Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Irish Catholics and Texas Baptists

Last Sunday, during Mass at Catholic churches all across Ireland, people in the pews listened to a letter from the Pope that was read aloud. The Pope apologized for child abuse in the Catholic Church and he rebuked church leaders for “grave errors of judgment.”

It’s not enough -- not nearly enough. People are still upset, and for very good reasons.

But consider this. In Baptistland, there has been no apology at all from any high denominational official, nor any rebuke of church leaders who covered up for clergy sex abuse. To the contrary, when the prior president of the Southern Baptist Convention addressed the matter, the people he chose to rebuke were the clergy abuse survivors themselves. He publicly castigated the survivor support groups as being “nothing more than opportunistic persons.”

That fact alone shows how far behind Baptist leaders are in dealing with this. They’re still so over-confident in thinking their polity makes them untouchable (and so inured to their own arrogance), that they don’t even bother with words that at least sound pastoral. They’re still in a kick-the-victims frame of mind.

“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen…. I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”

That’s part of what was in the Pope’s letter. They’re just words, of course, but at least they’re nice words, public words, and words of acknowledgement.

For those of you who were abused by Baptist clergy, and especially for those of you who have experienced the nightmare of trying to report abuse to Baptist leaders, I ask you . . . Can you even imagine the possibility of a Baptist leader saying such a thing publicly? Putting it in writing in a letter? Insisting that the letter be read aloud all across Baptistland?

I can’t.

Baptists are literally decades behind the Catholics in even attempting to systematically address clergy sex abuse.

This means a whole lot of kids and congregants are at risk.

In Texas alone, Southern Baptists are the equivalent of about half the population of Ireland. Across the U.S., they’re about 2 ½ times as big as Ireland.

Yet, though Baptists have plenty of their own problems, on Monday, Texas Baptists’ “theologian-in-residence,” Jim Denison, took a jab at the Irish Catholic scandal.

How in the world does he justify jabbing the Catholics when the Baptist General Convention of Texas has remained so utterly mute on so many of its own clergy sex scandals?

(But hey … I bet most of you didn’t even know they had such a highfalutin thing as a “theologian-in-residence,” did you? That’s another one of those things they spend God’s money on, apparently thinking that a “theologican-in-residence” is more important than funding a system to track admitted and credibly-accused clergy predators. But I digress . . . )

That’s Jim Denison in the photo. I could have just as easily put up a picture of the Pope, but I figure most of you already know what the Pope looks like. So I decided to show you what a “theologian-in-residence” looks like.

Perhaps Denison’s column just hit me wrong because of its timing. After all, the scandal of Texas Baptist pastor Matt Baker was in the news through all of January, and again as recently as March 11. But we heard no mention of it from the BGCT’s “theologian-in-residence”… or from any other BGCT official.

Despite multiple reports of sexual assault and sexual abuse, Baptist pastor Matt Baker moved with ease through churches, schools and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. There were Baptist leaders who knew, but there was no one who cared enough to do anything. So for 18 years, Matt Baker was able to keep moving on.

Not until he committed murder was Matt Baker’s career as a preacher-predator finally ended. That’s what it took in Baptistland. It took a dead body.

And amazingly, even in the face of a dead body, Baptist officials still turned a blind eye.

With such a huge and horrific institutional failure, you would ordinarily expect some high official to make some public statement. You would expect someone to at least offer up words of sorrow and to explain how they were going to get to the bottom of it so that such a thing would never happen again.

But from officials at the Baptist General Convention of Texas, we heard only silence.

A prominent Oklahoma Baptist pastor, Wade Burleson, looked at the Matt Baker scenario and was troubled. He posed this question: “You wonder if those of us in a position to do something to stop people like this from advancing in the Southern Baptist Convention, but don’t do anything… if we become accomplices to murder.”

Now THAT would be a good question for a paid “theologian-in-residence.” And since almost all the churches and organizations in which “murdering minister” Matt Baker worked were affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, it would seem that the BGCT’s “theologian-in-residence” would be particularly well-suited to speak to the subject.

But he’s been mute on that one. I guess a murder and 13 reported abuse and assault victims just aren’t on his radar. He’s more interested in jabbing the Catholics.

And what about the pesky matter of that confidential file that the BGCT keeps? It’s the file of ministers reported by churches for sexual abuse, “including child molestation.” Perhaps the BGCT’s “theologian-in-residence” should speak to the ethics and morality of THAT . . . of how they leave such ministers in their pulpits without telling people in the pews. While he’s at it, he could also talk about the fact that, unlike Catholics, Baptists don’t even bother with keeping records on abuse reports made by victims themselves.

But no. He doesn’t want to talk about the Baptists; he prefers to talk about the Catholics.

And while the Irish cardinal is under scrutiny for secrecy agreements signed by two clergy abuse victims in 1975, perhaps the BGCT’s “theologian-in-residence” could address the fact that, as recently as 2007, the BGCT’s own longtime attorney publicly defended such secrecy agreements as being “standard.” (The original source is no longer online, but I kept a print-out.)

But no. The “theologican-in-residence” doesn’t want to look in the closets of his own house, does he?

And while we’re looking at Catholic cover-ups, let’s not forget that former BGCT director Sonny Spurger flat-out acknowledged the long history of Baptist clergy abuse cover-ups. In 2002, Spurger said this:

“For many years, churches seemed to say to offenders, ‘We won't say anything if you won't say anything, and you go on down the road’…” Consequently, churches “ended up passing perpetrators to other churches.”

So make no mistake about it. Baptist leaders know that, for many years, child molesting ministers were passed to other churches. But to this day, they do nothing to track those ministers and nothing to help the wounded.

Oh gee whiz . . . I guess I got on a roll, didn’t I? But the thing is, I’ve barely skimmed the surface. There’s just so much of this stuff that Baptist leaders really ought to talk about. And who better for that task than the “theologian-in-residence”?

But oh gee whiz . . . I guess the BGCT’s “theologian-in-residence” is just too busy jabbing the Catholics to bother with talking about the moral travesty of his own organization.


Anonymous said...

Christa - Thanks for your work here. I noticed that you were interviewed in a number of articles published in the Baptist Standard. I was wondering if you have recently tried expressing your concerns to Marv Knox or others at the Baptist Standard, especially in the aftermath of the Matt Baker case. Thank you very much again.

Anonymous said...

Baptist leaders are well aware of all of this and they know how to contact Christa. The fact they choose not to says a lot, to their shame. They spend time keeping up with articles like this, but do not spend time to keep up of those who abuse. I have written proof of that from so called leaders. The longer they wait to act to protect children from these so called ministers the more they are accountable for in the future. Time to do something

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 10:54: Why don't you try expressing YOUR concern to Marv Knox and other Baptist leaders? Why don't you try talking to as many Baptist leaders as you can stomach? See what happens when you do. NOTHING.

James H said...



Anonymous said...

I am not sure what is meant
I have spoken to many Baptist Leaders
They do not even try to make things better or take steps that could help
All that has been done is for show only
I have quite a few documents showing communications between myself and the BGCT & SBC and others
More people need to speak up and let them know change is necessary
I know Christa has tried to communicate as well
I was told that the Baptist monitor this site
If they can do that why can they not monitor or keep tract of those who are predators
They got rid of a church for having homosexuals in their directory and congragation, but known rapist - abuser of children they state their hands are tied
People need to speak up
Change the way they think
They can do more and they know it

I am not anonymous, I am Debbie, just hard to see enough to do this where I say who I am

I was abused and they know it
Christa was abused and they know it
Many others were abused and
unless things change more will be
Speak up

Thanks for Listening
Debbie V

James H said...

If I can let me ask you a question.

I have to admit I have some disagreements with some people in SNAP at times. It might have just been the people I have interacted with.

One reason I am interested in your blog is that needless to say there is a lot of LAY involvement in the Baptist Church. In real areas of authority , abuse of authority, and sexual abuse the line between "ordained" clergy and volunteer (Youth minister SUnday school teacher etc) is well blurry.

It is I know not popular to talk about but on the flip side of this is the rights of the accused. In the Catholic Church of course we are seeing more lay people in positions of power and trust(dealing with kids). We also have the issue of married Deacons that is huge.

There have been some complaints from Priests(some of which are valid) that they are one phone call or accusation from being on the Street.

So while I think of course the victims need justice I am also concerned about some Youth Minister that is forced to defend himself from accusations that occured over 30 years ago. I have dealt with a lot of child custody matters and accusation of abuse are rampant and to be honest I have found a good many (NOT ALL) to be false. Still for the person accused it can be horrific experience.

So I am curious sine you are associated with SNAP if you have done a post on what sort of system that balances these concerns and what kinda of system you would like to see.

Again I am not minomizing the plight of the victims here or the need for JUSTICE. I am just trying to envision a system that will work and be fair.

Thanks again

Christa Brown said...

Debbie V: Good to see you on the blog again. I hope you're doing well. Please don't worry about it one bit if you feel like you need to use all caps to see what you're saying. We're just happy to have you here.

James H: I've written about the risk of false accusation on several occasions - here's one. Most experts say that, for those who report having been sexually abused in childhood, fabricated reports constitute only 1 to 4 percent. For the most part, I think the sorts of accusations adults sometimes make in child custody disputes are a whole 'nother matter and a very different context.

Since you seem interested in Catholic comparisons, you might find this of interest: A lawyer who defended Catholic dioceses against sexual abuse claims in over 500 cases said that he himself had concluded that "fewer than 10" of those cases were based on false accusations. (And again, this was a guy who was working on the side of the dioceses!)

Nevertheless, though the risk is small in terms of its incidence, it is real and painful in terms of its impact. This is one of the reasons why we have asked Baptist leaders for the creation of a denominational review board that would be staffed by professionals with the training and experience to responsibly assess abuse reports. A responsible assessment by trained professionals can help to protect both the accused and the accuser, and it can also help to afford credibility to the assessment conclusion.

James H said...


Christiane said...


Speaking as a Catholic, I remember something that I once read. I can't quote exactly, but it had to with:
'the more we know of our own hearts, the less we are inclined to despise others'.
It took a long, long time for my Church to come to acknowledge its mistakes in attempting to 'cover up' abuses. And when it finally did, it may have been initially the result of law suits against certain clergy and bishops. But, in time, the Holy Spirit convicted the hearts of all of our faithful to the magnitude of the great harm done to the innocent and of the great sins of those who did not call the perpetrators to account, and therefore perpetuated the tragedy.

So I have hope that when the 'fundamentalist leaders' in the SBC lose their arrogance, they will, by the grace of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, try to acknowledge responsibility for 'covering up', and blaming victims, and perpetuating the tragedy.

I just wished that they could learn from the sadness my Church has gone through, and try to understand the need for deep repentence in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I admire your work, Christa. You have taken your own suffering, and transcended it with God's grace, to try to help so many others.
Remain in Christ's peace,

Christa Brown said...

"I just wished that they could learn from the sadness my Church has gone through..."

Yes, that has been my hope as well. Thanks for your kind words, Christiane.