Saturday, October 31, 2009

What a difference a database may have made

Former Southern Baptist pastor Ralph Lee Aaron “is now facing charges on 152 ‘atrocious acts’ stemming from allegations he sexually abused and tortured young boys” while on church camping trips. Numerous charges of possessing and disseminating child porn are also included within the 152 counts.

The case came to light because a mother “heard rumors of a previous incident” involving pastor Aaron,” and she sat down and talked with her young son. The mother determined that her son may have had inappropriate contact with pastor Aaron, and so she went to the police.

That mom’s action served to get an alleged serial predator out of the pulpit. That mom’s action will work to protect other kids in the future. That mom’s action will mean that kids who have already been wounded may get help sooner rather than later.

Thank God for that mom.

But no thanks to any Southern Baptist leaders.

The “previous incident” that the mom heard “rumors” about stemmed from a 2005 complaint when pastor Aaron was at Victory Baptist Church in Andalusia, Alabama. No criminal charges were filed in 2005 because the statute of limitations had run out by the time the complaint was filed.

But even though no criminal charges were filed, the people at Victory Baptist were apparently concerned. According to a comment under the Andalusia Star-News article, Victory Baptist fired pastor Aaron. So . . . they got him out of their own church, but what did they do to protect others?

After leaving Victory Baptist, pastor Aaron went to Grace Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational church in the same town of Andalusia, Alabama. Do you think Victory Baptist warned the people at Grace Christian Fellowship?

Or did it all become nothing more than a “rumor” in that town?

A “rumor” that apparently only one woman had the gumption to take seriously.

I don’t know exactly what Victory Baptist did or didn’t do, but I know what typically happens. Churches don’t tell. They’re afraid the pastor will sue them for ruining his career.

In describing how another Baptist pastor was able to go from church to church despite multiple abuse allegations, writer Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly magazine explained it this way: “To avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy.”

That’s Baptistland. It’s the place where preacher-predators can simply church-hop through the porous sieve of the Baptist network.

Apparently, this wasn’t the first time pastor Ralph Aaron church-hopped. A couple more comments under the Andalusia Star-News article say that, before arriving at Victory Baptist, pastor Aaron worked at still another Southern Baptist church in Samson, Alabama. One person, who says that Aaron was his pastor for 6 years at Samson, tells of how Aaron was “mysteriously fired” from that church. “One Sunday he was there and the next Sunday the deacons had ousted him,” he states.

So . . . it sounds as though the deacons at the Samson church may have also known something about pastor Aaron.

But did they warn others?

I doubt it. It was probably easier just to let him go rather than to look too closely.

And there’s nothing in Baptistland that requires anyone to look too closely.

That’s the problem.

If there were a professionally-staffed denominational review board -- people tasked with looking closely -- then maybe the deacons of the Samson church could have reported pastor Aaron and gotten some help with whatever the reasons were for their alleged “mysterious” firing of him.

And maybe if such a review board had existed, and if it kept records on clergy abuse complaints, then pastor Aaron may not have been placed in a new position of trust as pastor of Victory Baptist in Andalusia.

And even if Victory Baptist had hired Aaron anyway, if a denominational review board had existed, then maybe Victory Baptist could have reported the complaint made at its church, and perhaps Aaron would not have been able to get still another pastorate after leaving Victory.

And maybe if there had been some Southern Baptist database of clergy abuse complaints that Grace Christian Fellowship could have checked, then perhaps they would have decided not to hire pastor Aaron.

And maybe if there had been a denominational database as an authoritative source for information about pastor Aaron, instead of just local “rumors,” then maybe the people at Grace Christian Fellowship could have at least been warned.

Authorities now say that Aaron “had multiple male victims ranging in age from 8 to 10.”

There’s the tragedy of Baptist do-nothingness.

If Southern Baptist leaders had cared enough to create a denominational review board and a database of abuse reports, then maybe some of those 8 to 10 year old boys could have been spared.


Update: BaptistPlanet reports that Ralph Aaron is still listed as a dean at Covington Theological Seminary in Opp, Alabama.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Catholics were hellfire wrong

I grew up believing Catholics were wrong. Very wrong. We’re talking hellfire and damnation kind of wrong.

According to my childhood pastor, Catholics could expect to spend eternity in hell with the smell of their own flesh burning.

But the hellfire would never be so merciful as to burn them up. Instead, it would just keep on burning and burning and burning. For all eternity.

That’s how wrong the Catholics were.

And that’s why this earlier comment by Junkster rang so true to me:

"Baptist leaders are quick to say that the Southern Baptist Convention can't do anything about abusive ministers because of the doctrine of local church autonomy. This indicates that autonomy is such a highly prized doctrine that it over-rides pretty much everything, including concerns about protecting children. In essence they say, 'Catholics can handle the problem differently than we can because their church government is structured differently; our hands are tied by our form of church government.'

"Yet Baptists believe in (cling to) the doctrine of autonomy not just out of tradition, but because they believe it is right. They believe it is what the Bible teaches, and that other forms of church government (like the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church) are unbiblical. Put another way, Baptist believe that the way Catholics are organized is wrong, just as they believe Catholics are wrong on their doctrines of justification, sanctification, purgatory, saints, Mary, etc.

"All that said, wouldn't if follow that when the Catholic church as an organization removes a priest's ordination and refuses him a place of service in any Catholic church, according to Baptist doctrine, the Catholic church is wrong for doing so? I mean, if Baptists believe they are right about church government (autonomy) and Catholics are wrong (hierarchy), then doesn't that mean that the Catholic church is wrong when they act according to their wrong doctrine?

"But I have yet to hear a Baptist leader say that. They simply throw up their hands and say, 'Oh well, Catholics do things differently than we do; we can't do what they do.'

This raises the question . . . if autonomy is really the primary concern, and if it is so strongly believed to be true Bible doctrine, why do Baptist preachers not have the courage of their convictions to come right out and say, 'What we are doing [leaving it to local churches] is right and what the Catholics are doing [handling it as an organization as a whole] is wrong'?

I will answer my own question . . . because they know how bad it would sound. It would be plain for all to see that they are saying that it is preferable to allow abuse to continue in order to protect autonomy. And that is one reason I believe autonomy to be just a smokescreen, a convenient excuse to do nothing.

There may be many reasons the Southern Baptist Convention has chosen not to address this issue as it should (fear of lawsuits, pride, potential loss of esteem and power, laziness, apathy, etc.) but autonomy is not the reason; it is just an excuse."

Over 700 Catholic priests have been removed from active ministry based on “credible accusations” of child sex abuse. Only about 3 percent were ever criminally convicted. If Catholic leaders still followed the same tragically low standard as Southern Baptist leaders, about 679 of those “credibly accused” priests could still be in ministry and working with kids.

So who's more wrong?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Preying every Sunday

In Oklahoma, Southern Baptist pastor Joshua Spires advanced in the ranks from youth pastor to senior pastor while sexually abusing a teen church girl every Sunday and calling it “consensual.”

Pastor Spires is married and has two kids. The girl he abused was 15.

“According to court records, the sexual assaults occurred every Sunday” at the church.

They occurred “on either the desk or couch” in Spires’ church office.

They occurred “about an hour before services began.”

Do you get the picture? Every Sunday, week after week, Southern Baptist pastor Joshua Spires prepared for the delivery of his sermon, not by praying to God, but by preying on a 15-year-old church girl.

Are you offended?

I hope so. But so far, I haven’t seen any sign that anyone in Southern Baptist leadership even gives a hoot.

This case has been reported in the secular press off and on since at least last August, when Spires confessed to the abuse. Last week, Spires was sentenced to 10 years, and that too was reported in the secular press.

But I’ve seen no mention of pastor Spires’ crimes in the Oklahoma Baptist newspaper, Baptist Messenger. Nor have I seen any mention in the national Baptist newspaper, the Baptist Press. I guess they don’t think it’s news when a Baptist pastor molests a church kid. I guess they don’t think people need to know.

In fact, rather than reporting the news of Spires’ crimes, national Southern Baptist headquarters continues to include “Rev. Joshua Spires” on its registry of Southern Baptist ministers.

Two full months ago, this Southern Baptist pastor confessed to repeated acts of child molestation. But no one in Baptistland has even bothered to remove him from the ministerial registry.

Today, searching that registry under either the minister or the church -- First Baptist of Jay, Oklahoma -- you’ll still find “Rev. Joshua Spires” shown as a “senior pastor.”

Wouldn't you think that, after a minister has admitted to sexual abuse of a kid, the national headquarters could at least care enough to remove him from the registry?

I imagine that’s what ordinary, decent people would think. But of course, that’s not how it works in Baptistland.

We’ve seen this sad reality over and over again. Even when the secular media points out that convicted child molesters are on the Southern Baptist ministerial registry, nothing happens.

Nothing happens until it is publicly pointed out over and over and over again.

Despite all their pretty platitudes about “precious children,” and despite all their public talk of “moral outrage,” it’s obvious that Southern Baptist leaders don’t really care. If they did, they would react to crimes like this by taking action.

Here’s what Southern Baptist leaders really care about.

Take a look at that bold, all-caps, red disclaimer language that they added to the ministerial search page on their registry.


Do you get the picture?

Rather than establishing a system to remove convicted and admitted clergy child molesters from the ministerial registry, and rather than establishing a system to inform congregations about credibly-accused clergy child molesters, Southern Baptist leaders put up bold language saying essentially this: “NOT OUR PROBLEM.”

So . . . people in Baptist pews, be warned! Despite the $10 billion per year that you put into Baptist offering plates, and despite the $200 million per year that you send to national headquarters, no one in Nashville thinks they have any moral obligation to help protect your kids against clergy predators.

Clergy sex abuse? “NOT OUR PROBLEM.” That’s the unmistakeable message from Southern Baptist headquarters.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Almighty Dollar

Without accountability, power corrupts.

It’s a truth as old as time, but Southern Baptists have yet to learn it.

We have seen this truth played out over and over again in the countless cover-ups of Baptist clergy sex abuse. And we also see this truth played out in the financial arena of Baptistland.

Even in these tough times, good hard-working people continue to put money in Baptist offering plates because they believe it will be used to spread the gospel and because they’ve been taught to tithe.

Shouldn’t those people be entitled to know how many of the hard-earned dollars they put into offering plates are actually being used to pay the salaries of Southern Baptist executives? Shouldn’t they be able to at least find out how much those top executives are making?

Wouldn’t you expect that ANY nonprofit organization would be required to disclose the salaries of its top executives?

Yes? So why don’t people demand the disclosure of salaries in the Baptist organizations that take their money?

I think it’s because people tend to automatically trust religious leaders.

And rather than honoring that extraordinary trust with transparency, Southern Baptist leaders exploit that trust with secrecy.

BaptistPlanet recently offered some insight into the dollar figures that likely hide behind Baptist officials’ secrecy. It had to go back almost two decades to get some numbers -- that’s how near-impossible it is to get information about Baptist executives’ salaries. But in a 1991 book, BaptistPlanet found 1990 salary information, and reported this analysis on it:

Five top SBC executives at the time were paid more than $100,000 a year. Specifically, the book said:
[The Wall Street Journal's R. Gustav] Neibuhr said the controversy was forcing SBC agencies to cut their staffs and postpone salary increases. salaries and fringes for the top executives of three boards and seven agencies. Five earned well over $100,000. The five, according to [Southern Baptist Advocate Editor Bob] Tenery, were Lloyd Elder, President, Sunday School Board, $157,086; Harold Bennett, President-Treasurer, Executive Committee, $151,079; Larry Lewis, President, Home Mission Board, $113,583; Keith Parks, President, Foreign Mission Board, $113,000. The Annuity Board declined to report renumeration (sic) for its newly-elected president, Paul W. Powell. Tenery further noted that the top six men at the Sunday School Board, where Tenery is a trustee, were paid $715,475 in salary and benefits. ‘Does this appear as if Southern Baptist employees have been denied a raise?’ Tenery asked. ‘It is apparent that we take care of our workers quite well.'
Even simple adjustments for inflation for the equivalent positions today result in very comfortable salaries for all. Such adjustments do not consider the implications of the subsequent revelation of extravagance by Bob Reccord while he headed the SBC’s North American Mission Board …. Reccord funneled $3.3 million to business friends, including current SBC President Johnny Hunt, while NAMB staff was downsized. His severance package of two years’ salary plus benefits reportedly exceeded $500,000.

A 2005 Associated Baptist Press article
noted that even members of the SBC’s own Executive Committee must sign a pledge not to reveal employee salaries. Details from Reccord’s rein emerged only because NAMB marketing director Mary Kinney Branson escaped without signing the standard agreement.

Decades roll past and Southern Baptists are systematically kept in the dark about pay for their denomination’s executives. Now why is that?"

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jesus wants to vomit

The Southern Baptist Convention claims that it has no power to provide any sort of oversight for clergy who carry the Southern Baptist name. It claims that it doesn’t even have the power to keep records on ministers reported for sexual abuse, or to warn people in the pews. “We have no bishops,” they say . . . . “Our hands are tied . . . local churches are autonomous . . . there’s nothing we can do.”

And so ministers reported for child molestation simply church-hop through the porous sieve of the Southern Baptist network.

Now mind you, the Southern Baptist Convention is a plenty powerful organization when it wants to be. But ONLY when it wants to be. And therein lies their sleight-of-hand.

In a recent comment, Jim did a great job of explaining how this trick works:

"A majority of clergy ordained by churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention are 'examined' for ordination by councils or committees organized or supported by the local Baptist Association. The Association is the closest organization to the local church, in the Southern Baptist hierarchy. Churches belong to Associations, which are resourced by State Conventions, that feed financial resources, names for trustees and committees, etc. to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. Each of these entities has an executive leader.

Of course, the SBC talking heads will say that churches are at the core of each of these groups, and there is a kernel of truth in that, but it is not the whole truth. Each of the hierarchical organizations is connected to the other, up and down the chain.

Every year local churches elect messengers to a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Every messenger is permitted to register his/her votes on a carefully scripted agenda designed to reflect the wishes of the SBC Executive Committee. When the messengers 'get it wrong' the Executive Committee all but ignores their wishes.

Please, do not allow anyone to assume, for one moment, that the SBC is not a highly organized, interconnected, well-funded organization.

When the SBC wants to act against a congregation who calls a female to be pastor, or one that does not make gender orientation a test of faith, it can act with near lightening speed. It could act in the arena of clergy sexual abuse against children and adults if it chose to do so.

The issue is one of 'will' not 'ability'. There is no will to act.

Right now they are too busy with a 'Great Commission Resurgence' to care very much about the sexual exploitation of women, or little girls and boys being raped under the steeple. I imagine the whole sorry sight makes Jesus want to vomit."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Okay... so start with the admitted ones

From time to time, I hear from Baptist pastors who seem to at least recognize that the status quo won’t do. They say they’re in favor of keeping a database of Southern Baptist clergy who have admitted to sexual abuse or been criminally convicted. But they still think it would be wrong to create any sort of review board to assess abuse reports. That would interfere with local church autonomy, they say.

I’m always a bit puzzled when I hear this view because I think it reflects such a profound naivety.

Do they imagine that clergy sex abusers are simply going to raise their hands and say “Put me on the list, please”?

It doesn’t work that way.

When confronted, ministers sometimes say things that constitute admissions to sexual abuse, but the admissions usually come out in ways that are oblique and minimizing. And the admissions always come out in ways that require an open-eared listener.

The colleagues and cronies of a minister are almost never open-eared listeners for these sorts of admissions. They plug their ears. They blind their eyes. They lapse into denial.

They conjure every rationalization possible to avoid hearing the full reality of the admission that is right in front of them. . . and to avoid dealing with it.

For example, when minister David Pierce was confronted with the accusations of a man who said Pierce had abused him as an adolescent church boy, Pierce “didn’t deny any of the allegations leveled against him.” But he told Rick Grant, the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Benton, that the events were “a one-time run of bad decision-making.” And rather than hearing that admission for what it was, pastor Grant apparently closed his ears.

Then minister David Pierce wrote down a “list of 12 names” of boys “whom he’d had inappropriate contact with,” but pastor Rick Grant apparently blinded his own eyes. Even with such an admission on paper squarely in front of him, pastor Grant was apparently incapable of recognizing the admission for what it was and of seeing the need for immediate action.

Pastor Rick Grant is the perfect example of why a minister’s colleagues and cronies cannot possibly assess the credibility of abuse reports. Heck… most of the time, the minister’s colleagues and cronies can’t even appropriately hear the guy when he makes a plain admission.

That’s exactly why an outside professionally-staffed review board is so desperately needed.

And even if the only thing you’re willing to agree to is a database of convicted and admitted clergy-predators, Baptists still need an outside review board to assess whether there has been an admission.

"But what happened at pastor Rick Grant’s church was something unusual" -- is that what you’re thinking?

Tragically, it’s not. Far from it.

Consider the case of George “Tom” Wade, Jr., a Southern Baptist missionary. When his 14-year-old daughter told the mission-school housemother that her minister-father had been sexually abusing her, the housemother told the Southern Baptist area director, Marion “Bud” Fray, who confronted Wade.

Wade admitted “only to a little fondling” and said “it happened a long time ago.”

Fray was apparently incapable of hearing that as the admission of abuse that it so obviously was. Fray kept quiet, and Southern Baptist missionary Tom Wade went on to sexually abuse other kids.

Consider the case of Paul Williams, a minister at the prominent Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. Williams admitted to “inappropriate sexual behavior with his son,” but senior pastor Steve Gaines was apparently incapable of hearing the reality of the admission with the seriousness it so obviously deserved. Instead, he simply accepted Williams statement that “the activity had not reoccurred”…. and Gaines stayed quiet.

Other church staff also knew about minister Williams’ admission . . . but they too stayed quiet. Later, after it was brought to light in the press, an investigation determined that Williams had engaged in “egregious, perverse, sexual activity with his adolescent son over a period of 12 to 18 months.”

And consider the case of pastor Larry Reynolds at Southmont Baptist Church in Texas -- a church that is aligned with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It’s an affluent, well-educated congregation in a university community.

After a woman alleged that Reynolds had sexually abused her when she was 14, Reynolds openly admitted at a church banquet that he had “made a terrible mistake.” He called it a “lapse in judgment,” confessed “that proper boundaries were not kept,” and asked forgiveness from the woman.

It was an admission, but other church staff ministers and church members were apparently incapable of hearing that admission for the child molestation reality that it was. They did nothing, and Reynolds stayed in the pulpit until the case was finally brought to light in the press. Even then, despite Reynolds’ own admission, the church gave him a $50,000 “love offering” to send him on his way.

Or consider the case of pastor Dale “Dickie” Amyx. When accused of sexually abusing a church girl, who said the abuse started when she was 14, his response was to say, “I did not have sex with her when she was 16 or under.” He also said, “I told her many times I never meant to hurt her.”

These were words that obviously constituted an admission of sexual abuse. And there was also the fact that the girl gave birth to a child when she was 18, and Amyx was legally determined to be the father. He finally began paying child support when the child was 8.

Yet, despite his admissions, and despite the paternity determination, pastor Dale “Dickie” Amyx remains a Southern Baptist minister to this day. Apparently there was no one in his congregation who was capable of hearing the seriousness of his admissions.

And so far, no one else in Baptistland has been willing to hear those admissions either. That’s the problem.

So to those of you in Baptistland who proclaim that you’re all in favor of having Baptists keep a database of admitted clergy-predators, I say, “Fine -- start with that -- do it”

But Baptists will still need an independent review board in order to have people who will actually hear the admissions when they happen.

Because even when a minister admits to sexual abuse, his colleagues, cronies, and congregants can’t hear him.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

No "Christian ethics" for me, please

Question: What do Southern Baptist leaders do with a top official who publicly castigates clergy rape victims as “nothing more than opportunistic persons”?

Answer: They reward him!

Former Southern Baptist president Frank Page was just named as vice-president of evangelization for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This is the man who publicly denounced clergy molestation victims as “nothing more than opportunistic persons.”

And let’s be clear about something. Frank Page didn’t make that statement merely as an individual. He made it in his official capacity as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Furthermore, Frank Page didn’t make that statement in a random, off-the-cuff remark. He made it in writing in a column he wrote for publication in the Florida Baptist Witness.

Ordinary people might imagine that other leaders in the organization would be appalled by such a hateful pronouncement coming from their highest leader and that they would make haste to make an institutional apology and rectify it.

Nope. That’s not what happens in Baptistland.

Ordinary people might imagine that, at least, a man who made such an appalling public statement wouldn’t be promoted within the organization.

Nope. In Baptistland, they praise and reward a man like this -- a man who publicly castigated clergy rape victims as “opportunistic persons.”

And who never breathed a word of remorse for it.

Frank Page has a Ph.D. in “Christian ethics” from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Yeah, that’s right, it’s the Baptist-pastor-training-school that now has Paige Patterson at the helm -- the man who called clergy molestation victims “evil-doers.” See a pattern?)

If Frank Page exemplifies “Christian ethics,” then I’ll take plain, old, ordinary ethics every time.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Raise every voice!

People often ask me why I do this. “Why bother?” they say. “Baptists will never change.”

They might be right about that. Maybe Baptists will never institute clergy accountability mechanisms like other major faith groups. Or maybe it will happen long after I’m gone. But seeking institutional change is just one part of why I do this. Here’s another part.

I believe that whenever any clergy abuse survivor speaks out, it plants a seed in someone else’s head. One person’s voice begins the process of another person gaining their own voice.

Every clergy abuse survivor who speaks out helps some other clergy abuse survivor on their own journey of understanding and recovery.

A few days ago, I was reminded of this when I received this email from a courageous young woman named Sarah Parsons.

“I emailed you about 3 years ago, I live in Ontario, Canada. I am 23 now and I was abused by a pastor starting at the age of 15. When I saw you on T.V. talking about your story, you inspired me to take a stand and expose the pastor that abused me. I wanted to thank you for sharing your story to the world, you have given me the strength to break the silence.

I filed a civil suit and a few weeks ago the pastor and the church (who tried to hide it) were served the papers. It is in the media now, in my hometown. I felt scared and ashamed when it became public. But I visit your website and I know I am doing the right thing. He is denying it now though, which I expected. But I am going to do whatever it takes to get my story out, so he can not get back into another church. The congregation at the church he is preaching at now, needs to know. I could not let him hurt anyone else....

Thank you for your courage, you are an inspiration to me.”
I wrote Sarah back to tell her that her email was an encouragement to me and that, by making her story public, she herself was certainly an inspiration to many others.

Sarah said: “I know that I will never put an end to clergy sexual abuse, but if I can help one person realize that it is not their fault and they are not alone, then it is worth it.”

Sarah summed it up perfectly, but I am also reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

You can read the news report on Sarah’s story here. It involves a Pentecostal church.

Kudos to Sarah!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thanks to Rich Buhler

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to chat for nearly an hour with Rich Buhler on his “Talk from the Heart” radio program in Southern California.

Rich has a long history in both media and ministry, and he is often regarded as the “father of modern Christian talk radio.”

Because of that label -- “Christian” -- I felt a bit of trepidation when I was invited to be a guest on his program. After all, in my experience, it has been people who call themselves “Christian” who have been the most inclined to kick me. And I’ve been called “anti-Christian” plenty often enough.

So… sad as it may seem, I tend to reflexively cringe a bit when I hear that word. It’s as though I’m waiting for the punch.

But my cringe reflex was all wrong with Rich. He obviously has a deep well of understanding about sexual abuse and how it affects its victims. There were no easy platitudes and no sermons on forgiveness.

Rich also understands how the typical and very hurtful pattern of response is one of institutional self-protection.

I was clearly preaching to the choir with Rich, but I was so grateful for the opportunity to visit with him on-air and to reach out to his listeners.

Rich used the power of his voice and his media presence to broaden people's awareness of clergy sex abuse and to reach out with a heart of compassion for abuse survivors. For that, I say a profound “thank-you.”

On a personal level, it was also encouraging for me to talk with someone who is a person of faith -- and especially a person of faith in the public arena -- and yet clearly someone who "gets it." For that too, I say “thank-you” to Rich Buhler.

If even half of Southern Baptist leaders had even half of Rich Buhler’s level of understanding and care, then Baptistland would be a very different place.

I’ll pray for that day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hollywood and Baptistland

On the October 3rd broadcast of “Richard Land Live!” the Southern Baptist Convention’s top-dog ethicist had a lot to say about how some Hollywood celebrities are urging leniency for film director Roman Polanski, who was convicted on child sex charges 30 years ago.

This is a man -- Richard Land -- who wouldn’t even shake my hand.

Land’s official title is President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. With a title like that, I imagined that Land might be the right person to try to talk to about child sex abuse and cover-ups among Southern Baptist clergy. So I wrote to him, and then at Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville, I stepped forward and extended my hand.

“Dr. Land, I’m Christa Brown. I work with SNAP and….” Before I could even finish my sentence, he had turned away.

So I listened in wonder as Land seemed to express such outrage over “Hollywood elites.” Where was his voice of outrage about the Southern Baptist minister who repeatedly molested and raped me when I was an underage church-girl? Where was his outrage about the music minister who knew about it, then and now, and called it “consensual”? Where was his outrage about Texas Baptist officials who put my perpetrator’s name in a secret file of “known offenders,” but then kept quiet about it while the man continued to work in children’s ministry? Where was his outrage about the 18 Baptist leaders who were informed about my substantiated report of clergy abuse and did nothing?

And where was Land’s outrage about prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Steve Gaines, who kept quiet about a minister’s admission to sexually abusing his young son? Gaines said it was “under the blood.”

And where was Land’s outrage about a former California Southern Baptist Convention president who claimed he “erred on the side of grace” when he kept quiet about a deacon’s molestation of children in his church?

And where was Land’s outrage about a Southern Baptist children’s home director who urged no prison time for a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who had been convicted of sexually abusing teen church girls?

And where was Land’s outrage about a former Arkansas Baptist State Convention president who urged leniency and no prison time for a prominent Southern Baptist minister who sexually abused dozens of adolescent church-boys?

And where was Land’s outrage about the many good Baptist people of Benton, Arkansas, who recently begged the court to give convicted minister David Pierce probation, citing Pierce’s good deeds and saying it was punishment enough for Pierce to lose his livelihood and reputation?

All these stories and more ran through my mind as I listened to Richard Land rail about the “Hollywood elites.” Did he imagine that child sex abuse was somehow less heinous if the perpetrators subdued their prey with Bible verses? Or was Land’s silence based on the simple fact that the people in these stories carried the “Baptist” name, instead of the “Hollywood” name?

That’s when I realized that you could take Land’s own words, and they would be equally applicable to Southern Baptists. Read the excerpts below. Then read my version that follows. I’ve highlighted the places where I made changes. For example, whenever Land says “Hollywood,” I say “Baptistland.”

Richard Land’s words:

“There are sometimes stories that in and of themselves don't take on a great deal of significance, but when they are seen as symptoms of a serious problem in society or in certain segments of society, they rise to the level of becoming symbolic. I think we had an example of that this week, and that was with the arrest in Switzerland of Roman Polanski. . . .

The Hollywood community has lived in its own sexual cesspool so long that it no longer has any understanding of the enormity of the crimes that Roman Polanski committed.

Maybe we have been misjudging these Hollywood producers and directors. . . . Maybe they're just reflecting their own sexual paganism. Maybe they think this is normal. . . .

What this has revealed is the total demagnetization of the moral compass of the Hollywood elite. . . .

How can liberals defend such heinous actions? How can they simply look the other way . . . . For one, they believe the pervert . . . . He says that the encounter was consensual. Just for the sake of argument for a moment, let's say he is telling the truth. . . the act was still illegal. . . . But many liberals scoff at age of consent laws . . . . Let's remember that the next time some liberal spouts off about some program designed to protect children. . . .

These people are moral pygmies. . . .

Just because a person is a talented artist doesn't mean they have any sense whatsoever. . . .

Why did so many of Mr. Polanski's artistic peers rush to defend him? …. I think it has more to do with the rich and famous having lots of skeletons in their own closets, and they want a bypass for artists. . . .

I do think there is a lot of elitism involved in this whole Roman Polanski case. I think that basically the elite -- not just the artistic elites but the cultural and political elites -- think that they are different and they are entitled to a different standard of justice.”

My modified version of Land’s words:

There are sometimes stories that in and of themselves don't take on a great deal of significance, but when they are seen as symptoms of a serious problem in society or in certain segments of society, they rise to the level of becoming symbolic. I think we had an example of that this week, and that was with the conviction in Arkansas of Southern Baptist minister David Pierce. . . .

The Baptistland community has lived in its own sexual cesspool so long that it no longer has any understanding of the enormity of the crimes that David Pierce committed. . . .

Maybe we have been misjudging these Baptistland ministers and leaders. . . . Maybe they're just reflecting their own sexual paganism. Maybe they think this is normal. . . .

What this has revealed is the total demagnetization of the moral compass of the Baptistland elite. . . .

How can Baptist leaders defend such heinous actions? How can they simply look the other way . . . . For one, they believe the pervert . . . . He says that the encounter was consensual. Just for the sake of argument for a moment, let's say he is telling the truth . . . the act was still illegal. . . . But many Baptist leaders scoff at age of consent laws . . . . Let's remember that the next time some Baptist leader spouts off about some program designed to protect children. . . .

These people are moral pygmies. . . .

Just because a person is a talented preacher doesn't mean they have any sense whatsoever. . . .

Why did so many of Mr. Pierce’s Baptist peers rush to defend him? …. I think it has more to do with Baptist ministers having lots of skeletons in their own closets, and they want a bypass for Baptist ministers. . . .

I do think there is a lot of elitism involved in this whole David Pierce case. I think that basically the elite – the Baptist elite -- think that they are different and they are entitled to a different standard of justice.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

If I Can Dream

By now, I’ve been called “bitter” so often that I've long-ago lost count. “Bitter” seems to be Baptist leaders’ favorite word-of-choice for marginalizing someone who talks about things they don’t want people to hear about. But despite their “bitter” name-calling, I often think that what really motivates me is exactly the opposite.

A big part of what motivates me in this work is my incessant optimism.

Based on all that I’ve seen in Baptistland, it’s an optimism that isn’t reality-based in facts. Yet it’s an optimism that persists.

I dream of a better day in Baptistland.

I dream of clergy accountability in Baptistland. . . accountability for clergy perpetrators and also for clergy cover-uppers.

I dream of outreach, compassion and care for clergy abuse survivors in Baptistland.

“Out there in the dark, there’s a beckoning candle.”

“Tell me why – oh why – can’t my dream come true?”

So, hit the replay button, and join along with Celine and Elvis -- and me -- in singing of our dream for a better day in Baptistland.

Thanks to Junkster who provided this YouTube link in a comment on The Wartburg Watch.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Polanski and Pierce parallels

In today’s Arkansas Times, reporter David Koon ponders the question of why Southern Baptist music minister David Pierce was able to do what he did for so long -- “to sexually victimize scores of boys at the First Baptist Church of Benton over the past 20 years or more.”

“You probably need to look no further than the inch-thick stack of letters" that flooded into the prosecuting attorney's office after Pierce’s arrest, says Koon. “The letters urging leniency for Pierce, some from Benton's most powerful citizens, kept coming in even after he had been booked on 54 counts of sexual indecency with a child; even after it started to seep out that dozens might be involved….”

“Reading those pleas on his behalf, it quickly becomes clear that Pierce was trusted completely by a great many people. It also becomes clear that comprehension of his crimes by those who knew and loved him has only come grudgingly, if at all.”

Here is the gist of the story as reported by Koon. I urge you to read its entirety.

In late October 2008, the father of one of Pierce’s victims, a man now in his 30’s, told FBC-Benton’s senior pastor Rick Grant that there had been “more” to his son’s relationship with Pierce than prayer, and he urged Grant to look into it.

The father met with pastor Grant a second time and reiterated “charges of inappropriate conduct.” Pastor Grant told the father to talk with Pierce.

Then, just after Thanksgiving, pastor Rick Grant heard another “shocking revelation” from the wife of one of Pierce’s victims -- a man now grown who goes by Kurt. “During a series of meetings, Kurt told the pastor everything.”

Grant and another church official met with Pierce, “who didn’t deny any of the allegations leveled against him by Kurt.”

Read for yourself the allegations made by Kurt. It’s pretty sordid stuff. But apparently pastor Grant was able to blind himself to the reality of them and to the fact that Pierce didn't deny them.

In talking with pastor Grant, Pierce characterized the events described by Kurt as “a one time run of bad decision-making.”

And apparently, pastor Grant was willing to accept that explanation.

In early February, Pierce was asked to sign a document saying he would disclose “the names of all the boys whom he’d had inappropriate contact with.” And he was told to “ask for forgiveness.”

Pierce provided pastor Grant “with a list of 12 names.”

Did you get that? Pierce provided Grant with “12 names” of boys “whom he’d had inappropriate contact with.”

And that’s just the ones he readily admitted to.


And pastor Grant still sat back.

Meanwhile, minister Pierce gave Kurt “a devotional pamphlet about forgiveness.”

In April 2009, pastor Grant “received a call from another victim,” a man close in age to Kurt. Though Grant “still believed that Pierce’s dalliances with boys had been confined to an isolated period in the past,” he felt he “had no recourse” but to fire Pierce.

So . . . it took pastor Grant’s awareness of at least 13 victims before he finally felt that he had “no recourse” but to fire Pierce. And, based on what’s been publicly reported, it took Grant nearly 6 months from the time that he was first informed about Pierce.

Grant told the church that Pierce had been terminated for “serious moral failures,” which “occurred several years ago.” So even then -- with all that he knew -- pastor Grant still cast a minimizing slant on Pierce’s conduct.

Apparently, Grant also failed to convey to Pierce himself the consequence of his conduct. After being terminated, Pierce wrote to church officials to ask whether he would be given a severance package.

Though the claims of the adult men were too old for criminal prosecution, a younger victim finally stepped forward, and Pierce was arrested on April 24. Ultimately, Pierce was charged with 54 counts of sexual indecency with a child, In a plea bargain deal, he pled guilty to 4 counts and was sentenced to 10 years.

Yet, despite the seriousness of the charges and despite the number of known victims, so many people -- including the former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and including some of “Benton’s most powerful citizens” -- kept on urging leniency for minister Pierce.

This Baptist news parallels the recent story about the arrest of famous film director Roman Polanski. In 1977, Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, but he then fled the country. On September 26, 2009, he was arrested in Switzerland and will likely be extradited to the United States.

Numerous “European cultural figures, political leaders and show-business personalities” have spoken up on Polanski’s behalf, “insisting that the film director be released.” Sound familiar?

Who would have thought that Southern Baptist leaders would have so much in common with Hollywood celebrities? Yet in the face of child sex abuse, both groups circled the wagons around an esteemed colleague.

In trying to illuminate the Polanski phenomenon, Mollie at GetReligion wrote about a 1944 George Orwell essay on the “morally depraved and yet talented artist Salvador Dali.” The essay talks about how Dali’s fans claim “a kind of benefit of clergy” for him so that he is exempted from the moral laws of ordinary people.

“Benefit of clergy.” Isn’t it sad that this would be the phrase for describing the rationalizations that people use to excuse and minimize the crimes of elites? But given all the people who urged leniency for Baptist minister David Pierce -- and given all that we’ve seen in so many other Baptist cases -- the phrase seems tragically appropriate.

Because clergy are so trusted and esteemed, they can get away with much more than the ordinary person.

And without professional oversight, they can keep on getting away with it -- sometimes for decades, as Baptist minister David Pierce did.

And even when they’re finally caught, their colleagues and cronies refuse to recognize the seriousness of their crimes but instead rationalize and minimize . . . and seek ways to help them avoid consequences. That’s Baptistland.

Once again, parallels from Roman Polanski come to mind. One of Polanski’s most famous movies, “Chinatown,” is a film-noir in which the elite and powerful run things, and there is no justice. Jack Nicholson plays a private detective named Jake, who walks away dejected in the end. His friend tells him: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It's Baptistland as well. The elite and powerful run things, and there is seldom any justice, compassion, or care for clergy abuse survivors. That’s the way it is.

But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Baptists should use the David Pierce case as a wake-up call. They must wake-up to the alarming reality of how their own lack of clergy oversight renders them vulnerable to covert clergy sex-predators.

My prior postings on the David Pierce case:
1) What's wrong with this picture?
2) Questions need answers in Benton
3) Denial: It ain't just a river
4) Basically brainwashing
5) Remember the boys of Benton
6) A good man who does nothing