Benton?

Any why doesn’t anyone seem to think it’s worth trying to find out?

Those boys -- most of them now grown -- are undoubtedly scattered all across the country. Shouldn’t church leaders try to reach out to them and help them?

Shouldn’t church leaders be trying to bring in the lost sheep? Or at least trying to bind their wounds?

Where are the good shepherds of First Baptist of Benton?

Why isn’t pastor Rick Grant making public entreaties to try to reach out to the many who were wounded in his church? And why isn’t this powerful church making public offers of independent counseling for all who were wounded by their former minister?

The consensus of psychological experts, experience, and common sense will tell you that there are likely many, many more Pierce victims who remain silent, mired in undue shame and self-blame. Where is the outreach to try to help them?

And what about the prior pastors of First Baptist of Benton? Men like Greg Kirksey and Randel Everett -- men who have become very prominent in the denomination? Where are their pastoral voices of outreach and care for the boys of Benton?

Pierce served under these other pastors as well. And his crimes likely happened on their watch also.

When so many have been so dreadfully wounded, church and denominational leaders owe it to those people to try to learn from what happened. Not only should they engage in public outreach to the wounded, but they should also engage a serious inquiry into how a tragedy of such magnitude may have been prevented.

There are lessons that can be learned from Benton, and leaders will lose those lessons if they put it in the past too fast.

David Pierce was a minister at First Baptist of Benton for 29 years. For at least 2 decades, and probably more, he sexually abused boys in the church. No background check would have shown anything.

But imagine these scenarios:
  1. You’re a 40 year old man and you’ve got a son who turns 15. This reality sets in motion a cascade of thoughts and feelings about what the Benton music minister did to you when you were 15. You have the thought of telling someone about it, but who would you tell? You live several states away, but you know from Thanksgiving visits that the town still loves the man, and you figure out pretty fast that it wouldn’t do any good to try to make a police report. Too much time has passed. Besides, the police chief is a church deacon. So you call the state denominational offices, thinking they might have someone who can help you. They don’t. So you hunker back into your pain, and you worry every day about what that music minister might still be doing to other boys all these years later. You worry so much you make yourself sick. Literally. But who can you tell? Who can you tell that might do anything?
  2. You’re a 30 year old man and your marriage is on the rocks. Actually, it seems to have crashed against the cliffs. Somehow, in the midst of the rubble, you keep thinking about the Benton music minister and what he did to you when you were 15. You think about how much you loved the church, and how much it meant to you, and how much you used to believe all that. You decide to talk to the church’s senior pastor about it. You muster all your faith to go sit in his office, but to your surprise, the pastor doesn’t do much of anything. He asks you to come back the next week when he brings the music minister in to apologize to you. He talks about forgiveness and about letting go and about not hurting the church family. He wants the three of you to pray together, and so you bow your head, just like you always did as a kid. You walk out thinking about all your relatives who go to the church, and you know for sure that you don’t want to hurt them or anyone else. Besides, maybe the pastor is right, you think -- maybe you’re the one who needs to learn to let go of things. And anyway, who else can you tell? Who can you tell that might do anything?
In both of these scenarios, if there had been a safe and welcoming place to which the victims could have readily turned, Pierce may have been stopped sooner. If there had been a professionally-trained denominational panel to objectively assess clergy abuse reports, then other kids may have been protected.

Though both scenarios may have been outside the period for criminal prosecution, a denominational review board could have provided objective information to people in the pews and could have given parents some warning. Congregants could have then chosen to remove the mantle of ministerial trust from Pierce’s shoulders so that other kids could be better safeguarded.

Even if these scenarios would not have put Pierce in prison, they may have at least prevented him from using the blasphemous guise of “God’s will” and “discipleship” as weapons against the boys of Benton.

Remember the boys of Benton.

Remember them now, and remember them in the future every time you read about a Baptist clergy abuse case.

The best way to make church kids safer against clergy abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about clergy abuse in the past. An independent denominational review board could assure that someone will at least listen.

Read Descent from Darkness, the blog of one of the many who were abused at First Baptist Church of Benton.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's more than 3 percent

According to a new study, “one in 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader.” That’s about 3 percent of the women sitting in pews, and the study showed that the conduct crosses all denominational lines.

I’m glad to see a study that gives actual numbers to what anyone who pays attention has long known is a widespread and devastating problem -- clergy who sexually exploit adult congregants. But my concern about the study is that it may inadvertently give a misimpression as to the number of women being abused.

I think the number is really much bigger than that 3 percent.

The actual executive summary of the study says that the 3 percent figure is based on “women who had attended a congregation in the past month.” Thus, the study merely shows that 3 percent of churchgoing women had experienced “clergy sexual misconduct.” (I’ve also got a longstanding problem with that minimizing word “misconduct,” but I’ve blogged about that in the past and so I’ll let that one slide for now.)

Here’s the thing: The study doesn’t reflect the women who were sexually abused by a religious leader and who completely stopped going to church. Nor does it reflect the women who were sexually abused by a religious leader and who now go to church only sporadically.

Based on the people I hear from, I expect there are probably at least as many clergy-abused women who don’t go to church as those who do.

Gee whiz. . . it’s not hard to imagine why they might stop going to church, is it?

Particularly among those who went through the painful and usually futile effort of trying to report the minister, many simply gave up on the whole notion of a faith community. After that, it wasn’t about the betrayal of one religious leader, but with the stonewalling and victim-blaming that almost invariably occurs in churches, it wound up being a betrayal by the entirety of the woman’s faith community.

Lots of those women simply don’t go back. They don’t go to any church. Ever.

For example, imagine all those young women who were sexually abused by former Baptist pastor Darrell Gilyard -- at least 44 of them that we know about. (I say “former” because Gilyard was recently convicted of child molestation.)

Many of those women were essentially kicked in the teeth by former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson when they tried to report Gilyard’s abuse. And what many of them were reporting was actually characterized as assaults and rape. All of it was abusive.

But Patterson, a high-level Southern Baptist leader, turned his back on those young women.

What sort of message do you imagine that sent? Was it a message of care and concern from the Baptist faith community? No, certainly not.

Is it any wonder that some of those women may have come around to believing that a faith community is a charade?

Would you be surprised to learn that some of those women had not "attended a congregation in the past month?"

The number of women who have been sexually abused by clergy is a whole lot bigger than that 3 percent.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BaptistLife review of "This Little Light"

Some of you will remember William Thornton, a minister who is a discussion moderator on the BaptistLife site. At the end of 2006, some of you shared pieces of your clergy abuse stories on this site and engaged a lengthy dialogue with other Baptist ministers. I think it was the first big blog discussion ever had on Baptist clergy sex abuse, and I suspect it may have been one of the longest threads ever pursued on the BaptistLife forums.

I know it was painful for many of you at the time. The callous harshness of some of the posted responses was very hurtful. Yet, for many of us, we made that painful effort to engage Baptists in a dialogue on clergy sex abuse because we held the vague hope that it might help to open hearts and to eventually bring about change within the denomination.

So far, I can’t see that there has been much change in the denomination. Baptists are entrenched in mass-scale denial, and compared to other major faith groups, Baptists seem determined to be “lasteth with the leasteth” in addressing clergy sex abuse.

But perhaps there has been some small bit of opening in some few hearts.

Rev. William Thornton just posted his review of my book on the BaptistLife forums.
It’s under the Baptist Life & Practice forum (as opposed to the SBC News forum), and he posted it Monday, June 7, under the thread “Christa Brown’s book on clergy sexual abuse.” I have cut and pasted it below. Thanks, William.

Christa Brown’s book on clergy sexual abuse

Christa Brown was kind enough to send me a copy of her book This Little LIght: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang. She is known from her website Stop Baptist Predators and has blogged about the book on her blog, here .

You are a 16 year-old girl as active in your Southern Baptist, Baptist General Convention of Texas affiliated church as a kid can be; a kid who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, never been on a date, never been kissed, never even held hands with a boy, when your married youth minister zeros in on you with sexual innuendo and physical horseplay, finds ways to isolate you from the rest of the church kids, and who uses perverted spiritual talk and Bible quotes to call evil good and wrong right and eventually end up with you doing pretty much anything he wanted you to do sexually - 16 year-old kid, married adult clergy staff minister. Along the way, you are forced to apologize for seducing him. You finally spill things to another staff minister in the church who already has some knowledge about it, and eventually come to understand that perhaps others in the church and community knew something was going on if not exactly what was going on. Your minister/abuser eventually moves on to a larger churches and years of high level positions in his field in some of the largest churches in the SBC. You are left with the emotional and spiritual wreckage of the abuse out of which pretty much every church memory is soiled, but decide three decades later that this wasn't right and isn't right and someone should do something about it.

And you decide to do it.

You expect at least some level of apology, compassion, and at least some degree of justice from the church, the abuser, the BGCT, and the SBC, any or all of them.

What you get is: a lot of people wishing you would go away, a lot of people just ignoring you, some people in the BGCT making promises and then silently letting them slide by; you get hardball tactics from church and BGCT attorneys, melifluous words from some Baptist leaders in private but never in public; encouraging words from SBC executive Committee members in private, but followed by "you can't ever tell anyone I said that"; you get a lecture from the clergy sex abuse expert in the denomination; you get snubbed by some denominational leaders and rudeness from others. You get called a liar and a long list of other things, none good. You learn that there is BGCT money to help abusers return to ministry but none for victims. You learn that the BGCT accepts reports of abuse by clergy, but only from churches and not abused individuals. You get to hear SBC pronounce that there were 40 cases of abuse in 15 years, at about the same time you have difficulty in managing your email inbox from other abused individuals telling you their story.

You eventually spend a lot of your own money and time and wrest an apology from the church but no church leader then or now ever looks you in the eyes and says, "I'm sorry."

You finally conclude that any person or entity with the name "Baptist" will be of no help.

Aren't there any good guy Baptists in this sordid tale? Bob Allen in a big way, Wade Burleson in a smaller way. That's about it for the Baptist bruthus.

Update 9/9/09: See Baptist Planet's review on William Thornton's review: “This Little Light of hers outshines the abusers.” (Incidentally, I'm glad to see you back in the saddle, Baptist Planet.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

No BBQ for Baptist abuse survivors

I couldn’t help but ponder the juxtaposition of Baptist events in Arkansas at the end of August.

In Rogers, Arkansas, there was “BBQ for lunch” as Southern Baptist honchos met to talk about how they could better evangelize the world. Their Great Commission Resurgence Task Force invited hundreds of Baptist pastors, staff persons and trustees of Baptist entities to a luncheon “listening session.”

At the exact same time, and just down the road in Benton, Arkansas, a prominent Southern Baptist minister was being convicted on sexual indecency with children. He was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs, ending what authorities said was two decades of sexually preying on teen boys in the church’s youth choir.

One of the minister’s victims estimated that there were likely “dozens, maybe triple digits” of boys who were abused by that minister.

I think he’s probably right. At least a hundred boys were probably abused by First Baptist of Benton’s minister. Experts say that a man who molests boys averages about 150 victims, and we know that this Benton minister had been actively preying on church-boys for at least two decades.

I can’t help but think that those Southern Baptist honchos in Rogers might have accomplished more if they had held a “listening session” for the boys -- many of them now grown -- who were sexually abused in Benton.

In fact, maybe they should have taken their whole barbeque to Benton. And maybe they should have invited the hundreds of other Baptist clergy abuse survivors from all over the country.

Maybe those Southern Baptist honchos would have learned more from listening to a hundred Baptist clergy abuse survivors than from listening to a hundred of their colleagues.

Maybe if they would hold “listening sessions” for Baptist abuse survivors -- maybe if they would hear even a fraction of the horrors I hear -- they would begin to sensitize themselves to the depths of this problem within their faith group. Maybe then, they would begin to do something about it. Maybe then, they would implement clergy-accountability systems similar to those in other major faith groups.

After all, Southern Baptist honchos have certainly shown that they can gear up fast when it’s something they care about. When 95 percent of Southern Baptist “messengers” authorized a study of how Baptists could work more effectively “in serving Christ through the Great Commission,” a Great Commission Task Force was immediately appointed, and their names were made public. Southern Baptist president Johnny Hunt said the task force would meet once a month and that they would issue interim reports. He talked about how “we owe it to our denomination” to keep them informed about the work of the task force.

Clearly, this is something the honchos think is important.

They immediately set out to obtain task force funding from the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, and they quickly set up a sophisticated website outreach effort at pray4gcr.com. Individuals can “interact with the task force through blogs, Facebook and Twitter, sign up for updates about significant developments and see photos of the 23 task force members.”

In advance of their first “listening session,” they mailed out invitations to 1800 Southern Baptists for that barbeque luncheon in Rogers. “We want to hear” from people, said task force chairman Ronnie Floyd.

Now contrast all of this activity with all of the nothingness that was done in response to the near-unanimous vote of Southern Baptist messengers for a study on creating a database of credibly-accused clergy child molesters.

Southern Baptist honchos never even had a budget for that so-called study. And there sure as heck weren’t any “listening sessions” for Baptist clergy abuse survivors.

You get BBQ for lunch if you want to talk about how to increase the baptism numbers for Southern Baptists.

You get a cold shoulder if you want to talk about the sexual abuse of Baptist ministers in Baptist churches.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Denial: It ain't just a river

Last week in Arkansas, the longtime music minister at a prominent Southern Baptist church pled guilty to 4 counts of sexual indecency with children. It was a plea bargain deal. He had been charged on 54 counts.

David Pierce was the music minister at First Baptist of Benton for 29 years, and he preyed on trust-filled boys during much of that time. The prosecutor said there were “many” who claimed to have been victimized by Pierce “during the past two decades,” but that the statute of limitations had run on many of the claims.

So, the four charges on which Pierce pled guilty are just the tip of the iceberg. Even the 54 counts on which he was criminally charged are just the tip of the iceberg. We know there were many more who spoke up but whose claims were too old to support criminal charges. And there are likely many, many more who have never spoken of it at all but remain lost in silent undue shame.

In the face of so many wounded people, what did minister Pierce have to say for himself in the courtroom?


Pierce “offered no apology or explanation.” Instead, after the hearing was over, Pierce had his attorney read a statement that Pierce had prepared in advance. In that prepared statement, Pierce said this:

“The past several weeks have been very difficult for many, including the congregation of First Baptist Church, the people of this community, and those affected by these circumstances, and especially my family.”

“Those affected by these circumstances”???

Doesn’t he mean “those whom I sexually abused as kids”?

Do you see how Pierce tries to distance himself and to use words that minimize what he did? Those boys were not affected by mere “circumstances.” They were wounded by the sexual abuse that Pierce himself inflicted on them. And Pierce inflicted that abuse on countless boys, over and over again, during the course of two decades.

Pierce’s prepared statement then goes on to say this:

“Our family has learned that forgiveness and reconciliation are the first steps to mending broken hearts. To that end, I express my most sincere apologies to every person affected by my actions. It was never my intention to hurt anyone.”

Amazing, isn’t it? Just minutes after he was taken away in handcuffs, Pierce has his lawyer read a statement in which Pierce presumes to sermonize people on “forgiveness.”

Then there’s the clincher -- the part that really gets me. Pierce says, “It was never my intention to hurt anyone.”

Yeah. I believe that. Pierce’s intent was focused solely on himself. On his own sexual gratification and on the perverse satisfaction he got from controlling others through religious manipulation. But the boys themselves -- those other human beings who were in front of him -- they were irrelevant to Pierce.

For Pierce, those boys weren’t soul-filled human beings at all. He didn’t respect their humanity. He simply used their bodies to serve his own ends.

When a drunk driver crosses the center line and kills a family, he probably didn’t intend such horrific harm. He intended to drink, and he intended to drive, but he didn’t intend to kill anyone. Nevertheless, the law still holds him criminally accountable because his actions entail a high risk of serious harm to others.

When a trusted minister sexually abuses kids, he may not consciously hold the intention of hurting anyone. But there is a 100 percent probability that his actions will cause serious harm to the kids. One hundred percent. It’s not just a high risk scenario like the drunk driver; it’s a one-hundred-percent scenario.

That’s why Pierce’s stated “intention” is irrelevant. Sexual abuse of kids causes them serious harm. Period. So no one should be impressed by Pierce’s statement that “it was never my intention to hurt anyone.” The “hurt” is a 100 percent probability. Pierce’s statement merely underscores his own ongoing denial, rationalization and minimization.

But of course, Pierce isn’t alone in his denial. The denial of Pierce the perpetrator is supported by the denial of other leaders in the faith community.

The church’s former pastor, Greg Kirksey, who was also a 2-term president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, wrote a letter to the judge, asking for “leniency” and essentially telling the judge that Pierce should “not be sentenced to prison.”

You have to wonder whether Kirksey would ever make the same request for a non-clergy child molester. “Please, Judge, no prison time for this admitted child molester.” How many times do you think Kirksey has done that? Did he do it this time because Pierce was a fellow Baptist minister?

Do you think Kirksey imagines that Pierce’s status as a minister makes his crimes less heinous? It doesn’t. It makes his crimes even worse. But perhaps Kirksey is too mired in denial to comprehend that.

As they say… “Denial – it ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

And here’s what Rick Grant, the church’s current pastor, told the press, “It is hard to see someone you’ve known for years as a friend, mentor and colleague end up in this kind of circumstance.”

There it is again -- that minimizing word -- “circumstance.” Is it any wonder that the perpetrator deflects it as a mere “circumstance” when that’s also what his senior pastor calls it?

It makes it sound as though this was something that just sort of happened, doesn’t it? As though it were a “circumstance” beyond anyone’s control, and Pierce just happened to “end up” in it.

But of course, that isn’t how it was. It wasn’t just a “circumstance.” It was intentional, deliberate and calculated conduct that minister David Pierce pursued for at least two decades, using a church ministry as lure for his prey.

Then, after calling two decades’ worth of a minister’s child sex abuse a mere “circumstance,” pastor Rick Grant quickly shifted gears to sing the praises of First Baptist -- this church in which countless boys were horribly harmed -- and to say that “God will bless us if we strive to follow his will for our lives.”

Pastor Grant still doesn’t get it, does he? That’s what all those boys were trying to do. They were striving to follow God’s will, as it was maliciously brainwashed into them by one of pastor Grant’s staff ministers.

At First Baptist Church of Benton, striving to follow God’s will is what got those boys sexually abused by a minister.

For more insights on the nature of denial in sex offenders, see Sex offenders refuse plea bargains in The Morning News, 8/29/09.

For more info on this story of decades-long clergy sex abuse at First Baptist Church of Benton, see my prior postings: (1)
Questions need answers in Benton; (2) Basically brainwashing; (3) What’s wrong with this picture? and (4) A good man who does nothing.

See also BaptistPlanet's take: “Sentenced after confessing more than a decade of sexual abuse.”