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.

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