Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dear Al

Al Mohler
An open letter to Al Mohler, president
of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Dear Al:

You got a lot of press for all your talk about the Penn State sex abuse scandal. It was good talk. But was it just talk?

When I look at your actual deeds lately, I wind up thinking that talk is all it was. That grieves me, because it will take a lot more than talk to protect kids against clergy predators. Words aren't enough.

You’re right, of course, that churches and Christian organizations should “contact law enforcement” with any information about child sex abuse. But that’s true for everyone, and it’s been true for a long time. So the mere fact that you say it doesn’t make it some bold new initiative of Southern Baptist leadership. To the contrary, so long as there are no institutional consequences for Southern Baptist leaders who don’t contact law enforcement, your talk is toothless, and nothing in Baptist life has changed.

Not only is your talk toothless, but your own deeds send a message that flat-out contradicts your words.

There you are, telling seminary employees that they should contact law enforcement with any information about child sex abuse. But what about seminary trustees, Al?

If you expect seminary employees to contact law enforcement, shouldn’t you expect the same measure of conduct from seminary trustees? Shouldn’t leaders lead by example?

So why aren’t you calling for the resignation of seminary trustee Philip Gunn? As a church elder and an attorney, Gunn has urged that church officials should not cooperate with the police, but should instead keep secret the information they have about child sex abuse allegations against a trusted minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Mississippi.

SNAP spokesperson Amy Smith summed up the scenario quite succinctly: “Mr. Gunn has some explaining to do about why he, as an elder and attorney, participated in an internal church investigation into child sex crimes without going to the police.”

But Al, here’s the thing. You should be the person insisting on accountability for Mr. Gunn. If you remain silent when your own Southern Baptist seminary trustee does exactly what you say shouldn’t be done, then all you’re doing is preaching platitudes and talking easy generalities.

Furthermore, I really gotta wonder why in the world you chose to invite Morrison Heights' senior pastor Greg Belser to speak at seminary chapel in the midst of such an egregious child sex abuse cover-up scandal? Why did you lend the seminary’s institutional credibility to Greg Belser at the very time when Belser was refusing to cooperate with prosecutors in the pursuit of child sex charges against one of Morrison Heights' former ministers?

Morrison Heights did what you’re critiquing in others. It failed to prioritize the protection of kids, and instead looked out for the institution first and foremost. Yet, rather than calling this Southern Baptist church to task for such keep-it-quiet conduct, you effectively held it up as an example.

Talk the talk, but don’t worry about walking the walk. That’s the message your deeds bespeak.

And sadly, this isn’t the first time your deeds have sent a “no big deal” message about a clergy sex abuse cover-up. For example, just last June, you yourself spoke from the pulpit at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. (Thanks to New BBC for this video of you at Bellevue.) As I’m sure you know, Bellevue is a Southern Baptist church whose senior pastor, Steve Gaines, kept quiet for at least six months about an admitted clergy child molester. Yet, I haven’t heard you call this prominent pastor to task for it.

So this is the reality of what I see in your deeds. When Southern Baptist church leaders keep quiet about clergy sex abuse, you speak at their churches and you invite them to speak at your seminary. You are not part of any system by which Southern Baptist clergy colleagues will hold one another accountable. To the contrary, you’re part of a consequence-free system of cronies promoting cronies.

"Any failure to report and to stop the sexual abuse of children must be made inconceivable,” you said. But here’s the thing, Al. If there are no institutional consequences for failure to report, then failure to report will not be made inconceivable within the institution.

Without institutional consequences, we will continue to see the pattern of Southern Baptist leaders  –  leaders such as Philip Gunn, Jack Graham, Greg Belser, Steve Gaines and many more  –  who weigh each scenario for themselves and conclude (for whatever rationalized mess of a reason) that their particular scenario is somehow exceptional and that reporting isn’t necessary.

And without institutional consequences, this pattern will continue to allow accused clergy predators to church-hop through the Southern Baptist Convention, just as John Langworthy did from Prestonwood to Morrison Heights.

When I see you publicly addressing that case, and calling your own fellow Southern Baptist colleagues to account, then maybe I’ll begin to believe your words mean something.

But until then, Al, your words are nothing but talk. And that’s a crying shame. Because this isn't about the mere hypocrisy of your words. It's about the safety of kids.

Update from Civil Commotion 12/24/11: "Christa Brown gives that smiling serpent what-for ..."

Update 1/4/2012: Al Mohler tweets his pride on the selection of Southern Seminary trustee Philip Gunn as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. So not only does Mohler fail to criticize Gunn, but he sings Gunn's praises and speaks of his pride for him. Bob Felton says that, with events such as this, Southern Baptists may eventually "begin to recognize what a cesspool their denomination has become."

Update 1/18/2012: In a letter to the trustee board, Al Mohler wrote: "This is a tribute to the leadership of Speaker Gunn, and his election brings honor to the people of Mississippi and to the board of trustees of Southern Seminary."
Related posts:
Penn State lesson for Baptists: Outsiders needed for oversight, 11/25/11
Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary, 11/10/11
Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church, 9/8/11
Where’s the discipline? 10/13/2010