Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Baptists should heed mother's call for accountability

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)
at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, on January 26, 2012.

A mother, who says her son was repeatedly molested by a minister at one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s largest churches, claims the church needs to come clean about a cover-up of child sexual abuse.

“I want people to know the truth,” she said in a written statement released to CBS News last Saturday. “The hurt our family endured…is indescribable. . . . The church never reported John to the police . . . . We ask that Prestonwood take responsibility for their cover-up, and to say they are sorry.”

After minister John Langworthy was allowed to simply walk away from abuse allegations at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas in the late 1980s, he went on to serve two decades as music minister at another prominent Southern Baptist church, Morrison Heights in Clinton, Mississippi. There, he recently received a 50-year suspended sentence for molesting multiple boys as young as six. But Langworthy avoided prison time because, in the plea bargain process, prosecutors were concerned about the statute of limitations.

So, thanks to many years of secrecy surrounding his crimes, minister John Langworthy walks away with no prison time. But no one should overlook the fact that his crimes could have been disclosed many years earlier – and countless kids better protected -- if only the leadership of Prestonwood had spoken up and reported Langworthy to police.  

As described in the Associated Baptist Press, Prestonwood is the fifth-largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention. Its pastor, Jack Graham, was a two-term Southern Baptist Convention president from 2002-2004. So this is a pastor who is well-entrenched in Baptists’ good-ol’-boy network.

Who in that Baptist network will now answer this mother’s anguished call for accountability? Who will require that Prestonwood “take responsibility for their cover-up”? Will anyone do diddly-squat? Not if the patterns of the past continue.

Much like the insider network that covered up a coach’s abuse of kids at Penn State, the Baptist good-ol’-boys don’t hold one another accountable.

This is not the only time that Prestonwood has dealt with ministerial child sex allegations. In 2008, another Prestonwood minister, Joe Barron, was arrested for soliciting sex from an officer posing as a 13-year-old. On that occasion, pastor Jack Graham had little possibility for keeping it quiet because Barron had already been arrested and was making headlines. So, after Barron’s arrest, Graham took the pulpit and preached about doing the right thing. And he claimed that, “in forty years of ministry,” he had “never had one moral problem with a staff member” prior to the Barron case.

Now that we know about the prior Langworthy allegations, we know Graham’s statement wasn’t accurate. Perhaps pastor Graham just forgot about the Langworthy case – meaning a staff minister’s molestation of a kid was not a memorable problem for him – or perhaps Graham remembered the Langworthy case but chose to keep up the smokescreen and to heck with the safety of kids.

In any event, despite Graham’s inaccuracy, his preaching was the usual fine performance, and many heaped praise on him for his cheap, toothless pulpit talk.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s chief executive officer, Morris Chapman, urged other church leaders to follow Graham’s example “in confronting this horrible crime, exposing it for what it is, and doing everything within our power to protect the children under the care of the ministries of our churches.”

But is that what Graham did with Langworthy? Did he do everything within his power to protect children? I expect most ordinary parents would say no.

Graham and other Prestonwood leaders simply allowed Langworthy to move on. They got him off their own turf, while leaving countless other kids at risk. And even as recently as 2011, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, proudly described Prestonwood’s modus operandi of a quiet dismissal by saying that the church had “firmly and forthrightly” dealt with the Langworthy matter.

If that’s what Southern Baptists call being firm and forthright with clergy molestation allegations, then parents should keep their kids out of Southern Baptist churches.

But Graham is a prominent somebody. Not only did other Baptist officials sing his praises, but so too did the Dallas Morning News. After Graham took the pulpit following Joe Barron’s arrest, the Dallas Morning News published an editorial extolling Graham as though he were the perfect example of a pastor who had done all the right things. And even as Prestonwood’s leaders basked in that over-the-top praise, they continued to keep their dark secret about Langworthy locked tight in their closet.

And Langworthy continued to work with kids.

“In the end,” wrote the Dallas Morning News, “the real scandal in cases like this comes not from the sins and crimes of sexual offenders. . . . The truly damaging scandals arise when church leaders mishandle these crises by failing to treat them with the gravity they deserve.”

Prestonwood and Jack Graham failed miserably, and Baptists should heed the mother’s call for accountability. In the end, when organizations do not impose consequences for those who turn a blind-eye, then blind-eyed behavior continues, and kids remain at greater risk.
Thanks to the Associated Baptist Press (an independent news service) for publishing this post!

Related posts:
Related ABP column:
Amy Smith's persistence brings justice in John Langworthy clergy abuse case, Clarion Ledger, 2/6/2013
Sex offender loses pharmacy license, ABP, 3/1/2013 (with numerous additional links to articles on the Prestonwood / Langworthy scandal)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Clergy sex abuse and the "silence of the many"

"True evil lies not in the depraved act of the one, but in the silence of the many." On this day, I am contemplating these words, attributed to a black Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr.

In countless stories of Baptist clergy sex abuse, we have seen the sad truth of King’s words made manifest. Even with childhood histories of horrific abuse – of having been molested, raped and sodomized by Baptist preachers – many have said that the worst of their experience came when they tried to tell about the abuse within the faith community.

That was when they faced “the silence of the many.”

That was when the relational fabric of community, and often even of family, was torn asunder.

That was when faith itself was deemed a fraud.

Church after church has stood, not in solidarity with those who have been abused by clergy, but rather, with the accused minister-molesters. Often, the churches have stood with the ministers even when they admit their soul-murdering deeds, and sometimes, even when they have been criminally convicted.

Church leaders have quietly allowed accused preacher-predators – even those with multiple accusations -- to hop to new churches – and to do so repeatedly.

Denominational leaders have sat back and claimed powerlessness. Simultaneously, they have stayed silent about Baptist pastors, including some high-profile pastors, who kept quiet about abuse allegations involving ministerial staff.

The unmistakable message of so much silence and do-nothingness is that, among Baptists, clergy sex abuse is typically treated as “no big deal.”

No one in Baptistland wants to hear the voices of those who were sexually abused by Baptist clergy. Indeed, in the Southern Baptist Convention, there does not even exist a basic structure to support the compassionate hearing of such wounded people. Instead, they are told that they must take their allegations to the church of the accused minister. This is like telling bloody sheep that, if they want help, they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is a system that does not work.

But no one in denominational offices will take responsibility for assuring that clergy abuse allegations will be responsibly heard, or even that any records will be kept.
As a practical matter, because the vast majority of molestation allegations cannot be criminally prosecuted, a Southern Baptist preacher can stand in a pulpit so long as he is not literally sitting in prison. There is no denominational entity that will stop him. Even when a minister has hopped through multiple churches in multiple states with multiple allegations, Southern Baptist denominational entities pretend that it is better to not know -- to not even try to know.

Denominational leaders claim that their hands are tied by the congregationalist polity of Southern Baptist churches. In effect, they assert an “it’s our religion” rationalization for denominational do-nothingness.

However, some have realized that this is not truly a stance based on religion. Rather, it is based on the weighing of “responsibility and liability issues.” In effect, it’s a business decision. As David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, recently explained: “If the organizing body of a denomination claims no responsibility for supervising, or even ordaining clergy, it may be harder to hold it responsible when a pastor molests a child.”

Southern Baptist leaders have weighed these “responsibility and liability” issues and have come down on the side of seeking to protect denominational entities via a do-nothing response. Other major faith groups, including some congregationalist faith groups, have come down on the side of seeking to protect church kids via the implementation of denominational review boards to assess abuse allegations. Such review boards can at least provide a first step toward denominationally hearing the voices of those abused by clergy.

But for Southern Baptists, this first step remains untaken. They stand on an island of inertia.

The result is that Baptist church kids are being ravaged, not only by the sexual abuse of many ministers, but also by the denomination’s complicit silence. The rationalization by which the denomination cloaks its do-nothingness is of little consequence; this is true even when that rationalization is called “religion.”

The end of power remains the same  --  to preserve the status quo. If Southern Baptists want to responsibly engage their faith with respect to clergy sex abuse, they must start by considering the silent complicity of their own church and denominational power structures. They must respond to this systemic problem from a position of compassion and care rather than from a position of power.

What better way for Baptists to honor a Baptist preacher’s timeless voice for justice than by committing to actively hear the voices of those brutalized by their own clergy and ostracized by their own complicity?

Thanks to the Associated Baptist Press (an independent news service) for publishing this column!