Monday, December 7, 2009

Are Baptists hopeless?

Some have criticized me for giving hope where, realistically, there is none.

Some have told me that I should content myself with ministering to the wounded, but that it’s hopeless to try to get anyone in Baptist leadership to actually do anything.


To me, that’s like saying you have a cholera epidemic in Baptistland, and all you can do is put washcloths on foreheads.

I just can’t accept that.

For me, it only makes sense that people should at least try to find the contaminated wells.

How can we not at least try to spare others?

It’s like a preventable disease. Maybe you can’t eradicate it, but you can greatly reduce its incidence.

Because most child molesters have more than one victim, the best way for Baptists to prevent clergy sex abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past.

But that doesn’t happen in Baptistland.

And more and more, I find myself wondering if those who say Baptists are “hopeless” are right.

Maybe they are.

Maybe the Southern Baptist Convention is simply too protected by its self-designed radicalized autonomous polity. And as long as state and national organizations think they can hide behind their radicalized autonomy to avoid legal responsibility, they see no reason to concern themselves with moral responsibility. Nor do they see any reason to concern themselves with the safety of kids.

Maybe Baptists will never institute any clergy accountability mechanisms like other major faith groups, and maybe clergy-predators will continue to roam among them with no one in leadership doing diddly-squat.

Maybe clergy accountability won’t come to this faith group for another 20 years . . . or maybe it will take 200.

Or maybe this denomination will simply die.

Maybe that’s reality. And maybe I just can’t accept it.

Some Baptist abuse survivors have told me they feel just as powerless now as when they were kids. They muster all their courage and they try to tell about their perpetrators . . . and nothing happens.

It’s too late for criminal prosecution; denominational leaders ignore them; lawyers won’t take their cases (because Baptist cases usually have more hurdles than Catholic cases); reporters won’t write about their perpetrators (because there’s no lawsuit or denominational review to report); and without media exposure, the perpetrators simply stay in their pulpits.

I’m sorry.

I can’t make Baptist leaders remove perpetrators from pulpits. I can’t make them listen compassionately to those who try to report abuse. I can’t make them responsibly assess abuse reports. I can’t make them keep records on credibly accused clergy. I can’t make them warn people in the pews.

In fact, I can’t do much at all.

But here’s what I know for sure. Whatever else may or may not happen, I cannot and will not join in the nothing-but-platitudes pretend game that this denomination plays.

I will not pretend that clergy sex abuse is no big deal. I will not minimize it. I will not put a pretty gloss on it.

Clergy sex abuse is ugly and awful. And I will tell the truth about it.

Perhaps I cannot do much. But if nothing else, I will bear witness.

I will bear witness to the horror of what this denomination is allowing to happen to kids.

I will bear witness to the horror in how its leaders treat survivors who speak of it.

I will bear witness to the horror in the do-nothing response of this denomination’s leaders.

I will bear witness.


XaurreauX said...

It is important to help the victims heal AND to fight for change. By continuously calling attention to abuse you are not only encouraging victims to come forward, you are educating the public about this problem, even if it is only a few people at a time. When the laity refuse to put up with these crimes to the point where it jeopardizes the ability of church officials to make a living they will be forced to address them.

Jeri said...

It may be that the change you fight for is to get people of conscience out of the Baptist denomination into one that is more genuinely Christian in outlook and conduct (and accountability). There is really no record in history or hope held out in Scripture that any ecclesiastical group that sinks so low as to have its leaders engaging in gross fornication and covering for each other, ever gets out of that condemnation. In other words, that type of sin, rampant in leadership and openly, defiantly excused or dismissed, is a sign of apostasy of heart and its condemnation.

The best you can hope for, really, is to warn people away and urge genuinely God fearing people still within it to leave, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Baptist as a whole being hopeless, but I definately know these youth pastors are! Perverts!

They need to go find real profession.

Bob Allen said...

I wouldn't say hopeless. I don't think the Southern Baptist Convention is going to die, but it does seem to me that the massive bureaucracy that allowed your perp to hide out for all those years is very close to collapsing under its own weight. I don't see much evidence that the next generation "gets" this particular issue any more than the current leadership, but since some MKs were able to force the IMB to reform its policies, I suppose anything is possible.

Lydia said...

"I wouldn't say hopeless. I don't think the Southern Baptist Convention is going to die, but it does seem to me that the massive bureaucracy that allowed your perp to hide out for all those years is very close to collapsing under its own weight."

It is already spritually dead. The apostasy is ingrained in other ways, too. Greed, puffed up, etc.

And yes, it will collapse under it's own weight and this economy is going to hasten that as folks start asking how their dollars are spent.

Junkster said...

Have you encountered any examples at all of a Baptist congregation, association, or institution that handled a reported incidence of abuse by a minister/leader in a fair and decent manner? Where maybe it was not perfectly, but far better than usual?

Jim said...

I think one has to differentiate between Southern Baptist Convention leadership and Southern Baptist lay people in the pews. They should not be "tarred with the same bursh." Without a doubt, the leadership if the Convention is a corrupt, putrified mess. However, the folks in the pews are, for the most part, God-loving, Christ-serving people who have nothing to do with the politics of the denominations. There was a time when progressives and fundamentalists worked on the fringes of the Convention and helped it maintain moral and spiritual balance. Not so in the past thirty years. The orchastrated, fundamentalist capture of Convention leadership in 1979 created an environment that has allowed those leaders to act without regard for cosequences. They are the law, and they just don't give a damn what anyone outside the "bubba" circle has to say. They are an embarrassment to the Body of Christ, but please, do not confuse these jerks with the good people who want nothing more than to serve Christ and his Church. It is, however, a shame that those good people fail to understand the depth of the corruption of their denominational leadership.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bearing witness!

Christa Brown said...

Jim: I agree that a distinction should be drawn between Baptist leadership and people in the pews. However, I also think that people in the pews are complicit in this mass-scale institutionalized denial of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups. Both generally and specifically.

Generally, people in the pews have an obligation to hold their leaders accountable. If indeed Southern Baptists are a "bottom-up" organization (a big "if" in my view, but that's what they purport to be), then the "bottom" should hold the top accountable. Eight thousand "messengers" voted to instruct the SBC Executive Committee to conduct a study on having a database of credibly accused clergy predators. But when the Executive Committee did next-to-nothing, no one mustered the gumption to say "Where's the study?" Instead they stood and applauded when SBC Exec President Morris Chapman told them the SBC wasn't going to do anything. Admittedly, Chapman is a fine preacher and he used fine words, but isn't it sad that so many people simply accepted exactly what he said without asking hard questions and insisting on answers?

That's the problem with religious leaders. Ordinary good people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt - up to a point. But when religious leaders are involved, ordinary good people tend to give them the benefit of the doubt way past the point of rationality -- all the way up to the point of pure blindness.

But despite extravagance, excess, cover-ups, unaccountability, and a refusal to even disclose their salaries, people in the pews still keep giving them money and funding this organization.

On a more specific level, we have seen countless cases, big and small, similar to the Bellevue scenario, when even with extensive evidence and admissions, people in the pews still choose to retain pastors and ministers who knew about, kept quiet about, and/or covered-up for clergy sex abuse. If nothing else, in their own congregations, they could insist on accountability and consequences, and they could vote those people out . . . but they don't.

As one reader once said: "What can you do when the shepherds won't lead and the sheep won't wake up?" The sheep have an obligation to open their eyes.

Also, I wish I could agree with you that this problem was because of the "fundamentalist" take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention . . . but I don't. If that were so, then we would see the few remaining "moderate" state conventions taking action . . . but they don't. Indeed, the largest state-wide Southern Baptist organization in the country - the Baptist General Convention of Texas - is considered a "moderate" convention, and yet its track record on this is deplorable. Perhaps because it is the biggest, or perhaps because it is so duplicitous, I hear from a lot of people with dreadful stories about attempts to report abuse to the BGCT. (Of course, if you scratch beneath the surface of some of those "moderates," you'll actually find "fundamentalists" - and vice-versa.)

Finally, I don't think it's solely a matter of corruption. No doubt there is a lot of corruption among leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (and among leadership of state conventions) -- a WHOLE lot. But I nevertheless think the biggest part of the problem is a more ordinary human problem of "good people who do nothing." Through laziness, cowardice, fear, self-serving denial, and lack of leadership, even good people can nevertheless be complicit in horrific institutionalized abuses.

Christa Brown said...

Junkster: I don't have much of anything good to report from Baptistland in the way of actual handling of clergy sex abuse reports. The two most optimistic notes are (1) the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board adopted a policy for handling abuse reports involving missionaries, and (2) the fact that the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship adopted a policy for allowing individuals to report clergy abuse.

We have not seen much published information to indicate how these policies are actually being applied, but policies are at least a start. The International Mission Board policy specifically recognizes the need to assess abuse reports without regard to any criminal or civil statute of limitations and regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. Amazingly, this sort of policy and review-board system is quite similar to what we have been asking the SBC to provide for churches in general. It's obvious they recognize the need for such a thing . . . and the need for the review-board team to be people with training . . . and yet they refuse to provide such a thing for churches. The inconsistency of this amazes me. On the one hand, the very existence of this IMB policy demonstrates that they understand the need, which only makes their refusal to provide it for the churches look all the more reckless and cold-hearted.

The Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has, I think, only about 25 churches affiliated with it. So this is a small entity in Baptist life. And much to my enormous disappointment, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has not extended Alabama's policy to the national level.

Jim said...

Somehow, I don't think you understand. The Southern Baptist Convention is no longer...I repeat, no longer a "bottom-up" organization. That has not been the case for at least 30 years. Some local churches still operate under that type of polity, but the larger they are, the less democratic they become and the more power is vested in the pastor and a few key leaders. Just check the By-Laws of any large to mega congregation. Sadly, this holds true for every mega evangelical church in America, Southern Baptist or otherwise (I would be interest in knowing where Jeri would recommend people go). The national organization is as hiarchical as any church in the is just not overt. That covert power is much more insidious and corrupting. It is wielded through manipulation, intemidation and harassment of anyone (clergy or laity) who would dare step out of line. The "bubbas" have the power, everyone else pays the bills. That's the way it is in SBC Baptist land. Southern Baptist laity concerned with clergy sex crimes have no more power to change that organization than did Catholic laity had to change the Roman Catholic Church. Again, the broken record: change will not happen until the SBC Executive Committee is hit with an incredibly large law-suit and some of the "bubbas" go to jail. I pray for that day.

Bob Allen said...


I don't know how much you know about Christa's story, but it started in 1969. Her church had a "problem" and solved it by shipping the offending minister off to another church where it would no longer be their problem and telling her to keep it quiet in order to protect their "witness" to the community.

I would not be surprised if other pastors in the association heard the real story through the grapevine. (I recently asked a director of missions about an arrested minister if he knew about any indiscretion in his previous church and his response was, "If there had been, I think I would have known about it."

This is how the system works, and it has been going on a lot longer than 30 years.

Christa Brown said...

"The national organization is as hiarchical as any church in the is just not overt."

Jim, I wish I could put this on a billboard. I believe you are exactly right, but the fact that the SBC hierarchy is not "overt" is a big part of what makes Baptist clergy abuse litigation so much more difficult (and so much less pursued) than Catholic clergy abuse litigation. I expect this issue will eventually be litigated in courtrooms all across the country, and ultimately will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the law moves slowly . . . and meanwhile. . . because SBC leaders are apparently oblivious to mere moral obligation, countless kids remain at greater risk.

And I also believe you are exactly right about this: "Covert power is much more insidious and corrupting."

Jim said...

Bob, I know Christa's story and the murder of her innocence by a clergy pervert breaks my heart. The reality that he continued in ministry, unchecked and unpunished makes me angry. The godless response by Southern Baptist leadership to the issue of clergy child sex abuse enrages me. The cowardice of good SBC pastors and lay persons frustrates me, and the reality that no lawyer is willing to take on the SBC power structure should embarrass the profession.

Bob Allen said...

"The national organization is as hiarchical as any church in the is just not overt."

Nancy Ammerman used to describe Southern Baptist polity as 45,000 autonomous churches choosing autonomously to do exactly what Nashville tells them to do. I asked her about it one time and she said it was something she used for a while in speaking but doesn't think she ever published it.

Jeri said...

Jim, the level of complicity in both the SBC and IFB is incredible. Yes, the ordinary people in the pew will say ain't it a shame, and such stuff should not happen. But they also fall back onto that entirely "It's a local church matter" or "The elders have handled it" as their default escape route.

Christa Brown said...

"Nancy Ammerman used to describe Southern Baptist polity as 45,000 autonomous churches choosing autonomously to do exactly what Nashville tells them to do."

Great quote.

And here's one that's in print in Nancy Ammerman's book, Baptist Battles:
"For at least fifty years, Southern Baptists had been among the most tightly-knit, hierarchically functioning denominations in America."