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