Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sh-h-h! You embarrass us.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about tragedies and catastrophes. One essay talked about the Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed the lives of 168 people and injured many more. Extensive rescue efforts were undertaken in the rubble of the federal building where the bomb exploded. Afterwards, legislation was passed to increase protection around federal buildings; a memorial was dedicated on the site; and annual remembrance services are held.

This recalled to my mind an article by Dee Miller, a former Southern Baptist missionary to Malawi, who has done much work in trying to minister to clergy sex abuse survivors. Dee and her husband had strong ties to Oklahoma City, and many of their family members lived there.

Dee wrote this article in 1997, and tragically, very little has changed in Baptistland since then. Below are some excerpts; they still hit home.

“For my family and me, the Oklahoma City tragedy was an intensely personal wound. . . . We had to watch the heart-wrenching scenes on CNN. Unlike most Americans, we recognized two of the grieving family members. One of my cousins was among the rescuers. . . . We were in grief and shock. . . .

“Like many Americans, we watched the memorial service through tear-filled eyes. . . . How proud I was to be an Oklahoman. How proud to be an American. As the local disaster team was joined by others from around the nation, heroic efforts were made to look for survivors, to help everyone involved in processing powerful feelings, and to assure all Americans that every effort was being made to find those responsible. This tragedy happened in one of the most unexpected places in our nation. We were terrified, knowing that we were all vulnerable; yet none suggested we ignore that fact.

“As I struggled with the bombardment of emotion, it was impossible to ignore the stark parallels and contrasts between this acute crisis and the chronic one to which I have chosen to devote a major portion of the past ten years of my life.

“Perhaps it is difficult for persons outside of the survivor activist movement to understand, but my prayers and grieving for the sufferers in Oklahoma City mingled with my prayers and grieving for all of us within the institutional church -- those who are aware, those who are naive, and those who prefer to ignore what they know about violence in the profession which society wants to trust for moral leadership.

“In no way do I want to minimize the intense physical or emotional suffering of bomb sufferers. . . . It is never wise to compare the intensity of suffering in one group with that of another. It is wise, however, to examine ourselves and our responses in every situation of violence in the hopes of sharpening our awareness of challenges in our own midst. . . .

“In Oklahoma City the bodies of many survivors were buried beneath the rubble. We, in the community of faith, have thousands of unidentified living survivors who remain emotionally and spiritually buried beneath piles of debris. A few are crying out softly. Others cry silently, afraid to be found. . . . It is difficult to imagine parallels in reverse, but I believe it is helpful.

“Imagine an Oklahoma City rescuer, upon hearing the voice of an entrapped survivor, edging his way as close as possible to the survivor's tomb and whispering: "Sh-h-h! Please be quiet. We don't want to find you. You embarrass us. You remind us that America is not the safe place we want it to be."

"Imagine another survivor running from the scene -- unknowingly in the direction of a television camera -- only to be stopped, have his bloody face washed by a bystander, and advised to go home and forget what he has just witnessed.

"Imagine a family member being told by a counselor: "You are not to speak about your pain and loss. It will remind outsiders that federal buildings may not be the safe places they were once thought to be."

Ultimately, Dee Miller posed this question: “What is it that keeps people in the church zealous about confronting the evils of this world, yet paralyzed when confronted with the evils of violence in our own front yards?”

To this day, Dee’s question haunts me. But I know for sure that what Dee says is true: Thousands of survivors and their families have been buried in the rubble of systemic clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, and they remain entombed in the quandary of the faith community’s uncaring oblivion.

If Baptists were to allow themselves to actually see these many wounded people, and to hear their cries, then Baptists would have to confront the realization that their churches are not the safe places they imagine.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pastors' Conference gets $141,549

As reported by the Associated Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference is funded with $141,549.00 from the Southern Baptist Convention’s operating budget. This means that local autonomous Southern Baptist churches, which send money to national headquarters through the Cooperative Program, are helping to fund this bigwig pastors’ conference.

Those of you who are regulars here already know what I’m going to ask, don’t you?

If local autonomous churches can pool their resources to cooperatively fund a national conference for pastors, why can’t local autonomous churches pool their resources to cooperatively fund a national review board for the responsible assessment of abuse reports about pastors?

Why do Southern Baptist officials insist that the local churches are so absolutely autonomous that no cooperative effort can be made for the better protection of church kids against predatory pastors, and yet Southern Baptist officials have no problem at all with the local churches making a cooperative effort for the promotion of bigwig pastors at a national conference?

The Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference is known for being a “launching pad to the SBC presidency.” It’s where the rising stars of Baptistland go when they want to rise even further in their high-powered, high-profile careers. And local autonomous churches all across the country help to fund those pastors’ ambitions . . . to the tune of at least $141,549.

This budget item for the Pastors' Conference is shown in the records of the SBC Executive Committee. That's the top-dog committee of the Southern Baptist Convention -- the guys who actually run things in the denomination. This committee, which allows $141,549 for the Pastors’ Conference, is the same committee that didn’t budget a single dime to study the possibility of providing local churches with the resource of a denominational review board, similar to what other Protestant faith groups have, for the assessment of clergy abuse reports. And it didn’t budget a single dime to consider the creation of a denominational database of credibly-accused clergy so that predatory pastors would not be able to church-hop so easily.

Without even so much as a legitimate, funded study, the SBC Executive Committee completely rejected this sort of cooperative effort toward clergy accountability, and it did so despite the fact that over 8000 local church “messengers” voted to instruct the Executive Committee to conduct such a study. In effect, the Executive Committee simply thumbed its nose at the local churches and did what it wanted. . . which was nothing.

So, when it comes to instituting clergy accountability systems, the SBC Executive Committee ignores the expressed will of the local churches and sets aside a zero-dollar budget. But when it comes to promoting the bigwig pastors, the SBC Executive Committee doles out big bucks.

I think it says a lot about where their true values lie. They obviously care a great deal more about promoting their cronies than they do about protecting kids.

Incidentally, in addition to the $141,549 from the SBC operating budget, the Associated Baptist Press reports that the SBC’s North American Mission Board, Crossway, and LifeWay contributed at least $10,000 each in the form of “diamond-level sponsorships” for support of the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Comment moderation info

After four years of writing this blog, I started moderating all comments in December 2010 because of a growing stream of vitriol, venom, and incivility. I have considered shutting off comments completely, but I just don’t want to do it. I so greatly appreciate the insights, wisdom, thoughtfulness, and righteous anger of so many of you who comment here, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.

Commenters are always responsible for their own comments, and most of the regulars here probably don’t need to bother with reading this, but for those who may wonder, this is my attempt to provide a bit of information about my approach toward comment moderation.

I welcome anonymous comments, particularly from abuse survivors. Indeed, part of the original purpose of this blog was to provide abuse survivors with a place where they might, in small ways, begin to find their voice, even if it’s an anonymous voice. However, anonymous comments, and those from persons who don’t make their profile visible, will be moderated more rigorously than others. Anonymity can provide too many possibilities for meanness, and also for manipulation. So, if I don’t have some idea of who the comment is from, I err on the side of disallowing it. Many blogs don’t allow for anonymous comments at all; I’m doing the best I can to strike some sort of balance.

First and foremost, this blog is intended primarily for clergy abuse survivors, and it is my intent to maintain this blog as a safe place for clergy abuse survivors. This means that I will also err on the side of rejecting comments that I think may be too hurtful. In the past, I often tended to err on the side of allowing for an open forum. Then I heard from several clergy abuse survivors who told me they felt like they couldn’t even read my blog anymore because some of the comments were too upsetting for them. I say a heartfelt thank you to those survivors who shared those feelings.

My new approach toward moderating comments will necessarily involve more judgment calls on my part, and sometimes I may not exercise my judgment in the same way that some of you would. I hope you’ll bear with me. The bottom line is that I intend to keep my “first and foremost” audience in the front of my mind – i.e., clergy abuse survivors.

I can also tell you this: If your comment doesn’t get through, or doesn’t get through as quickly as you think it should, and you send me emails ranting about how terrible I am for not posting what you said, it’s probably not going to sway me to release your comment.

A few additional points:
  • Comments that contain links to sites about social or political issues, or to sites for political candidates, will likely be deleted.
  • Comments that contain links to proselytizing sites will likely be deleted, as will comments that, in my judgment, are too over-the-top on authoritarian, evangelical-style talk. This is obviously a judgment call, and I’ll admit that I don’t quite know where the line is on this. After all, even I have been known to recite the occasional Bible verse. So, I would simply say that many clergy abuse survivors do not find it helpful to receive sermonizing on how they should be better Christians, how they should be more forgiving, how they can pray their troubles away, or how they should put it all in God’s hands.
  • Comments that libel me or call me names will be deleted. (You can disagree with me, but you can’t expect to say untrue things about me right here on my own blog.)
  • Comments on older posts are more likely to be deleted. (As with almost all things, there are exceptions.)
  • Comments that flat-out reflect ignorance, and particularly hateful ignorance, will likely be deleted. (For example, a recent attempted comment talked about how a 12-year-old girl was probably “in love” with the minister and so was partly to blame. I won’t allow such foul ignorance to be promoted and perpetuated on my blog. Rational, decent people don’t debate the “who’s to blame” question when an adult married minister admits to having sex with a 12-year-old.)
I expect that my comment moderation policy will result in less overall comments. I understand that.

I wish it were possible to have a completely open forum. However, I have finally concluded that, given the subject-matter of this blog, it is simply not manageable.
Related posts: Venom-spitters and bile-spewers, 12/17/2010; Meanness, 10/26/2010; Straight to Hell, 2/15/11

Monday, March 14, 2011

Réforme magazine article in English translation

A reader asked about getting an English translation of the complete article that appeared in the March 10, 2011 issue of Réforme, the largest Protestant publication in France. So, I am happy to provide it below, with this simple caveat: It’s the work of a struggling French speaker, not a professional translator.

But here’s why I think this article is so important and worth reading in its entirety. It shows that other people around the world can readily see the horror in how this powerful faith group uses religion as a rationalization for turning a blind eye to terrible abuses. The article’s author, Alexis Buisson, called it the “wall of denial.” That “wall” is what other people are seeing about Southern Baptists. The reason most Baptists don’t see it is because they are blinded by their own indoctrinated orthodoxy and by the propaganda of their religious leaders. But others can indeed see it.


A Voice Against the Forbidden

Christa Brown thought of herself as a true daughter of the church. She was the pianist for her church choir in Farmers Branch, Texas; she went to summer camps for studying the Bible; she went to Sunday School. And she was raised with the strictest respect for pastors.

Her small church was a second home for her until the day when the pastor, who was in charge of youth actitivities, began flirting with her and telling her how beautiful she was. One day, he held her and kissed her. He reassured her by telling her that their relationship was the will of God. When she resisted, he reproached her for her lack of faith. The relationship between the married man and the minor girl was prolonged, culminating in the moment when Christa woke up naked and terrified on the bed of the parsonage after her aggressor had given her several glasses of alcohol. “Don’t worry,” he whispered to her. “You’ll still be a virgin.”

Even decades later, talking about this history is always painful for Christa Brown. But now at fifty-seven years old, an attorney, a wife and mother of a child, she knew how to give words to the unspeakable and committed it all to a book, This Little Light, in which she recounts the attacks upon her, her quest for justice, her personal torments, and the loss of faith that resulted from all of it.

Lack of record-keeping

Beyond all that, Christa’s book came out in 2009 and made of her the public face for an unrecognized plague: pedophilia among American protestants, and in particular, among Southern Baptists, the largest protestant group in the United States, with 16 million members, and the group to which Christa once belonged. “Some people have said that my writing of the book was an act of catharsis. But I think, instead, that it was an act of resistance –- resistance in the name of all the voices of all the victims that this powerful religious group has silenced.”

Christa Brown’s narrative offers a rare insight into the difficulties that those victimized by sexual abuse in Baptist churches have had to face in their struggle for recognition of the wrongs.

In particular, she recounts that her understanding of the nature of the aggression came too late to pursue justice for her aggressor through the criminal justice system. In general, the laws of limitation make 28 the maximum age for a person to make a complaint about being sexually abused as a minor. These laws often have the effect of penalizing the victims of rape and molestation, who sometimes need many years to understand what was done to them. There is also a lack of record-keeping in Baptist churches, which impedes the ability to trace presumed pedophiles several years after their deeds.

She decided to undertake a personal crusade to prevent the repetition of such abuse for others. She found her aggressor in a church, and she wrote to 18 Baptist leaders to inform them of the danger. In vain. She went several times to the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention, earnestly beseeching Baptists’ national representatives, only to be confronted by the same denial. Their response is that each church is administered in an autonomous manner and that a list of “sexual predators” would be contrary to this principle. But Christa affirms that this amounts to a maneuver for burying the problem. “That sort of autonomy doesn’t really exist in actual practice. All through their history, you can find examples showing that there has been cooperation for all manner of purposes among the churches and the regional and national authorities.”

Wall of denial

Faced with this wall of denial, she turned to the media, her last recourse. The Orlando Sentinel newspaper, ignoring the threat of a lawsuit, published an article with the name of her aggressor. He ended up quitting his pastoral position under pressure. “Abuse is difficult to accept in life, but what is even more difficult to accept is the attitude of Southern Baptist officials,” Christa says. When we hear them call us “evil-doers,” and question our mental state, “you get the impression that the victims are the people who should be beaten down.”

Since the publication of her book, she remarks that too little has changed in how Baptists treat reports about sexual abuse. Contrary to the Catholic Church, the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, which was created in the middle of the 19th century, has still not established any procedures for examining pedophilia accusations against clergy, arguing that their decentralized organization justifies their do-nothingness.

In June 2008, the Southern Baptist Convention requested that local pastor-search committees check criminal records on those seeking employment, but it voted against a motion for the creation of a centralized database of its own clergy who were convicted or charged with pedophilia. The well-known TIME magazine included this decision in its list of ten news stories that were underreported by the media in 2008.

Declining membership

Pedophilia has “always existed within this religious group,” according to Christa Brown, who says she has heard from victims who say they are now 60 to 70 years old. “I would like Southern Baptists to recognize and acknowledge that sexual abuse is a real problem, instead of saying that there’s only been forty incidents in fifteen years, as one of their leaders suggested. It isn’t true: I’ve heard the stories of hundreds of victims. And it’s still only the tip of the iceberg.”

“Until Southern Baptists take on their responsibility and undertake profound internal reforms, they will not have done enough about this problem. They should listen to the victims, not their lawyers,” intones Marci Hamilton, professor on law and religion at Yeshiva University in New York.

Christa Brown herself has created a website to inform the greater public and to collect the evidence of the thousands of “survivors” that Baptist leaders don’t want to see. “Their tactics have worked for a very long time, but they won’t endure. They think they can hide behind their walls, but those walls are tumbling down. This is a denomination in decline,” she says.

For the first time in fifty years, the Baptist family reports a declining membership.

“I have a good life and I am grateful for it. But I think it is impossible to completely heal from this sort of sexual abuse. We live in the light and the darkness. I am capable of talking about it, but many others are still paralyzed by it.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Réforme writes about Baptists’ “wall of denial”

In its March 10, 2011 issue, Réforme magazine published a profile story about my book, This Little Light, and about clergy sex abuse among Southern Baptists. I’m told that Réforme is the largest Protestant publication in France. So, a whole lot of French-speaking people are now reading about the horror of the Baptist do-nothing response to clergy sex abuse. Kudos to Alexis Buisson, the journalist who wrote this article!

I’m guessing that most of you don’t speak French. So allow me to give you a translated version of a few passages. I’m not totally fluent, and so this is a mediocre translation that doesn’t begin to do justice to the beauty of Buisson’s writing, but hopefully, it will give you the gist.

The article begins by relating a few excerpts from my own story and by telling about my book, which Buisson describes as having “mettre des mots sur l’indicible” -- as giving words to the unspeakable.

Then he discusses the unacknowledged plague – “fléau méconnu” – of pedophilia among Protestants, and in particular, among Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant group in the United States.

He quotes me as saying: “Certaines personnes ont dit que l’écriture du livre etait un acte cathartique. . . . Pour moi, c’était plutot un fait de resistance au nom des voix de toutes les victims que ce groupe religieux tres puissant a tues.”

Translation: “Some people have said that my writing of the book was an act of catharsis. But I think, instead, that it was an act of resistance – resistance in the name of all the voices of all the victims that this powerful religious group has silenced.”

Buisson writes about “l’absence de registres” -- the lack of record-keeping -- among Baptists, which impedes the ability to trace presumed pedophiles. And he does an amazing job of succinctly explaining the position of Southern Baptist officials: “They say that each church is administered in an autonomous manner and that a list of sexual predators would be contrary to that principle. But Christa affirms that this amounts to a maneuver for burying the problem. ‘That sort of autonomy doesn’t really exist in actual practice,' she says. 'All through their history, you can find examples showing that there has been cooperation for all manner of purposes among the churches and the regional and national authorities.’”

Buisson explains how “la puissante SBC” – the powerful Southern Baptist Convention – doesn’t even have procedures for looking into clergy sex abuse accusations and how it contends that its decentralized structure justifies its “immobilisme” – i.e., its do-nothingness. He describes this as the “mur de déni” – the wall of denial. The very fact that Buisson's writing is so clear makes the story all the more chilling.

"L’abus est difficile à vivre, mais l’attitude des autorités de l’Union des baptistes du Sud est encore plus difficile à accepter, raconte-t-elle."

"Such abuse is difficult to accept in life, but what is even more difficult to accept is the attitude of Southern Baptist officials," she says.

Then, Buisson quotes Marci Hamilton, professor of law and religion at Yeshiva Univesity in New York: "Tant que les baptistes du Sud n’auront pas pris leur responsabilité et qu’ils n’auront pas engagé des réformes internes profondes, ils n’en auront pas fait assez. Ils doivent écouter les victimes . . . . ".

Translation: "Until Southern Baptists take on their responsibility and undertake profound internal reforms, they will not have done enough about this problem. They must listen to the victims…. "

Christa Brown says : "Leur stratégie a marché pendant très longtemps mais elle ne va pas durer. Ils pensaient qu’ils pouvaient se retrancher derrière leurs murs mais les murs sont en train de tomber. Cette dénomination est en déclin."

Translation: "Their tactics have worked for a very long time, but they won’t endure. They thought they could hide behind their walls but those walls are tumbling down. This is a denomination in decline."

"J’ai une bonne vie et j’en suis reconnaissante. Mais je pense qu’il est impossible de guérir complètement d’un abus sexuel, poursuit-elle. Nous vivons dans la lumière et l’ombre. Je suis capable d’en parler mais beaucoup d’autres sont encore paralysés."

Translation: "I have a good life for which I am very grateful. But I think it is impossible to completely heal from this sort of sexual abuse. We live in the light and the darkness. I am capable of talking about it, but many others are still paralyzed by it."

Réforme magazine's website is at http://www.reforme.net/. If you scroll down to the "Portrait" section, you'll see my picture and a link to the beginning of the article. I converted the whole of the article into this pdf: http://stopbaptistpredators.org/documents/reforme_une_voix.pdf

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rebranding needs more than name change

“One of Nashville’s largest Baptist churches will have a new name that omits the word ‘Baptist’. Effective March 20, Two Rivers Baptist Church will become the Fellowship at Two Rivers.”
-- The Tennessean, March 5, 2011

Plenty of other Baptist churches have renamed themselves, but what makes the Two Rivers change particularly interesting is that Two Rivers has been “the home church” for many of the high-honchos of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has its headquarters in Nashville.

So do you get the picture? The home church for Southern Baptist honchos doesn’t want to call itself “Baptist” anymore. Ironic, eh?

That’s how tarnished the “Baptist” brand has become.

Two Rivers itself has had plenty of problems in recent years. This is the church that, in 2008, ousted a group of 70 members who sought access to church financial records. It took a second vote, with changed rules, to get the ouster accomplished, because on the first vote, the church membership didn’t do what church leadership wanted. It was such a debacle that The Nashville Scene did a scathing parody of the church’s voting process, saying “Two Rivers Baptist to advise Zimbabwe regime” on election tactics because “they know a thing or two about reversing an election that didn’t go their way.”

By some reports, these dictatorial tactics were apparently nothing unusual for Two Rivers. Its leadership preached, “There has to be submission and authority.”

All of this happened with senior pastor Jerry Sutton at the Two Rivers helm. He was a man who nearly won the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006. So he knew a thing or two about the tactics of power.

But things sure got ugly there at Two Rivers. Sutton himself fell under scrutiny as the Associated Press reported on troubling allegations, including an allegation that he had used church money to pay for his daughter’s wedding reception. Additionally, the Associated Press reported that “one of Sutton’s former administrative assistants has also said Sutton looked at pornography on his church computer and had an affair with a church staff member -- charges the church denies.” (If you want to see the original of the Associated Press article on this, for $1.50, you can retrieve it from the archives at ap.org by searching under the reporter’s name, Rose French.)

Meanwhile, even as Sutton was insisting that the 70 record-seeking members should “issue a written apology and promise never to cause disharmony again,” lo and behold, a stash of financial records was found in a dumpster behind the church.

As reported by WSMV-TV, a church member described those records as showing unusual items “charged to the church credit card,” including “tickets to an Atlanta Braves baseball game and a $300 deck hand fee for a lavish sport fishing outfit.” Reportedly, there were also “a number of handwritten notes indicating that a church staffer is to be ‘paid in cash’ and a note “that said to give her half in cash and half in a check.”

Lawsuits went back and forth, and as best I can tell, most of the civil claims against Sutton were dismissed based on jurisdictional grounds – i.e., because the judge “declined to become involved” in church matters – and not based on any review of the merits. Sutton himself eventually left Two Rivers and went to teach at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell and is described as “the largest Christian university in the world.”)

With such an ugly history, you might imagine that, if Two Rivers were going to “rebrand” itself, it would drop “Two Rivers” from the name. But no . . . they decided to “rebrand” by dropping “Baptist” from the name. I guess they thought the “Baptist” part of the brand carried even more taint than the “Two Rivers” part.

But of course, it’s all just a matter of appearances. The church is still “very solidly Southern Baptist.”

Speaking of appearances . . . those of you who followed the Ergun Caner scandal may find this further info interesting. When Jerry Sutton moved on to teach at Liberty, the school’s former president and dean, Ergun Caner, bragged that Liberty’s new professor was “a pulpit heavyweight.” Uh…. yeah …. I guess he sure knew how to throw his weight around, didn’t he?

Caner went on to praise Sutton as “one of the best preachers in the nation” and said “the Church is strong when the preaching is SOLID.” Uh… strong? After Sutton visited his style of leadership on the Two Rivers church, it dropped from 3000 in average Sunday attendance to about 650.

Finally, Caner resorted to military metaphors, saying that Sutton would help train ministry students for “the front lines” and help them understand “trench warfare.” Uh . . . it sure looked like “warfare” there at Two Rivers. But is that really the style of leadership that Baptists want to teach to the next generation?

Maybe that gets right back to the underlying reason for why Two Rivers feels the need to rebrand itself by omitting the word “Baptist.”

Too many Baptist leaders have tarnished the Baptist brand by making it into a faith about “warfare” and power rather than a faith about compassion and love.

After all, this is the faith group whose highest leader, Frank Page, wrote a column in which he publicly castigated the support groups for clergy molestation and rape victims as being “nothing more than opportunistic persons” . . . and he has never even bothered to apologize. And this is the faith group in which 100,000 other Southern Baptist ministers have sat silently in the face of such hateful rhetoric, refusing to even hold their own leader accountable. To the contrary, they promoted him.

Yes, the Baptist name has indeed been tarnished. But it will take more than the illusion of rebranding to solve the problem. It will take a widespread change of heart.
Photo from the now-defunct TwoRiversInfo.org website, which was the work of church members who sought Two Rivers' financial records.
Related posts:
"Sutton becomes interim dean and vice-president of academics" at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2/15/11

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Truth

When it comes to clergy sex abuse, Southern Baptists can’t handle the truth.

Can’t. Won't. Won't even try.

Truth can be messy. So basically, Baptists just opt out. They refuse to deal with it.

Time and time again, we’ve seen this pattern. When a church’s minister is arrested on child sex charges, the pastor and other church leaders talk about wanting to wait for “the truth” to be made known.

We saw this pattern in the recent case in Port Orchard, Washington. “We want the truth to come out,” said senior pastor Jamie Greening, after another minister in his church was arrested on child sex charges and after police said he had “confessed on tape to raping a 12-year-old.”

So, in circumstances like this, what do pastors really mean when they talk about “the truth”?

As best I can tell, they mean that they want to wait to see whether or not the minister is criminally convicted. They want some other authority – such as the criminal justice system – to simply tell them what constitutes “the truth.”

But criminal conviction is not one and the same as “the truth.”

Just because a man hasn’t been criminally convicted doesn’t mean that he hasn’t sexually abused a child. In fact, many experts estimate that 90 percent of active sex offenders have no criminal record. This is consistent with FBI data, which indicates that only about 1 to 10 percent of child molestation crimes are ever even disclosed, much less prosecuted or convicted.

This reality is one reason why most of the other major faith groups in this country now have denominational systems for making their own assessments about whether it is more likely than not that a minister sexually abused a person. They take responsibility within the faith group for making an assessment about what they believe “the truth” to be, and they make that assessment based on standards that are less rigid than those of the criminal justice system.

Other major faith groups take that responsibility onto their own shoulders for the sake of better protecting kids and congregants. A faith group’s assessment of “the truth” will not function to put a man in prison, but it can function to assure that he won’t be able to use the mantle of ministerial trust as a weapon.

There’s plenty of room for debate about the standards and presumptions of the criminal justice system. But here’s the thing – whatever you may think of the criminal justice system, there is no reason why a faith group should rely solely on the criminal justice system for deciding whether a pastor is fit to remain in the pulpit.

Our criminal justice system is premised on the notion that it is better to let nine guilty men go free rather than to risk convicting an innocent man. This premise may make sense when the end result may be a deprivation of liberty . . . i.e., when the person who is convicted may be confined to a jail cell.

But does it make sense for deciding whether a pastor should remain in the pulpit?

Is it better to let nine child-molesting ministers remain as ministers rather than to risk the removal of one innocent minister from his chosen career?

Other faith groups have taken on these difficult questions and have developed their own standards for assessing “the truth” about clergy sex abuse allegations. But Southern Baptists still don’t bother. This makes lack of a criminal conviction into the de facto standard for clergy fitness among Southern Baptists. Basically, if a minister isn’t sitting in prison, he can probably find a Baptist pulpit to stand in. There is no Baptist denominational system that will stop him.

Sadly, waiting for “the truth” is also an excuse that many Baptist pastors use to avoid even the extension of care to those wounded by clergy sex abuse. We saw this pattern, too, in the Port Orchard case.

After immediately telling his congregation how important it was “to keep Pastor Dirk’s family in our prayers” (and after “the courtroom was packed” with supporters for “Pastor Dirk”), senior pastor Jamie Greening said nothing at all about care or concern for the victim in his initial “pastoral note.” (And I couldn’t help but notice that Greening still respectfully referred to the minister who “confessed on tape to raping a 12-year-old” as “Pastor Dirk.”)

Then, in two subsequent posts (here and here), Greening made these statements about the victim:

“If these allegations are true (and we don’t know that for sure yet) then she is in need of our prayers and support….”

“If these allegations are true, then our love, encouragement and support must be for the woman who has brought these charges as well as for Dirk and his family."

You’ll notice, of course, that he makes support for the victim conditioned on “if these allegations are true.” So, even though he has already publicly urged support and prayer for “Pastor Dirk,” senior pastor Jamie Greening still waits to see “if these allegations are true” before he will allow that the accuser may also need support. Then he goes an even further step of publicly casting doubt on the victim with his “and we don’t know that for sure yet” comment.

So, what exactly does pastor Greening mean by his “if these allegations are true” statement? Exactly what “truth” is he waiting for before he will allow that the victim, too, may need prayers and support?

As best I can tell, it’s the same old pattern. Even in the face of admissions, Baptists wait for the criminal justice system to provide them with “the truth” in the form of a criminal conviction.

When criminal conviction is a faith group’s only standard for assessing “the truth” about a minister, you can be sure that many ministers who rape and molest kids will remain in positions of high trust, and that kids will be at greater risk. That's the truth.

Related post: "Even in the face of admissions," 3/4/11

Friday, March 4, 2011

Even in the face of admissions

In Port Orchard, Washington, a Southern Baptist pastor was arrested on charges of child rape. In recorded phone calls, police say that pastor Dirk P. Jackson admitted to having “sexual relations” with the girl, who was then a sixth grader, and to “having her perform oral sex on him while they were in the classroom.” When police told Jackson they had recorded copies of the phone calls, he said the conduct was “consensual.”

Even in the face of such admissions, the church’s senior pastor, Jamie Greening, told KOMO News: “This does not match. These allegations do not match the man we’ve known for eight years.” (You can see pastor Jamie Greening in this KOMO News video.)

Then, on his pastor’s blog, Greening made these mealy-mouthed minimizing statements to his congregation:

“This allegedly occurred before his tenure at our church. . . . Our congregation has not been indicated as a place where anything wrong happened. To our knowledge, Dirk is not being accused of any wrongdoing in his official capacity as a pastor at FBC.”

The girl was a sixth grader at the time, and pastor Jackson was working as a teacher at Manchester Christian Academy.

Since 2003, Jackson has been “working with kids in youth programs” as a pastor at First Baptist Church in Port Orchard. “Detectives are concerned there may be additional young victims.”

Why doesn’t Pastor Greening express just as much concern for the likelihood of additional victims as the detectives do? And why isn’t he expressing just as much concern for the woman who made the police report as he has for pastor Jackson? And why in the world does he think it matters whether pastor Jackson committed these deeds in his “official capacity”?

Does he imagine that it would be okay for First Baptist Church to have a pastor who admitted to raping a kid in his unofficial capacity?

In the midst of this all-too-common craziness, ponder how this might have played out if it had been the more typical scenario. What if this woman’s claim were too old for criminal prosecution (as is usually the case), and the police had not been able to get a warrant to record her phone calls? What if there had been no possibility of pursuing charges through the criminal justice system?

That’s the more typical scenario because the very nature of the harm is such that it silences kids for a very long time, often for many years and even decades.

If the woman – worried that the pastor could be using his position of trust to hurt still more kids – went to Southern Baptist officials, they would wash their hands of it and tell her that she must take her report to the church of the accused pastor. They would recite their mantra of “local church autonomy.”

Can you imagine?

Even in the face of a pastor’s admissions in recorded phone calls, and even in the face of criminal charges against him, the church responds with overwhelming public support for the pastor. We have seen this pattern over and over again. So how can denominational officials even imagine that a local church could responsibly assess a clergy abuse report in the absence of criminal charges?

It is irresponsible and reckless for Southern Baptist officials to persist in promoting the notion that local churches can handle clergy abuse allegations on their own. They can’t.

For the safety of kids and congregants throughout the denomination, local churches need the resource of an outside review board to assess clergy abuse allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted, to inform people in the pews about credibly-accused clergy, and to prevent credibly-accused clergy from church-hopping.

Other major faith groups now have such denominational resources for clergy accountability. Southern Baptists don’t.

Shouldn’t kids in Southern Baptist churches be entitled to the same sorts of denominational safeguards as kids in Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Methodist churches?

Update 8/16/11: This pastor, Dirk Jackson, has pled guilty and been sentenced to 41 months in prison for sexual abuse of a sixth grader. I received more "you're going to hell" hate-messages because of my posting on this case than I have ever received on any other case -- dozens upon dozens -- all from people who were so sure that Jackson was innocent and a great man of God. So much hate-spewing sure made me wonder about those people in that Port Orchard church. But even though Jackson has now pled guilty, I'm sure not gonna hold my breath waiting for any apologies. 
"Former youth pastor gets 41-month sentence", 8/16/11
"Pastor pleads guilty to sex abuse of former student," 8/4/11

News reports on this:
"Port Orchard pastor charged with raping 12-year-old girl"
"Port Orchard minister admits on tape to rape of girl"
"SK pastor arrested on child rape charges"
"Child rape charges filed against South Kitsap pastor"
Related post: "Three-legged stool"

Thanks to Jeri Massi for bringing this case to my attention.

See also Bob Felton's related post on Civil Commotion.