Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dear Al

Al Mohler
An open letter to Al Mohler, president
of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Dear Al:

You got a lot of press for all your talk about the Penn State sex abuse scandal. It was good talk. But was it just talk?

When I look at your actual deeds lately, I wind up thinking that talk is all it was. That grieves me, because it will take a lot more than talk to protect kids against clergy predators. Words aren't enough.

You’re right, of course, that churches and Christian organizations should “contact law enforcement” with any information about child sex abuse. But that’s true for everyone, and it’s been true for a long time. So the mere fact that you say it doesn’t make it some bold new initiative of Southern Baptist leadership. To the contrary, so long as there are no institutional consequences for Southern Baptist leaders who don’t contact law enforcement, your talk is toothless, and nothing in Baptist life has changed.

Not only is your talk toothless, but your own deeds send a message that flat-out contradicts your words.

There you are, telling seminary employees that they should contact law enforcement with any information about child sex abuse. But what about seminary trustees, Al?

If you expect seminary employees to contact law enforcement, shouldn’t you expect the same measure of conduct from seminary trustees? Shouldn’t leaders lead by example?

So why aren’t you calling for the resignation of seminary trustee Philip Gunn? As a church elder and an attorney, Gunn has urged that church officials should not cooperate with the police, but should instead keep secret the information they have about child sex abuse allegations against a trusted minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Mississippi.

SNAP spokesperson Amy Smith summed up the scenario quite succinctly: “Mr. Gunn has some explaining to do about why he, as an elder and attorney, participated in an internal church investigation into child sex crimes without going to the police.”

But Al, here’s the thing. You should be the person insisting on accountability for Mr. Gunn. If you remain silent when your own Southern Baptist seminary trustee does exactly what you say shouldn’t be done, then all you’re doing is preaching platitudes and talking easy generalities.

Furthermore, I really gotta wonder why in the world you chose to invite Morrison Heights' senior pastor Greg Belser to speak at seminary chapel in the midst of such an egregious child sex abuse cover-up scandal? Why did you lend the seminary’s institutional credibility to Greg Belser at the very time when Belser was refusing to cooperate with prosecutors in the pursuit of child sex charges against one of Morrison Heights' former ministers?

Morrison Heights did what you’re critiquing in others. It failed to prioritize the protection of kids, and instead looked out for the institution first and foremost. Yet, rather than calling this Southern Baptist church to task for such keep-it-quiet conduct, you effectively held it up as an example.

Talk the talk, but don’t worry about walking the walk. That’s the message your deeds bespeak.

And sadly, this isn’t the first time your deeds have sent a “no big deal” message about a clergy sex abuse cover-up. For example, just last June, you yourself spoke from the pulpit at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. (Thanks to New BBC for this video of you at Bellevue.) As I’m sure you know, Bellevue is a Southern Baptist church whose senior pastor, Steve Gaines, kept quiet for at least six months about an admitted clergy child molester. Yet, I haven’t heard you call this prominent pastor to task for it.

So this is the reality of what I see in your deeds. When Southern Baptist church leaders keep quiet about clergy sex abuse, you speak at their churches and you invite them to speak at your seminary. You are not part of any system by which Southern Baptist clergy colleagues will hold one another accountable. To the contrary, you’re part of a consequence-free system of cronies promoting cronies.

"Any failure to report and to stop the sexual abuse of children must be made inconceivable,” you said. But here’s the thing, Al. If there are no institutional consequences for failure to report, then failure to report will not be made inconceivable within the institution.

Without institutional consequences, we will continue to see the pattern of Southern Baptist leaders  –  leaders such as Philip Gunn, Jack Graham, Greg Belser, Steve Gaines and many more  –  who weigh each scenario for themselves and conclude (for whatever rationalized mess of a reason) that their particular scenario is somehow exceptional and that reporting isn’t necessary.

And without institutional consequences, this pattern will continue to allow accused clergy predators to church-hop through the Southern Baptist Convention, just as John Langworthy did from Prestonwood to Morrison Heights.

When I see you publicly addressing that case, and calling your own fellow Southern Baptist colleagues to account, then maybe I’ll begin to believe your words mean something.

But until then, Al, your words are nothing but talk. And that’s a crying shame. Because this isn't about the mere hypocrisy of your words. It's about the safety of kids.

Update from Civil Commotion 12/24/11: "Christa Brown gives that smiling serpent what-for ..."

Update 1/4/2012: Al Mohler tweets his pride on the selection of Southern Seminary trustee Philip Gunn as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. So not only does Mohler fail to criticize Gunn, but he sings Gunn's praises and speaks of his pride for him. Bob Felton says that, with events such as this, Southern Baptists may eventually "begin to recognize what a cesspool their denomination has become."

Update 1/18/2012: In a letter to the trustee board, Al Mohler wrote: "This is a tribute to the leadership of Speaker Gunn, and his election brings honor to the people of Mississippi and to the board of trustees of Southern Seminary."
Related posts:
Penn State lesson for Baptists: Outsiders needed for oversight, 11/25/11
Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary, 11/10/11
Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church, 9/8/11
Where’s the discipline? 10/13/2010

Friday, November 25, 2011

Penn State lesson for Baptists: Outsiders needed for oversight

Last week, Penn State announced its hiring of former FBI director and federal judge Louis Freeh to investigate the gaps in how the university handled allegations of child sex crimes involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. To assist him in the task, Freeh has assembled a team of former FBI investigators and federal prosecutors, many of whom have expertise in child predator cases.

This internal investigation is in addition to the criminal investigation that was conducted by a grand jury.

“No one – no one – is above scrutiny,” said Kenneth Frazier, a member of the university’s Board of Trustees who hired Freeh. “That includes university trustees, employees and ‘every member of our board of trustees’,” he added.

Freeh, who has no connections to the university or to the state of Pennsylvania, said that assurances of independence were a condition for his acceptance of the position.

Though Freeh will have “complete reign” in the probe, and will recommend changes based on his findings, it will ultimately be up to the university’s Board of Trustees to implement the recommended changes.

Southern Baptists should heed this lesson from the Penn State scandal. Effective accountability systems require the involvement of outsiders for the sake of objectivity.

This is the essence of what we have been asking the Southern Baptist Convention to provide as a resource to local churches: an independent outside review board that could receive and assess reports about clergy sex abuse and that could provide information to people in the pews.

So far, Southern Baptist leaders have refused, and their refusal is irresponsible.

If this denomination wants to rid its ranks of clergy predators, it must find a way to institutionally listen to the people who are trying to tell about clergy abuse, and particularly to those whose claims cannot be criminally prosecuted, which is most. The denomination must provide a safe place where clergy abuse survivors can make a report with a reasonable expectation of being objectively and compassionately heard. That “safe place” will almost never be the church of the accused minister, but an independent review board could be.

In the same week that Penn State hired outsider Louis Freeh to assure oversight of its own systems, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land talked about Penn State on his radio show. The scandal, said Land, “shows that internal reporting is not enough.” He urged people to report suspected child abuse to the police.

So far, so good. Land is right: Internal reporting is not enough and people should report suspected child abuse to the police.

However, Land stops short. Just as internal reporting is not enough, so too, it is not enough for denominational authorities to simply preach to local churches about reporting to the police. To pretend that this is enough is an abdication of institutional responsibility and an abandonment of moral responsibility.

In the real world, “Southern Baptist churches are rarely the first party to report child sex abuse by clergy to the police.” This reality -– the fact that churches typically don’t report their pastors -- is what often allows the limitations period to run so that criminal prosecution becomes impossible.

This reality must be dealt with, and preaching about it isn’t enough. There must be institutional consequences for church leaders who don’t report child sex abuse and for churches that engage in keep-it-quiet cover-ups.

And no one – no one – should be above scrutiny.

This means that even high-honchos such as former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham should be subjected to scrutiny. With Graham at the helm, leaders of the 27,000 member Prestonwood Baptist Church failed to report child sex abuse allegations against one of its ministers, allowing the man to move on to other churches and placing other kids at risk. That minister now faces child sex charges in Mississippi.

The Southern Baptist Convention should follow the example of Penn State and engage a team of independent outside professionals to conduct an internal investigation of how and why allegations of child sex crimes were kept quiet at one of its most prominent and powerful churches. How did the system allow for such an abysmal failure, and how should the system be restructured to make such failures less likely?

Then, after dealing with Prestonwood, the SBC should keep the team and use it to establish an independent denominational review board with the power to receive, assess, and track clergy abuse allegations, and to investigate other accounts of church cover-ups.

Accountability systems are essential for child safety, and accountability systems require outsiders.

Thanks to the Associated Baptist Press for publishing this column!
And thanks also to the Louisville Courier-Journal for picking up on it!
And also thanks to Real Clear Religion.

Related posts:
Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary, 11/10/11
Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer, or in-betweener? 10/1/11
GRACE report vindicates missionary kids, 9/4/10 (another example of the use of independent outsiders for accountability)
More talk from Mr. So-called Ethics, 3/18/08

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Easy to say, harder to do

After my prior column, and after several other commentators called him on the carpet, Jim Denison has admitted he “made a mistake.”

Denison, the “theologian-in-residence” for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had previously written that “it would have been best” for the Penn State abuse victims “to go directly to those who wronged them.” This was a terribly wrong statement, and I’m glad Denison has acknowledged it.

Personally, I don’t think his explanation for the mistake holds much water. Most other journalists would get royally skewered if they tried to explain away such a bad mistake by saying “I was writing on deadline.” Nevertheless, Denison has at least acknowledged his mistake, and that’s more than many other Baptist leaders do.

In connection with clergy sex abuse, the admission of mistakes is something you don’t see from very many leaders in Baptist life. Have you heard former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham admit to his mistakes in the handling of clergy molestation allegations at Prestonwood? Have you heard Rick Grant admit to his mistakes in the handling of clergy molestation allegations at First Baptist of Benton? Have you heard former Arkansas Baptist Convention president Greg Kirksey apologize for writing a letter in which he urged no prison time for an admitted minister-molester? Have you heard former California Southern Baptist Convention president Wayne Stockstill apologize for keeping quiet about molestation allegations against a church deacon? Have you heard former South Carolina Baptist Convention president Wendell Estep apologize for his miserably poor handling of clergy sex abuse allegations at his church? Have you heard former SBC president and current seminary president Paige Patterson apologize for calling clergy rape victims “evil-doers”? Have you heard SBC Executive Committee president Frank Page apologize for writing that those who speak out about clergy child molestation are “nothing more than opportunistic persons”?

Nope. Baptist leaders don’t have a good track record on apologizing for their mishandling of clergy sex abuse. They just tend to move on and hope it gets swept under the rug . . . which it usually does.

And that brings me back to Jim Denison. Apologies are important. Words are nice. But deeds are what’s needed.

In today’s column, Denison says this: "Anytime a school, church, or other organization learns that a child entrusted to its care has been harmed, it must take immediate, proactive steps."

Again, these are nice words, but I say to Jim Denison: "Go tell it to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. You're their 'theologian-in-residence.' It's your organization. Push them to take proactive steps and put words into deeds."

After all, the BGCT keeps a confidential file of ministers reported by churches for sexual abuse. It’s a rare scenario when a church reports a minister for sexual abuse, and yet even in this rare scenario -- when the church itself reports a minister to denominational leaders -- the BGCT doesn't warn parents in the pews about who those ministers are. The information simply sits in a file at headquarters in Dallas.

And the BGCT doesn't even have any system for receiving abuse reports from the victims themselves, which is something that is much needed.

How can the BGCT react proactively to a report that a child in an affiliated Texas Baptist church was abused when the BGCT doesn’t even have any system for receiving victims’ reports, for assessing such reports, or for responsibly acting on them? Try addressing that one, Jim Denison.

My own perpetrator -- i.e., the minister who molested and raped me as a kid -- had his name sitting there in a closed file at the BGCT even while he continued to work in children's ministry in Florida, and even as I tried desperately to get something done about it.

And what did the BGCT do? It sent out its own long-time attorney to "help" the church of my childhood in dealing with my report of abuse. How did he "help"? By threatening to sue me if I continued to talk about it.

Get busy, Jim Denison. Clean up your own organization. But that will take deeds, not mere words. As David Clohessy of SNAP says: "It's easy to say stuff, harder to do stuff."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penn State: Baptist theologian puts ignorance on display

Jim Denison
“It would have been best for the alleged abuse victims at Penn State  . . . to go directly to those who wronged them.”

So says Jim Denison, whose job title is “theologian-in-residence” for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

You might imagine that someone with a title as lofty as “theologian-in-residence” would be better educated. You would be wrong.

Denison’s statement reveals a dangerous ignorance about the dynamics of child sex abuse.

It is the sort of ignorance that Baptist clergy abuse survivors have encountered in case after case, as church and denominational leaders have blinded themselves to abuse reports, seeing only the facts that suit them, minimizing the reality of clergy child molestations, and citing Matthew 18 as support for their own keep-it-quiet do-nothingness.

Jim Denison also cites Matthew 18 to support his ignorant view of what abuse victims should do.

The destructive power of this style of ignorance is that it effectively uses Scripture to revictimize those who have already been greatly wounded – wounded by so-called “men of God,” who probably also cited Scripture even as they desecrated their young victims’ bodies and spirits.

Rather than seeking as a faith community to assure accountability for such dreadful wrongs, and rather than seeking to provide compassionate care for those who have been so terribly wounded, the typical “Matthew 18” response is one that puts an additional and near-impossible burden on the victims to “go directly to those who wronged them.”

It’s wrong.

But though it’s wrong, Denison’s style of ignorance is common in Baptistland.

It is a style of ignorance that helps to explain why Baptist leaders who keep quiet about clergy sex abuse don’t reap the same sort of consequence as what Penn State’s Joe Paterno reaped.

For example, the leadership of Dallas’ Prestonwood Baptist megachurch saw fit to allow a credibly accused minister-molester to simply move on to a new church, without reporting him to the police, without taking responsible action for the protection of kids, and without compassionate and competent care for the wounded. That minister was recently indicted on multiple child sex abuse charges in Mississippi. But Prestonwood’s senior pastor, Jack Graham, has faced no consequence similar to what Penn State’s Joe Paterno faced. He should.

As Denison states: “In October, Joe Paterno was the most revered coach in college football. In November, he is unemployed.”

But Jack Graham, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, is the revered senior pastor of one of the most prominent churches in the largest Protestant denomination in the land. Graham remains employed in that position even after conduct quite similar to what got Joe Paterno fired from Penn State.

Prestonwood Baptist Church is located in Texas, and Jim Denison is Texas Baptists’ “theologian-in-residence.” So why doesn’t Jim Denison address this scandal that is on his own turf and within his own faith community?

Why doesn’t Jim Denison publicly tell Baptist pastor Jack Graham what he should have done instead of publicly, and erroneously, telling the Penn State abuse victims what they should have done?

My best guess is that it’s because Denison knows he won’t offend any of the Baptist powers-that-be if he talks about Penn State. In effect, he’s just piling on. But if Denison were to talk about Prestonwood, he would surely step on some powerful Baptist toes. So he keeps quiet.

It’s plenty easy for a “theologian-in-residence” to spoon out Scripture as pabulum and to pontificate on what others should do  –  including others who were powerless child rape victims. But it’s a heckuva lot harder to speak out against those who hold power.

That’s something Denison might begin to understand if he were to actually listen to child rape victims instead of criticizing them.

Update 11/23/11: Jim Denison has admitted he "made a mistake" with the quoted sentence. Nice, but not enough. Denison also says this: "Anytime a school, church, or other organization learns that a child entrusted to its care has been harmed, it must take immediate, proactive steps." Again, nice words, but I say to Jim Denison: "Go tell it to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. You're their 'theologian-in-residence.' It's your organization. Push them to take proactive steps and put words into deeds." After all, the BGCT, keeps a confidential file of ministers reported by churches, and yet even when a church reports a minister, the BGCT doesn't warn parents in the pews about who those ministers are. The information simply sits in a file. And the BGCT doesn't even have any system for receiving abuse reports from the victims themselves. My own perpetrator -- i.e., the minister who molested and raped me as a kid -- had his name sitting there in a closed file at the BGCT even while he continued to work in children's ministry in Florida, and even as I tried desperately to get something done about it. And what did the BGCT do? It sent out its own long-time attorney to "help" the church of my childhood in dealing with my report of abuse. How did he "help"? By threatening to sue me if I continued to talk about it. 

Get busy, Jim Denison. Clean up your own organization. That will take deeds, not mere words. As David Clohessy of SNAP says: "It's easy to say stuff, harder to do stuff."  

Related posts:
Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary, 11/10/11
Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer, or in-betweener? 10/1/11  
Irish Catholics and Texas Baptists, 3/23/10

Related column:
Prestonwood saga shows clergy abuse database is overdue, ABP, 8/19/11

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary

Penn State has now fired football coach Joe Paterno because of his failure to respond appropriately in the face of child sex abuse allegations. Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler described this firing as a “necessary action.”

But if that’s what Mohler really believes – that Paterno’s firing was “necessary” – will Mohler also urge the firing of former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham from his leadership position at the Prestonwood Baptist megachurch in Dallas? If Paterno’s firing was “necessary,” shouldn’t Graham’s firing also be “necessary”?

Graham too failed to go to police with information about a person in high trust who was accused of child sex abuse. Instead, Graham allowed the accused staff minister to simply move on and thereby unleashed him into the broader denominational body, placing many more kids at risk.

Graham’s failure is all too common in Baptistland. We have seen this keep-it-quiet pattern in megachurches and mini-churches, in city churches and rural churches. It is a pattern that allows accused clergy child molesters to church hop with ease, and that places kids in the Southern Baptist Convention at greater risk.

Mohler talks about the lessons of the Penn State scandal and rightly points out that making a report to law enforcement should be the first step in confronting a suspicion of child sex abuse. But what happens when the first step fails? What happens when a church leader like Jack Graham fails to go to the police and a couple decades pass before someone speaks up again? By then, it is often too late for criminal prosecution.

Experts say that less than ten percent of child sex abuse allegations are criminally prosecuted. Part of the reason for the low rate of prosecution is precisely because far too many adults keep quiet about information that should be reported. And it is the very nature of the harm that the child-victim is typically silenced. By the time the victim grows up and becomes capable of speaking about it, the limitations period for criminal prosecution has typically passed.

Other major faith groups have denominational processes for assessing clergy abuse allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted. Such processes at least allow for the possibility that a minister who is credibly accused of sexual abuse will not be able to remain in a position of trust. Moreover, they allow accusations to be heard by people who are outside the accused minister’s circle of trust and influence. But Southern Baptists do not have such processes. This is a huge safety gap.

Many Baptist clergy abuse survivors have tried in adulthood to report their perpetrators to denominational officials in local, state and national offices. Often, they start out with the assumption that, surely, denominational officials will want to take steps for the protection of others. Invariably, their assumption is rent asunder. The reality of what they encounter is a Baptistland in which no one will hear them. There is no system by which any denominational official will do diddly-squat to help a clergy abuse survivor in seeking to protect others or in seeking accountability for minister-molesters.

Mohler is right: reporting to law enforcement is essential. But child sex abuse is a massive and time-weighted problem, and the criminal justice system cannot handle the entirety of the task on its own. There must also be institutional systems for assuring that people in positions of high trust are held accountable. In this respect, Southern Baptists have failed abysmally. Southern Baptists have abdicated responsibility and betrayed the safety of children in refusing to implement the sort of basic accountability systems that are becoming the bare-bones standard of care in other faith groups.

Mohler seems to want to address this. “Every church and Christian institution needs a full set of policies, procedures, and accountability structures,” he says.

But where exactly are the “accountability structures” for Southern Baptists? If there is one thing the Prestonwood saga has shown us, it is that local churches cannot  –  cannot  –  responsibly address clergy abuse allegations against their own ministers. They lack the objectivity. Trained outsiders must be brought to the task.

The lessons of Penn State need heeding, and it is not enough for Baptist leaders like Al Mohler to simply talk about those lessons. Words must be put into deeds. Southern Baptists must actually implement effective accountability systems and they must begin to hold their own leaders accountable.

When Southern Baptist leaders such as Al Mohler begin to publicly address the failures of Southern Baptist leaders such as Jack Graham, then perhaps more people will begin to think that Southern Baptists take this problem seriously.

This too is a lesson from Penn State that Southern Baptists should heed. If an organization does not impose consequences for leaders who turn a blind eye, then blind-eyed behavior will occur more frequently and children will remain at greater risk.

Related post: "Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer or in-betweener?"

Update: "Former minister fights molestation charge," ABP, 10/25/12 ("... his previous church, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, where leaders reportedly fired Langworthy in 1989 for molesting boys in the church but did not report him to police as required by law."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Contract preachers and accountability avoidance

When Southern Baptist pastor Sammy Nuckolls was arrested on charges of video voyeurism, the news reports initially described him as merely a “Mississippi man” and as a “traveling evangelist.” There was no mention of the fact that he was a Baptist pastor.

Yet, Nuckolls was well-connected in the Southern Baptist Convention. In addition to stints in churches and as a revival preacher, he worked as a pastor for youth camps sponsored by Lifeway, which is a denominational arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. In other words, Nuckolls was not only a Southern Baptist pastor, but he worked for the denomination itself.

So why didn’t the initial news reports make mention of the fact that Nuckolls was a Southern Baptist pastor who worked at Southern Baptist youth camps?

I could speculate on several reasons, including the possibility that Baptist public relations people may have had contacts with local press people. But I think the more probable explanation is simply that the local press people didn’t know.

A national network-affiliated news station in California once called me because they were trying to figure out the affiliation of a “Baptist” pastor who was in the news in connection with a horrific child abuse case. The news station couldn’t find any source in Baptistland  –  not any denominational official for any Baptist group  --  who could provide information about the pastor’s affiliation. So, the news station called me, and I couldn’t help them either. That’s how difficult it can be to figure out what sort of “Baptist” a “Baptist” pastor is and what denominational entity he or his church may be affiliated with. Even with all the research resources of a network news station, it can be a virtually impossible task. And without official confirmation, reporters wind up erring on the safe side by saying things like “Mississippi man” instead of “Southern Baptist pastor.”

The largest of the Baptist faith groups – the Southern Baptist Convention – doesn’t even keep track of the names of all the ministers who work in Southern Baptist churches, much less on all the ministers who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. Most of the other Baptist denominational groups – and there are dozens of them -- do no better. This makes "find the Baptist pastor" into a sort of shell game.

But this is just one part of the failure-of-clergy-oversight problem for Baptists. Another part of the problem was illustrated by Lifeway’s response to the Nuckolls’ scandal – a response it made belatedly and only after Nuckolls’ Southern Baptist connection became public.

After initially scrubbing its website of references to Nuckolls, Lifeway finally put up this statement to explain Nuckolls’ relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention: Nuckolls was “originally hired as a summer staffer to serve in the role of camp pastor for FUGE camps in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2007 his role changed to a contract pastor only . . .  He served in this capacity through the summer of 2011. In this role, Nuckolls preached at general assemblies and large gatherings.”

Did you catch that? “Contract pastor only.”

It sounds to me like code for “not our problem.”

Making an employee into a “contract” worker is a common tactic that many organizations will sometimes use to minimize the risk of liability. (There are, of course, other possible reasons for shifting employees to contract status, but that’s one of them.)

In fact, like Nuckolls, the Southern Baptist pastor who molested and raped me as a kid became a “contract pastor” at a Florida church after he had been on staff at other prominent Southern Baptist churches. He was able to continue working as a contract pastor in children’s ministry even after he had been listed in the confidential file of clergy sex abusers that is kept at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. (The BGCT receives clergy abuse reports only from churches, not from mere victims, and according to the BGCT’s policy at the time, a minister could be placed in the file based on “substantial evidence of abuse” or a confession.) He was able to continue working as a contract pastor in children’s ministry even after I had reported him to numerous Baptist officials and even after my report was substantiated by another minister who knew about the abuse when I was a kid. He was able to work as a contract pastor in children’s ministry even when officials at Southern Baptist Convention headquarters wrote to me that they had no record of him being “in a ministerial position in any church.” And yet he was – except he had become a contract pastor instead of an employee pastor.

So, in light of that history, I’d like to know exactly why Lifeway switched Sammy Nuckolls to “contract pastor only” status in 2007. What information did Lifeway have about Nuckolls? Were any complaints made about him?

According to police, Nuckolls may have been surreptitiously videotaping women "for years." Based on reports of the initial charge, he was caught videotaping an Arkansas woman in the bathroom of her home while she was preparing to take a shower. He was staying as a guest in the home while he preached a revival at the Gosnell Baptist Church. After the arrest in Gosnell, police confiscated Nuckolls’ computers and discovered similar videotapes dating back for years. Now, police in Olive Branch, Mississippi have also filed charges, and charges are pending in a second Arkansas town. Police say there could be still “more victims and more charges.”

Hat tip to the numerous blogs that reported the facts about Nuckolls' relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention, and also to the Associated Baptist Press, which is independent of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Update: "Alleged peeping evangelist charged in third town," ABP, 12/15/11

This isn't the first Baptist pastor who has been caught making secret videotapes. See, e.g., this story from Jacksonville, Florida, in which there had been talk about the pastor's activity for years, but no one did anything until one man finally reported it . . . and he was kicked out of the church.

Related posts:
"Dear Pastor Oliver," 1/19/11 (Lifeway's statement sounds remarkably similar to the "not on staff" statement made by the Georgia pastor in this post.)
"Find the Baptist pastor," 1/22/09 (A North Carolina Southern Baptist church had 17 pastors shown on its "Meet the Pastors" page and not one was shown on the SBC's online registry of ministers.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Into submission"

WARNING: This video depicts physical and emotional violence.

The man in this video is a Texas judge who handles child abuse cases. Texas elects its judges. Need I say more? Let’s hope the people of Aransas County have the good sense not to re-elect this guy.

The judge, William Adams, wields 17 lashes to beat his 16-year-old daughter “into submission.”

In response to the video, Judge Adams says: “In my mind I haven’t done anything wrong . . . .  I did lose my temper, but I’ve since apologized."

Note: I have no clue whether Judge Adams is a Baptist or not, but as a longtime Texas attorney, I'm stating my opinion that he should not be allowed to hold a gavel. Also, as a person who was raised in a Southern Baptist church in Texas, I know a thing or two about how the "submission" way of thinking devolves into a sickness.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Benton predator up for parole; survivor speaks out

First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas,
a house haunted by the "secret life" that minister David Pierce led for two decades.

Just two years ago, longtime Southern Baptist minister David Pierce was sent to prison after pleading guilty to the sexual abuse of boys at the prominent First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas. Now, Pierce is up for parole again. According to one of the Benton survivors, Pierce could wind up being released as early as November 6.

How did Pierce get away with it for so long? The Arkansas Times pondered that question two years ago as it considered the scores of boys whom Pierce had sexually victimized over the course of decades. As related by reporter David Koons, the answer rested in the blind-eyed and minimizing responses of the church’s senior pastor, other church leaders, Baptist officials, and “some of Benton’s most powerful citizens.” They apparently valued the status of the minister more than they valued the safety of kids or care for the wounded.

Not only did the church’s current pastor, Rick Grant, fail to properly prioritize the protection of kids, but the church’s prior pastors also failed. Both Greg Kirksey, a former 2-term president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and Randel Everett, the former executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had been pastors at Benton during Pierce’s tenure. But what did they do to reach out and help the scores of boys who had been victimized there? Everett kept a timid quietude (just as he did during the trial of Texas Baptists’ “murdering minister” Matt Baker). Kirksey wrote a letter to the judge urging no prison time for Pierce.

Let me just repeat that. At the First Baptist Church of Benton, scores of church choirboys were sexually victimized over the course of decades, and Southern Baptist pastor and former statewide official Greg Kirksey urged no prison time for the perpetrator.

The Arkansas Times got it right. This is why Baptist clergy predators can get away with such awful kid-violating crimes for so long: too many others in Baptistland act as though such crimes are no big deal.

The Benton and Baptistland elites weren’t able to save minister Pierce from prison completely, but it does look as though Pierce could wind up serving very little time.

One of the “boys of Benton” has learned that Pierce is up for parole again on November 6, and will likely be released. Here is what he has to say about it on his Descent from Darkness blog:

“I received a call from the Saline County Prosecutor yesterday. David's next (and it looks like final) parole hearing will be November 6th. In all likelihood David will be released on parole following this hearing. He [may] be out of jail by the end of the year.

"Since hearing the news, I've talked with a couple other adult victims. We all had very similar reactions. We knew this was coming. We knew when he went to prison that he wouldn't stay there as long as any of us thought he should. I don't think there is any way any of us could've prepared ourselves for it actually happening though.

"You deal with something like this for so long, and you get through so many days where you feel like there is no way you'll be able to continue to function. There are plenty of times where those days seem to drag on and on and on. Then you get to a point where those days start to spread out. You have lots of good days in between. Sometimes this happens for no reason, sometimes you can put your finger on exactly why things are getting better. Then something like this happens. It has put me in a complete tailspin. I don't know how to deal with this, I don't know how to handle it.

"Obviously, there is nothing I can do to change it. All I can do at this point is continue doing everything I can to keep it together. For myself, my wife, and my kids.

"The Prosecutor said that at this point he expects David to stay in the Benton area. I can't imagine him actually staying here. I guess he'll still have the people here who have supported him through this and refuse to believe his guilt, even after his confession (including the one who tried to friend me on Facebook, even after starting a fund to collect money for David). Maybe he can attend the Little Rock support group for sex offenders.

"It's hard for me not to think about the people that will undoubtedly be happy that David is being released from prison. From those who wrote letters asking for leniency, to those who don't believe David is guilty at all. It really makes me want to just crawl in a hole for a couple months until all this passes over. Well, until reality sets in, and I realize that none of this will ever pass over for me or any other victim of David Pierce. Honestly, I had high hopes, given David's "fragile medical condition" (as some of his supporters are so quick to point out), that he would die in prison. I think that's how I dealt with the thought of him being released these last few years. Now, I'm being forced to realize that he will get out. He will get to experience freedom again.”

-- "One of Pierce’s alleged victims ... describes a meeting in which First Baptist Pastor Rick Grant allegedly said Pierce could keep his job if he would 'seek to make amends' by apologizing to other victims." Associated Baptist Press, 11/22/11
-- "Parole decision delayed for former music minister convicted of abuse," ABP, 12/2/11
-- "Former Baptist minister paroled for sex crimes," ABP, 1/31/12

Related posts:
Truth and reconciliation needed, 1/22/11
Benton, Arkansas: Minister's parole hearing is closed to press, 1/1/11
Voice of an FBC-Benton survivor, 1/2/11
Remember the boys of Benton, 9/13/09
Denial: It ain't just a river, 9/1/09
Basically brainwashing, 8/28/09
Questions need answers in Benton, 8/28/09
A good man who does nothing, 8/4/09
What's wrong with this picture? 6/17/09

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kentucky ouster contrasts with denominational inaction on clergy sex abuse

A Kentucky Baptist association “convened a special session” to withdraw fellowship from a church that “allowed a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to use its building for meetings.”

“Parents, families and friends.” A Southern Baptist church was allowing these people to meet on church premises. Oh my. This was such a grievous offense that the church got booted out of the regional denominational organization, the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association.

So, not only are gay people themselves “otherized” in Southern Baptist life, but now we see that even the “parents, families and friends” of gay people are “otherized.”

The vote for ouster was 242 to 24. It wasn’t even a close call.

Stories such as this may illustrate at least part of the reason for why this denomination is in decline. Many individuals would feel a measure of dismay at such cold-hearted treatment of people whose only purported offense is in being “parents, families and friends.” But groups will sometimes behave in ways that are far more immoral and discompassionate than what ordinary individuals would. Therein lies one of the major problems of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the name of religion, it has effectively institutionalized an incivility that ostracizes and marginalizes too many.

Not long back, in the face of headlines about teen suicides after anti-gay bullying, Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler addressed the role of churches and spoke of how such teens “need to know that they are loved and cherished for who they are.” It sounded nice, but I think most teens are savvy enough to see right through such easy talk. Actions speak louder than words, and those teens are looking at that 242-24 vote for ouster of a church that allowed “parents, families and friends” to even sit in the church’s chairs.

How should such teens imagine that they are “loved and cherished for who they are” when even their “parents, families and friends” give offense by their mere presence?

Sadly, in Southern Baptist life, there was nothing very unusual about what this Kentucky Baptist association did. At the national level, the Southern Baptist Convention ousted a church in 2009 for nothing more than its “perceived toleration of gay members,” and various statewide conventions have made similar ousters.

Yet strangely, though Southern Baptists seem to have no problem with denominational ouster for churches that don’t tow the line on gays (or even on “parents, families and friends”), Southern Baptists claim denominational powerlessness in the face of churches that harbor clergy predators. Then, “local church autonomy” becomes the doctrinal rallying cry that rationalizes denominational inaction.

But stories like this one in Kentucky reveal just how incoherent that Baptist doctrine has become.

If local churches are not autonomous enough that they can choose to allow a meeting space for “parents, families and friends,” then why are local churches so radically autonomous that they can choose to allow an admitted or credibly-accused clergy predator in the pulpit?

If a regional denominational body can have a “credentials committee” to assess the soundness of a church’s theology and can convene a “special session” because of the urgency to oust a church that allowed “parents, families and friends” to meet, then why can’t a regional Baptist body have a “credentials committee” to assess the safety and trustworthiness of pastors reported for sexual abuse? And why can’t a denominational organization convene with the same level of urgency because of the need to protect the safety of kids and congregants?

Consider the parallel of another regional Baptist association. The first church shown on the membership roster for the Denton Baptist Association, Bolivar Baptist, is a church with a pastor who admitted to conduct constituting sexual abuse of a teen girl and who was eventually court-ordered to pay child support for her baby. Another church in the Denton Baptist Association, Southmont, is a church that gathered a $50,000 “love offering” for a pastor who resigned in the face of a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of a 14-year-old, and after he admitted that “proper boundaries were not kept.” And still another church in the Denton Baptist Association is the prominent megachurch, Prestonwood, whose executive pastor recently acknowledged that the church had known about allegations of sexual abuse against one of its ministers, and yet the church simply allowed the minister to move on to another church. That minister is now under indictment for multiple alleged child sex crimes in Mississippi.

None of these churches have been ousted by the Denton Baptist Association, or by any other denominational body. No matter how unconscionable and reckless a church’s conduct may be with respect to clergy predators, the denomination doesn’t interfere.

But let a church exercise hospitality toward the “parents, families and friends” of gay people, and that’s a different story. Ouster!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breast cancer brings thoughts on hell-wishing

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this year, it hits home. The American Cancer Society estimates that the year 2011 will bring 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the United States. I’m one of those cases.

For me, what was even worse than learning I had cancer was learning that I needed a mastectomy. Even now, though I’m six months down-the-road and feeling stronger, the pain of that day is still raw.

Despite years of hypervigilance, mammograms, and ultrasounds, I wound up with both invasive ductal and invasive lobular tumors at the same time. So this beast of a disease still took my breast.

On the very day when I learned about the second tumor, which limited my surgical options, I received this missive from a self-identified Southern Baptist:

"When life goes sour for you, YOU WILL KNOW WHY!"

It arrived with the usual slew of “you’re going to hell” and “God will have judgment on you” sorts of messages. Baptists were filling my inbox with rage because I had blogged about a Washington youth pastor who, according to a news report, “confessed on tape to raping a 12-year-old girl.” Despite the reported confession, the pastor’s supporters were certain of his innocence and determined to make sure I knew. Suffice it to say that the guy recently pled guilty.

In case after case, ever since I began speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, I have reaped heaps of Baptist wrath. So, apart from the lousy timing of it, there was nothing unusual about this particular missive. Besides, I figure everyone’s life goes “sour” at some point, and so, given how many of these ugly messages I get, the coincidence of the timing certainly wasn’t startling.

Nevertheless, it gave me pause to receive such vitriol on a day when I was in such pain. Not for one second did I believe my breast cancer was indicative of God’s wrath, but I pondered the nature of human wrath and the question of why good people use religion to justify their own rage.

What is it about religious belief that often seems to fuel such harshness? What is it about religious belief that can foster such fear-based responses? And what is it about religious belief that blinds people to the crimes of their ministers?

If I could answer these questions, I feel like I would solve some great mystery. But of course, I can’t. Heck, I can’t even figure out why so many of these vitriol-senders seem to have a stuck caps-key.

I also pondered what it must feel like to hate someone so much that you would wish them to hell and would invoke God on your side -- as if any human actually held such power. I have tried to put myself in their shoes, but ultimately I realized I couldn’t. Even if I wanted to return hate for hate, and to say “go to hell” right back, it wouldn’t hold the same meaning.

Many of the Baptists who send me such missives have made clear that they believe in a very literal hell. In fact, they often seem to revel in that belief, delighting in the details of the agony that they claim I will eternally endure because I have spoken out about anointed men of God and about church cover-ups. “Not even Aloe Vera Gel will help you,” said one message.

I laughed at that one, but mostly, such hell-wishing messages infuse me with sadness. When did the faith of my youth become so permeated with meanness?

I cannot possibly understand the feeling behind these messages because, for me, hell holds a more metaphorical meaning. I don’t believe that humans will physically experience the pain of their flesh forever burning. So, even if I wanted to, I am simply incapable of wishing for anyone else the same sort of hell as what so many Baptists have wished for me. You can’t wish for what you don’t believe in.

But what I can wish for – and pray for – is that faith may ultimately work to foster human compassion and care rather than human hate.

I’m now a breast cancer survivor, and I’m also a survivor of Baptist clergy sex abuse. Life seems more precious than ever, and if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s this: There is no time for hate. Not for any of us.

Please make sure you and your loved ones get mammograms, and if you have a family history of breast cancer or dense breast tissue, talk to your doctor about additional screening methods.
For more info:
Susan G. Komen Foundation
The Scar Project ("Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.")

Thanks to the Associated Baptist Press for publishing this column! And thanks to the Knoxville Daily Sun for the reprint!

"The mindset of Hell moves first to protect its power and status."
 -- Jeri Massi

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Two years later

The article’s first sentence tells the essence of the problem: "Pastor Matthew Ellis' first urge was to trust his youth minister."

For pastors and congregants alike, that's the first instinct for most people when a minister is accused of sexual abuse. Good people tend to think the best of others, and particularly of others who are in positions of high trust.

Many other faith groups now have clergy accountability systems and review processes that at least carry the possibility of compensating for this normal human instinct. But Southern Baptists do not. So most of the time, in Baptistland, the first instinct is what prevails.

Brian Brijbag
That’s what nearly happened in this Tampa Bay case. Two years ago, a father uncovered some suspicious correspondence between his teen daughter and youth minister Brian Brijbag at the First Baptist Church of Brooksville in Florida. The father went to the church’s senior pastor, Matthew Ellis, who questioned the girl and apparently didn’t believe her. And, based on the article, it seems no one bothered to go to the police.

I can only imagine the sort of hostile questioning that girl may have been subjected to, given that pastor Ellis apparently viewed it as allegations of “adultery” rather than as allegations of abuse.

In any event, Brijbag was allowed to continue as a youth minister at First Baptist of Brooksville, and it doesn’t appear that other parents were even warned.

Now, two years later, minister Brijbag, who is a married father of three, has been accused by a second girl. Once again, pastor Ellis’ first instinct was to simply trust Brijbag. “I still believed he was innocent of any wrongdoing,” said Ellis. In fact, pastor Ellis was so confident of minister Brijbag’s innocence that, when Brijbag submitted his resignation, pastor Ellis urged him to rescind it.

Brijbag has been arrested on two counts of sexual activity with a minor, and pastor Ellis seems to finally – belatedly -- be having some doubts. But it took multiple allegations, an arrest, and two more years of kids being left at risk in that church.

That’s something that parents at First Baptist of Brooksville should be upset about. Their kids were left at risk while their pastor, Matthew Ellis, simply trusted an accused youth minister.

Will the congregants hold pastor Ellis accountable for this failure and for leaving their kids at risk? I doubt it.

And consider this . . .  if minister Brijbag had quietly moved on to a new church after the first accusation -- as Baptist ministers often do -- then kids in other churches could have also been placed at risk.

First Baptist of Brooksville is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but will the denomination impose any consequence on pastor Ellis for his irresponsible handling of abuse allegations? Nope. This is a faith-group that imagines itself to be beyond the need for the common sorts of accountability systems that many other human organizations have.

It was only Brijbag’s own conduct that finally raised suspicion for pastor Ellis. After the latest accusations, pastor Ellis wanted minister Brijbag to meet with the accuser and her father, but this time, Brijbag refused pastor Ellis’ suggestion, saying that he didn't want to have his integrity attacked.

Ironically, this is where clergy molestation victims share common ground with accused ministers. Many clergy abuse survivors say that the experience of having been disbelieved and attacked by their faith community is even more painful than the memory of having been sexually molested by a minister. It is the community that often causes even more harm than the molesting minister.

This is why Baptists, as a faith community, need a denominational panel of trained professionals to assist churches with clergy abuse reports, to assure that allegations are referred to secular authorities according to the law, to assess allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted (which is most), and to assure that all persons who make reports of clergy abuse will at least have their reports received in a responsible and compassionate manner.

10/14/11: This post made the news. Read "Advocate says Baptists ill-equipped to address sexual abuse by clergy" in the Associated Baptist Press.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer or in-betweener?

“There’s deceivers and believers and old in-betweeners.”
– Willie Nelson

Jack Graham
In 2008, when a minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas was charged with solicitation of a minor, senior pastor Jack Graham, who is also a former Southern Baptist president, bragged that, in his forty years of ministry, he “never had one moral problem with a staff member, until now.”

With the facts that have come forth in recent days, many would say that Graham’s statement wasn’t true. Graham had a very big “moral problem” with a prior Prestonwood staff member. It was a “moral problem” and more. It was a clergyman’s crimes kept quiet.

In 1989, Prestonwood church officials learned of allegations that a staff minister, John Langworthy, “acted inappropriatedly with a teenage student.” A former Prestonwood staff intern, who was there at the time, has said that Langworthy “confessed to molesting boys in the church.”

With Jack Graham at the helm, Prestonwood church officials responded by quietly dismissing Langworthy. They got Langworthy off their own turf, and in doing so, they effectively unleashed him into the larger denominational body and placed many more kids at risk.

This “cover-up” didn’t come to light until two decades later.

Any fool can see that Jack Graham failed miserably back in 1989. He failed the people of his congregation. He failed the kids who tried to tell about what Langworthy had done. And he failed the kids in Langworthy’s future churches.

But that was 1989, and Graham’s failures are all too obvious. What I want to know is this: What happened in 2008?

What was Jack Graham thinking in 2008 when he claimed he had “never had one moral problem with a staff member”?

In the words of Willie Nelson, was Graham a “deceiver”? Was he flat-out lying about never having had “one moral problem”? Perhaps he simply saw no need to tell the truth in 2008 because two-decades of cover-up had already passed. The safety of kids be damned . . .  keep up the smokescreen. Is that what Graham was thinking?

Or was Graham a “believer”? Did he really believe that what Langworthy did to kids didn’t constitute a “moral problem”? Perhaps Graham believes that child sex abuse isn’t a “moral problem” unless the perpetrator gets criminally convicted. Is that what Graham was thinking?

Or was it the third possibility? Maybe Graham was a plain old lukewarm “in-betweener.” Maybe he was a human being who simply said what was easiest. Maybe Graham wasn’t actively trying to deceive, and maybe belief was irrelevant to him. Maybe he was simply a human being who took the in-between easy road of keeping quiet about his own collusion, of lapsing into denial in the face of a dreadful past, and of protecting his own self-image, his own turf, his own career, and his own prestige.

It’s hard to actually know what Graham was thinking because Graham has refused to comment.

But whatever category you may place him in – whether as a deceiver, believer, or in-betweener – Jack Graham has provided a good illustration of why the Southern Baptist Convention needs better clergy accountability systems, including an accessible denominational database of convicted, admitted, and credibly-accused clergy.

We have seen the Graham pattern too often: When clergy sex abuse hits on their own turf, pastors typically fail to make kid-protection the top priority. Since Southern Baptists refuse the implementation of any denominational system to compensate for this pattern, the result is a denomination in which known, reported, and even self-admitted clergy child molesters can church-hop with ease.

John Langworthy left Prestonwood and went to Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi. Like Graham, Mississippi church officials also made grievous mistakes in dealing with abuse accusations.

Langworthy has now publicly admitted that he had “sexual indiscretions with younger males” while working at a Texas church. Last week, he was indicted on charges that, even prior to his stint in Texas, he sexually abused five boys from two other Baptist churches in Mississippi. The boys were between 10 and 13 years old.

Related posts:
Admitted minister-molester: "I was not asked to resign," 9/9/2011
Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church, 9/8/2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Admitted minister-molester: "I was not asked to resign"

“I was not asked to resign by the pastor or the elders.”

That’s what Southern Baptist music minister John Langworthy says in this August 2011 video, which shows him confessing to his Mississippi congregation that he had “sexual indiscretions with younger males.”

According to prosecutors, those “younger males” were between 8 and 12 years old.

Church officials claim that they previously conducted a confidential internal investigation of the accusations against Langworthy. Yet, despite Langworthy’s admission, despite multiple accusations in Mississippi, and despite accusations at Langworthy’s prior Dallas church, Langworthy “was not asked to resign by the pastor or the elders.”

Things get worse. Click the link at the top of the screen for the "full video" and keep watching . . . .

After Langworthy’s statement, the church’s senior pastor, Greg Belser, steps to the pulpit and explains. “We love God’s grace,” he says. Belser informs congregants that church officials made “a biblical response.”

Scary, eh?

Pastor Belser’s self-serving “biblical” justification serves to illustrate why Baptist churches are often a perfect paradise for preacher-predators. When recklessness is religiously rationalized, it becomes even more dangerous and even more inured to the suffering it inflicts.

Update: "Ex-minister faces multiple sex charges in small Mississippi town," Christian Post, 9/15/11 (Langworthy's "confession was reportedly kept secret within the walls of the church until just recently. . . . The ex-minister's confession video has gone viral after being posted on the blog site named Stop Baptist Predators." 

Related post: Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church

For more examples of how Southern Baptists can twist "God's grace" into a rationalization for unaccountability, see "On the Side of Grace" and "Greasy Grace."

Thanks to New BBC for the video.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church

The former music minister of Dallas’ Prestonwood Baptist Church has been charged with child sex crimes in Mississippi.

Back in 1989, Prestonwood officials knew about abuse allegations against minister John Langworthy, but they simply got Langworthy off their own turf, kept quiet, and allowed him to move on.

Now . . . finally . . . over 20 years later . . . and with no-telling how many more kids this minister may have molested . . . Langworthy has been arrested. No thanks to Prestonwood.

I hope parents in Southern Baptist churches will ponder this. Prestonwood is one of the largest churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, and it has a former Southern Baptist president at the helm. This is how little some of the top-dogs in this denomination cared about your kids.

Even after the known abuse allegations at Prestonwood, Langworthy could have gone to any other church in the Southern Baptist Convention. There is no system that would have stopped him. Southern Baptists don’t even keep denominational records on ministers who have been credibly accused of child molestation. They just let accused ministers church-hop their way to new prey.

If a Baptist minister isn’t sitting in prison, he can probably find a Baptist pulpit to stand in. That’s how reckless their system is. Southern Baptists lack even the pretense of any denominational oversight for their clergy.

Morrison Heights Baptist Church
So, despite the molestation allegations at Prestonwood, minister John Langworthy had no trouble in finding a new church. He wound up at another prominent Southern Baptist church, Morrison Heights in Clinton, Mississippi.

Mississippi police have now arrested Langworthy, and as most people would want, the police are trying to conduct a thorough investigation.

Unfortunately, the church isn’t cooperating.

In front of his Morrison Heights congregation, Langworthy made a public confession about what he so euphemistically called “sexual indiscretions” with younger males. The church claims it conducted an internal investigation. Understandably, prosecutors want to know more about what Langworthy may have said to church officials.

But with the help of its attorney, the church is saying “no dice.” It is refusing to divulge the information.

So . . . let me be doubly-clear about this. According to reported news accounts on this, the person who is trying to keep this information secret is not the arrested minister. It’s the church itself and the church officials.

Rather than doing everything possible to cooperate with prosecutors and work for the protection of kids, Morrison Heights church officials are apparently trying to protect themselves.

It stinks.

Even if an argument for secrecy exists within the realm of legal possibility, that wouldn’t necessarily make it the morally right possibility. You might think a church would know the difference, wouldn’t you? The law and morality are different domains. Just because you can get away with something under the law doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is right.

Philip Gunn,
Mississippi House of Representatives
The church’s attorney is a guy named Philip Gunn, who is also one of the church elders at Morrison Heights. This means that Gunn is wearing two hats, as attorney for the church and as one of the church officials from whom the prosecutors are seeking information.

Gunn is also an elected representative for the State of Mississippi. (That’s Gunn’s photo from his state rep webpage.)

Let’s hope voters will remember this! If kids are to be made safer, then kid-safety must be the top priority. It is long past the time when Southern Baptist officials . . .  and their attorneys . . .  should understand this.

Philip Gunn's role in child sex case, WJTV, 11/22/11 ("It's ironic that... Gunn supports a law requiring the supporting of child abuse." In the face of the Penn State scandal, I guess Gunn's talk sounds good for his political career, but he doesn't walk the talk. In the face of allegations at his own church, he has told church leaders that they shouldn't talk to prosecutors about what an accused minister-molester told them.)
Expert disputes Gunn's defense in sex abuse case, WJTV, 11/25/11 ("The law's primary concern is not to protect ministers . . . but to protect children.")
Email shows Gunn's role in sex abuse case, WJTV, 11/29/11 ("Gunn would not allow prosecutors to question church leaders about what they know about John Langworthy's case" . . .and he "tried to take steps to keep abuse allegations against Langworthy silent."  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Goodbye for now

I have cherished the community on this blog. Thank you for being here. You are people with whom I have shared many memories, troubling thoughts, and heartfelt hopes. You are people who have inspired me.

I know the future will hold new challenges and new adventures. I hope to still share some of them with you. But for now, I’m going to take a break.

Thank you for walking with me on this part of my journey. I wish all of you Godspeed in your own journeys.

I hope that, in sharing my own pain, I may have helped someone else. I hope that my story may have served as an example -- an example for survivors of moving forward without shame, and an example for church and denominational leaders of why clergy sex abuse must be addressed in a systemic manner.

I celebrate my survival, because make no mistake about it, there are many others whom clergy sex abuse kills. It kills physically via suicide. And for many who still breathe, it kills them psychologically and spiritually. And for those who survive the abuse itself, the process of trying to report it may yet kill them off, because the complicity of the many can hurt even more than the brutishness of the one.

I am a survivor of something that tried to kill me. I am grateful.

But now, I will walk privately for a while, and I will count my blessings every step of the way, listening, with peace, to the wind in the trees and the birds that surround me.

For those of you who say that this work we have done in Baptistland has been without results and of no value, I say to you flat-out that you are wrong. The value rests on the truth of the work itself.

And for those of you who have struggled with me in this work, I leave you with these additional thoughts. When Martin Luther King, Jr., contemplated the discouragement and bewilderment of seemingly endless efforts toward change, he said this:

The thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying ‘It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. It’s well that you are trying.’ You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s good that you have a desire to bring it into reality . . . Thank God this morning that we do have hearts to put something meaningful in.
For many of us, we have dreamed of a Baptistland where there would be effective clergy accountability systems and where clergy abuse survivors would be received with compassion and care. This dream may not be fulfilled in my lifetime . . . or in yours . . .  but it is good that we have hearts that desire to bring this dream into reality.

Our hearts are broken by the abyss of sexual abuse and cover-ups that we have seen in Baptistland. Our hearts are rent asunder by the enormous anguish suffered by Baptist abuse survivors who continue to endure so much hatefulness and do-nothingness, and all in the name of religion. Yet, with the pain of a broken heart, I say, “Thank God we have hearts that break.”

I will continue to wonder about Southern Baptist leaders. Where are their hearts?

Good-bye for now. Happy trails!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Complicity in Baptistland

Twenty-one years ago, the prominent Southern Baptist pastor of a Texas megachurch allowed a music minister to quietly move on despite multiple reports of sexual abuse that were made by several boys in the church.

That music minister – I’ll call him Lee Worthington – is now employed as a minister at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. The senior pastor – I’ll call him Mack Jackson – must surely know that his blind-eyed do-nothingness placed a lot more boys at risk.

The church – I’ll call it Stone Forest Baptist Church – didn’t report the allegations to authorities, and the boys’ parents didn’t press charges. The church leadership never notified the congregants or told other parents so they could talk to their children. It was all swept under the rug.

In the past year, a person who used to be a Stone Forest staff member has been trying desperately to get something done about this. “Being so young at the time,” he told me, “I did not realize the gravity… of the cover-up that took place before my very eyes. I certainly do now.”

He was particularly perturbed a while back when news of a different clergy sex case hit the headlines and senior pastor Mack Jackson bragged that, in several decades’ time, he had never had a single moral problem with any staff person in his church. The hypocrisy of it was too much.

Yet, I find myself wondering whether Mack Jackson may have actually believed what he said. Maybe he believes that it doesn’t constitute a moral problem unless a minister has been criminally convicted. Of course, that’s like saying that, so long as a minister doesn’t get caught, he can do what he wants with impunity. Since less than 10 percent of child molestation cases can be criminally prosecuted, that’s a very dangerous belief, particularly because ministers hold positions of high trust. Of course, the other possibility is that senior pastor Mack Jackson simply lied to himself and to others.

According to the former staff person, minister Worthington admitted to church staff that he had molested the boys. He begged to stay on through the summer, but was told to leave town immediately, or he would be reported. So he left town, and got a job at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi.

This former Stone Forest staff person has talked with at least one governmental official in Mississippi and with a Baptist official in Texas. He has recently communicated with another Stone Forest minister – I’ll call him Jeff Nelson – who was there at the time and who is still there. Nelson indicated that he too knew about the molestation allegations against Worthington. In fact, by email, Nelson made clear that, 21 years ago, church officials had talked with the church’s attorney about the matter, and that in recent months, after this former staff person contacted them, church officials talked with the attorney yet again.

I figure the attorney probably told church officials that they should let sleeping dogs lie. He would likely explain that, even in the rare event that those boys from 21 years ago decided to file a lawsuit, a court would probably conclude that their claims were beyond the statute of limitations. On the other hand, if Stone Forest officials were to now speak out about the abuse reports against their prior minister and about their own failure to properly assess the reports before allowing him to move on, then minister Worthington might decide to sue the church for damaging his career. And, as the attorney may have pointed out, minister Worthington’s claim would be within the statute of limitations. So, the attorney might have advised that the greater risk of liability would be if church officials were to now speak up about the prior abuse allegations against Worthington.

But of course, the attorney is giving legal advice, not moral advice. The two domains are not one and the same. The attorney is focused on protecting the corporate institution of the church against the risk of financial loss. He is not focused on protecting the boys in Mississippi against the risk of grievous sexual, psychological and spiritual harm.

Because Stone Forest officials still weren’t doing anything, this former staff person contacted at least four reporters that I know of. Good reporters. But the story has never seen the light of day. Why? Because newspapers are often extremely reluctant to publish such information without confirmation from some sort of official proceeding or official record. Without that, it puts the newspaper at risk.

With clergy abuse reports in most other major faith groups, there is at least the possibility of an official denominational process or denominational record. But that possibility doesn’t exist for Southern Baptists, and this makes it more difficult to get news about clergy abuse allegations into the light of day.

Though I changed the names, this story is true. In big churches and small, it is a common scenario, and it exemplifies the problem that Southern Baptists must address.

There is no office to which those who were sexually abused by Baptist clergy, and whose claims are too old for prosecution, can safely make a report. Not only are the victims themselves shut out from any possibility of a denominational reporting process, but so too are the countless others in Baptist churches who have information about predatory ministers who have church-hopped to new pulpits.

No one should believe that Southern Baptists will be able to prevent the clergy-predators they don't yet know about so long as they have no system for doing anything about the clergy-predators they're specifically told about.

Southern Baptist leaders stand on the sidelines as church kids are placed in the trust of ministers who have been reported for child molestation. They betray the sanctity of those young lives. By failing to implement the sorts of safeguards that other major faith groups have, Southern Baptists are sacrificing the safety of kids on the altar of local church autonomy. This is the use of religion for the rationalization of evil.

When the world is watching, Mack Jackson is the prominent pastor who brags that he has never had a single moral problem with any staff member. But when the world is not watching, and when he can get away with it, Mack Jackson is the prominent pastor who quietly lets a minister reported for child molestation move on to another church.

How I wish that Mack Jackson would open his heart to the cries of the wounded and consider the horrific harm that he has unleashed toward more young boys. I wish he could see the ocean of pain that submerges those who have been sexually abused by purported men of God.

But of course, this grandiose Mack of a pastor is no-doubt firm in his settled belief in his own self-righteousness. He could walk past a pile of bodies – and he would likely not even glance.

The complicity of men such as this has spread deep and wide in Baptistland. I believe it is a big part of the reason for why Southern Baptist leaders refuse to create a denominational office for receiving clergy abuse reports and informing congregations. They refuse for fear that their own complicity and cover-ups will be exposed.

Update 8/8/11:
Disturbing revelations about Prestonwood's former minister, WFAA-TV
Abuse confession raises questions of cover-up by Baptist mega-church, Associated Baptist Press 
Clinton music minister confesses to sexual indiscretions, Clarion Ledger
Former minister, teacher makes startling admission, WAPT News
Wolves in the Music Ministry, part 1, New BBC Open Forum
Wolves in the Music Ministry, part 2, New BBC Open Forum

Related posts:
Three-legged stool, 11/17/08
Among Baptists, who will give a hoot? 5/21/10
Basically no one, 6/12/10