Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Perhaps it's more about polity than race

In the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mark Chaves and Diana Garland published a study titled “The Prevalence of Clergy Sexual Advances Toward Adults in Their Congregations.”

The study found that, among women who currently attend religious services at least monthly, 3.1 percent have been the object of a sexual advance by a clergyperson or religious leader in their own congregation since turning 18.

This 3.1 percent conclusion was widely publicized almost a year ago, but recently, there has been news about another finding within the study – a finding that was not previously publicized. The study reports what is described as “a race difference” in the incidence of abuse. (Chaves and Garland at 821)

Specifically, among women who currently attend church at least monthly, the prevalence of clergy sexual abuse was approximately three times greater for African-American women than for white women. In other words, the behavior of clergy sexual advances toward adult congregants “occurs somewhat more frequently in predominantly black congregations than in predominantly white congregations.” (Chaves and Garland at 823)

As reported by the Biblical Recorder, Diana Garland spoke publicly about this additional finding in a recent meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “She offered as possible explanation that black churches typically have smaller staffs who have heavier loads; a higher proportion of members are female and there are fewer eligible men in the church.”

Chaves and Garland rightly acknowledge that they “speculate” in their possible explanations for understanding the “race difference.” (Chaves and Garland at 823) So, since Chaves and Garland are putting forward speculation about this, I too will speculate to put forward another possible explanation.

I’m inclined to think that the difference may have more to do with polity than with race.

The study surveyed 3,559 people in 17 Christian and Jewish denominational bodies.

African-Americans are largely concentrated in denominations that have a congregationalist polity. The National Baptist Convention is the largest African-American denomination in the United States, and a great many African-Americans are in other Baptist denominations as well – all of which have congregationalist polity.

By contrast, the Anglos who were surveyed were more than likely splintered among a wider range of denominational bodies, including not only those with congregationalist polity, but also Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and others. In these other sorts of denominational bodies, there exists at least the possibility that abusive clergy may be reported to an office outside the local congregation. Not only can the victims themselves report the abusive clergy to someone outside the congregation, but so too can other ministers and church officials who may have seen the predatory clergyman’s patterns.

In these other sorts of denominational bodies, there exists at least the possibility that a regional review board might suspend the clergyman, defrock him, or discipline him.

However, most African-American respondents were probably more cohesively in denominations that claim their congregationalist polity precludes denominational oversight of clergy. For these people, the ONLY possibility for reporting abusive clergy is to report them to the local church.

So, because of the lack of any outside oversight, ministers in denominations with congregationalist polity can migrate more easily and thereby accumulate more victims. And since African-Americans are concentrated in denominations with congregationalist polity, this may be at least part of the explanation for the increased incidence of clergy abuse.

(Remember Baptist pastor Darrell Gilyard? He had 44 known adult victims before he was finally stopped by a criminal conviction. And that’s just the victims who revealed their abuse. Yet, despite reports within congregations, and despite reports to Baptist officials, and even despite the efforts of other ministers in churches where he worked, Gilyard was always able to move on.)

Thus, I can’t help but wonder whether the appearance of this “race difference” in the data may actually be a back-door sort of insight into the reality that the lack of any oversight outside the local congregation may be something in Baptist life that sets up the probability for a higher incidence of clergy abuse. If this is what the data is telling us, then it would likely be true for anglo-dominated Baptist denominations as well ... i.e., for denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention.

Interestingly, Chaves and Garland themselves hint at this possibility, but then stop short. They raise the question of whether the "race difference" can be explained because, when it comes to “developing policies and procedures that adequately deal with such situations,” "predominantly white denominations and religious groups [have] been somewhat more likely to take these steps than predominantly black denominations and religious groups." (Chaves and Garland at 823) However, Chaves and Garland don’t make the link to the fact that most predominantly white denominations (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Catholic) have developed review board procedures that afford outside oversight of their clergy while most predominantly black denominations have not.

Most predominantly black denominations are congregationalist in polity -- and largely Baptist -- and they use their polity as an excuse for a lack of clergy oversight. (Garland herself works for Baylor University, a Baptist-funded institution.)

Finally, let me reiterate my concern about the 3.1 percent conclusion. This is something I blogged about previously, and now that I have seen the study itself, my concern is even greater.

Though there are several places where the study makes plain that it concerned itself only with women who currently attend religious services at least once a month, the study’s title may give the misimpression of a broader conclusion. There are also statements within the study that proclaim it as having established “a national prevalence rate for sexual advances by clergy toward their adult parishioners.” (Chaves and Garland at 823) This is simply incorrect. It did no such thing.

The Chaves and Garland study does not 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. Those women remain invisible and uncounted.

Yet, they are real. And based on the people I hear from, I expect that there are at least as many clergy-abused women who don’t go to church as those who do.

All of them need a safe place to which they can report clergy abuse, and that “safe place” will almost never be the church of the accused clergyman. Indeed, for Baptists to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must report to the church of the accused clergyman is flat-out cruel. It is like telling bloody sheep to go the den of the wolf who savaged them.

Such a system will never work. Not only does it fail for the purpose of fostering clergy accountability, but it also inflicts horrible additional harm on the victims of clergy sex abuse. As Garland herself has stated: Victims were “hurt” by a religious leader, but they were “destroyed” by the congregations.

Study published at Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2009) 48(4): 817-824.


Anonymous said...

In the case of African-Americans, polity doesn't offer much. The Black church is regarded as the central institution of the Black community. Black clergy serve a very prominent and influential role within that community.

While the polity is congregational, black pastors are known for their authoritarian governing style. Pastoral authority wins out over the will of the congregation all the time in the Black Church.

A look at the history of the NBC-USA (Joseph Jackson vs. Gardner Taylor/MLK all the way up to the recent shennanigans of Henry Lyons) reveals the power and influence of African-American pastors. And of course, power often corrupts. Women generally don't fare well in churches that promote patriarchy and authoritarian leadership.

Christa Brown said...

"A look at the history of the NBC-USA ... reveals the power and influence of African-American pastors. And of course, power often corrupts. Women generally don't fare well in churches that promote patriarchy and authoritarian leadership."

Much the same could be said of the anglo-dominated Southern Baptist Convention.

Junkster said...

Interesting study and post.

But I want to point out that congregational polity is not at all incompatible with accountability and oversight beyond a local church. Nor are other forms of church governance any guarantee that clergy will be held accountable for abusive behaviors.

Rather, I think the problem lies with the concept of radical autonomy, misused as an excuse for inaction. A church or denomination can have congregational or non-congregational polity and still make excuses and not hold people accountable.

We shouldn't ask or expect Baptists to change their polity of church governance in any way -- that would be a violation of their right to free religious expression according the dictates of their own consciences and their own doctrinal beliefs. But when we know that there is nothing inherently in those beliefs that would preclude cooperative actions for safety and accountability, it is good and proper to point this out and expect them to take steps that are not a violation of their beliefs.

There is so much more Baptists and similar groups can do without any need for any change in belief or polity. I know you agree with that. Thanks for all you do to continue to put forth that message.

Christa Brown said...

"I want to point out that congregational polity is not at all incompatible with accountability and oversight beyond a local church."

I agree 200%. But of course, we know that Southern Baptist leaders disagree, don't we?

"I think the problem lies with the concept of radical autonomy, misused as an excuse for inaction."

Yup. I wish Baptist people in the pews would realize this. No one is challenging authentic Baptist polity. What we're challenging is the radicalized, man-made, self-serving pretense of polity that has been put forward by Baptist leaders as an excuse for blind-eyed do-nothingness in the face of clergy sex abuse.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody start to question their beliefs when many leaders of their churches DO NOT do the right thing? Aren't they supposed to have the Holy Spirit guiding them? Wouldn't you expect them to act differently than those in other-type organizations that try to hide problems, etc?

Don't you assume these men pray and ask God to give them wisdom, etc? Why are these men not different than the unsaved in how they react to the abuse problem?

Thy Peace said...

Off Topic:

Suzanne's Bookshelf [Suzanne McCarthy] > Asking for an apology from CBMW

For the sake of all Christians, men and women, we demand that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood, make a public apology for the misuse of Holy Scripture as it relates to women, and cease to publish or promote The Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood.

Thy Peace said...

Ministry of Reconciliation [Debbie Kaufman] > This Little Light By Christa Brown Pt. 1

I am sitting here thinking what part of the book This Little Light by Christa Brown should I write about? It’s a book that when I finished reading the last page left me with a host of different thoughts and feelings. One chapter had me shocked at the number of victims in the Southern Baptist churches alone, one chapter had me angry that leaders in the Southern Baptist churches, Convention, literally turned their backs on Christa Brown as she tried to approach them, one chapter had me both angry and sad that Christa Brown was full of hope in approaching Southern Baptist leadership about clergy sexual abuse only to have her hopes dashed as excuses were made, doors shut on her, threatening letters were sent to her.