Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lora's response to Baptist Bill

“Just look at the facts before you draw any more conclusions.”

That’s what Lora said to Baptist Bill.

And she’s exactly right. It’s what makes the remarks of Baptist Bill on the Matt Baker case so frustrating. The Matt Baker case is one in which we actually have a lot of facts on the table.

We have facts that were judicially established at Matt Baker’s trial -- e.g. he killed a person -- and we have a ton of evidence. For starters, prosecutors said they had 13 reports of sexual abuse and assault against Baker, including four that involved minors. We also have scores of news articles.

Yet, even in the face of established facts, lots of evidence, and confirmed news reports, Baptist Bill still chose to disparage Lora rather than to see the full horror of what happened in Baptistland.

For those of you who haven’t followed this story, Matt Baker is the Baptist pastor who hopped his way through churches, schools and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas despite a slew of sexual abuse and assault reports. No one stopped him. He just kept moving on, until recently when he was convicted of murder.

That’s what it took to bring a halt to a Baptist pastor’s “secret life as a sexual predator.”

Except, of course, that it wasn’t really so “secret.” There were people in authority who knew about reports of abuse and assault, and who should have done something.

But no one in Baptistland did diddly-squat.

Lora made one of the earliest reports against Matt Baker. In 1991, when she was a freshman at Baylor University (the largest Baptist school in the world), she reported a sexual assault by ministerial student Matt Baker.

Then and there, Baylor officials could have done something that might have deterred Matt Baker’s pattern and forced him to face consequences. But they didn’t. They typed up a report and put it in a file. They “took no action.”

Even worse, they dissuaded Lora from taking additional action. As told by Lora and testified to in court, Waco administrators “asked her not to contact the police.”

So here we are, 18 years later, with a dead body and a trail of tears from many other wounded people. And who knows how many more were wounded and never spoke about it?

In the face of all this -- a murder and numerous known reports of sexual abuse -- Baptist Bill chose to disparage Lora rather than to open his eyes to the ugly reality of such a huge institutional failure. In comments on a Baptist blog, he resorted to repeating the words of smear spoken by the convicted murderer himself. Then, Baptist Bill two-stepped all around, minimizing the do-nothingness of Baylor and a Waco church, dancing the autonomy shuffle and the polity prance, and before you knew it, Baptist Bill had turned the whole sordid saga into such an abstraction that he was making pronouncements about “post-denominationalism.”

I guess almost anything is better than actually taking a hard look at what leaders in your own faith group allowed to happen -- leaders in your own Baptist university, leaders in a prominent historic Baptist church in your own town, and leaders in your statewide Baptist convention.

Now don’t get me wrong. I feel 99.9 percent certain that Baptist Bill is probably a very nice guy. He’s also a very well-educated guy. I don’t imagine he had any bad intentions, and he probably still doesn’t understand why I think what he did is so troubling.

But consider this. Given how easily Baptist Bill fell into the pattern of victim-blaming and minimization even in the face of a murder conviction and numerous known reports of abuse, what do you think his likely response would be if he were a church leader confronted with the typical clergy abuse report? After all, most cases don’t arrive with a packaged pile of evidence like what Baptist Bill had here.

Yet, even without a pile of evidence, when a pastor is accused of sexual abuse, shouldn’t there be somebody in religious authority who will treat it seriously?

And if the victim’s claim is too old for criminal prosecution (as most are), shouldn’t she still be able to tell someone in Baptistland about it -- without encountering the sort of victim-blaming attitude that Baptist Bill displayed?

“I respect your loyalty to Baylor and the SBC,” Lora said to Baptist Bill. “I get it, really I do.”

I get it too. Really I do. In fact, I think the kind of remarks made by Baptist Bill are so common as to be banal.

Baptist Bill is human, and he did what most human beings do. Therein lies the problem. Ordinary good people tend to lapse into denial and minimization when ugly allegations involve people and institutions they care about.

It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. It just means they’re human. It’s why most other professions -- and even most other clergy – have accountability systems that seek to compensate for that ordinary human instinct. They have accountability systems that allow allegations of abuse to be reported to outsiders.

But not Baptists. Nope. They keep telling those who try to report clergy abuse that they must go to the church of the accused perpetrator. It’s like telling bloody sheep to go to the den of the wolf who savaged them.

Ironically, in his attempts to defend the indefensible, Baptist Bill stated his view that, rather than have review systems like other faith groups, “the way to go” for Baptists is a “bottoms up approach that educates people in the pews.”

Yet, Baptist Bill himself demonstrated the very reason why educational efforts will never be enough for dealing with clergy sex abuse. Though education is fine and good, ultimately, you cannot effectively educate most people away from the normal human instinct toward denial or from the tribal tendency to rally around those they already know and trust.

The biggest part of the problem is not a lack of education; it’s an abundance of human nature. This is why most responsible organizations have systems that provide mechanisms to try to override that aspect of human nature.

But not Baptists. And that’s exactly why pastor Matt Baker was always able to slip through the cracks. Other religious leaders behaved in ways similar to Baptist Bill. They found excuses, rationalizations and minimizations. Rather than seeing something difficult -- and dealing with it -- they took the easy road of keeping quiet and allowing Matt Baker to move on. And there was no system to foster a better response.

By now, I know what some of you are probably thinking -- and I’ll be the first to admit it. Yes, I’m having a hard time letting go of the Matt Baker case.

But my own feelings are inconsequential.

The question people ought to be asking is this: Why have Baptist leaders been able to let go of it so easily?

In many organizations, an institutional failure of this magnitude would lead to a serious in-house investigation. Leaders would express their determination to figure out how things went so wrong and their resolve that nothing like this should ever happen again.

But in Baptistland, the leaders just shrug.

Related post: Baptist Bill and the Courage of Lora.


Anonymous said...

The Matt Baker case is completely beyond my comprehension. There is so much evidence of years of abuse by this man...multiple victims and it culminates in murder. I don't think this is too strong a statement. Follow the trail and it leads to murder. All of these leaders whether in a church or university proverbial blood on their hands and not just the murder victim's.

Where are these 13 victims now? How are they? Lora seems to be doing okay and for that I commend her, but I can imagine that it took years of fighting, hard work, and counseling OUTSIDE THE CHURCH to get where she is today. For those of us who've been there and for those that love them, we know it is a daily struggle that continues.

I am so tired of hearing of these "files" where these evidences of sexual abuse are put. Really? What these "files" mean to Baptist leaders is this: when these horrendously painful experiences are stammered and gulped out amid tears and anguish, they flow through my pen and onto paper that disintegrates into thin air and they are no longer of any consequence to the perpetrator or to me the leader. The victim? Oh, well, she'll be fine "shrug". I believe that's where it ends for them...literally. There must be a "file" in their soul of their own creation that is inaccessible by their sense of right and wrong, their conscience, and just human compassion.

This is the only way I know how to put into words what I read in this blog and website.

It is inexcusable and for lack of a better word disgusting.


Christa Brown said...

"I believe that's where it ends for them...literally."

Yes. I think so too. Where are their hearts? Where is their compassion? Where is their human decency? When confronted with clergy sex abuse, it seems to all go out the window. And ironically, they toss it all out on the basis of "it's our religion." Autonomy.