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.