In Benton, Arkansas, the former music minister of First Baptist Church is up for parole less than two years into a ten-year term on sexual indecency charges.
In 2009, former Southern Baptist minister David Pierce received a 10-year plea-bargained sentence “after he admitted to abusing 11 boys for his own sexual gratification.” Pierce was originally charged with more than 50 counts of sexual indecency with children, but his conviction was based on four counts that were within the limitations period for prosecution.
Now, with Pierce up for parole, “members of the church say they still can’t talk about what happened for decades behind closed doors.”
But if the church members “still can’t talk about what happened,” can you imagine how difficult it is for those whom Pierce sexually abused? For those boys, the betrayal of what Pierce did was not some mere abstraction. They absorbed the reality of it within their very bodies. A link between faith and abuse was embedded into their brains.
And how many of those boys were there? We still don’t know, do we? Is anyone even trying to find out?
Maybe part of the reason the church members “still can’t talk about what happened” rests in the fact that it “happened for decades.”
During those decades, there were almost certainly others in the church who received information on which they should have acted –- information that, if they had reported it to authorities, could have served to prevent the abuse of so many for so long.
At the time of Pierce’s sentencing, an Arkansas Times news article made apparent that Senior Pastor Rick Grant had information about music minister David Pierce’s conduct for at least six months before Pierce was arrested. Not only did Grant receive information from a boy’s father, but he also received information from a now-grown man who specifically told Grant about the sexual abuse Pierce inflicted on him as a kid. When Grant talked with Pierce about the allegations, Pierce didn’t deny them, and he even provided Grant with a list of boys "whom he’d had inappropriate contact with.” But Pierce explained the problem as a “one-time run of bad decision-making,” and Grant was apparently willing to accept that explanation. Not until still another man talked with Grant did Grant decide that Pierce should be fired from his position at the church. Even then, Grant didn’t tell all that he knew. He cast a minimizing slant on Pierce’s conduct by saying that Pierce was terminated because of “serious moral failures.”
Finally, a boy came forward with a report that was still within the limitations period for criminal prosecution, and Pierce was arrested. Thank God. But long before Pierce’s arrest, there were likely others in the church who had information, but who kept quiet and turned a blind eye.
That blind-eyed response is what the people at First Baptist Church of Benton need to examine. That means looking at themselves, and that’s something far more painful than merely looking at former minister David Pierce.
What about the other pastors and ministerial staff who served with Pierce during his 29-year tenure at First Baptist of Benton? Perhaps they, too, received information that they mentally minimized and dismissed without taking action. Prominent Southern Baptist pastors Greg Kirksey and Randel Everett were among those who served with Pierce.
Perhaps one reason the church members “still can’t talk about what happened” is because they still carry a vague sense that “what happened” has been hushed up and left “behind closed doors.” When so many are abused for so long, there is almost always more to the story than a single perpetrator. There are almost always others who knew things that should have been brought into the open at the time . . . and that should still be brought into the open even now.
Only when the people of First Baptist Church of Benton can face up to their own complicity, and the likely complicity of other church leaders, can they hope to find some measure of peace. They cannot talk about “what happened for decades” unless they are allowed to know “what happened for decades.”
I can’t help but think that what First Baptist Church of Benton needs is something akin to a “truth and reconciliation” commission. With such a commission, prior pastors, church staff and church members could be given the opportunity to make full disclosure of any and all information they might have about Pierce’s abuse of kids. The commission could make a national public outreach effort to try to gather the stories of others who may have been abused by Pierce. One victim said he thought there were probably “dozens – maybe triple digits” whom Pierce likely abused at the church. Many of those boys, who are now grown men, may be far-flung across the continent, but their stories should still be heard. The church owes them that.
Finally, the commission could work toward restorative justice for those who were wounded at First Baptist of Benton. With the provision of counseling costs and a commitment to hearing the survivors’ stories, the commission could take a small step toward affirming the humanity and dignity of those who were abused and abandoned by religious authority.
Reconciliation starts with truth. But in order to hold transformative power, the truth must be made transparent.
If the First Baptist Church of Benton wants to transform the hurt, betrayal and shame of “what happened for decades,” then it must first engage a process of truth-telling and truth-hearing.
Questions need answers in Benton, 8/28/09
Remember the boys of Benton, 9/13/09
Basically brainwashing, 8/29/09
Polanski and Pierce parallels, 10/2/09
A good man who does nothing, 8/4/09
Denial: It ain’t just a river, 9/1/09
What’s wrong with this picture? 6/17/09