Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hopeless and Hopeful: Reflections on the past and thoughts for the future

A decade ago, when I first began calling on Baptists to institute protective measures against clergy sex predators, some people warned me that “Baptists are hopeless.” But I was an optimist.

I thought that, if only Baptists understood the extent of the problem, they would surely choose to implement clergy accountability systems similar to those that exist in other major faith groups.

I was wrong.

I thought that, if only Baptists understood the soul-murdering trauma that comes from sexual abuse by clergy, they would take action to better prevent the harm and minister to the wounded.

Again, I was wrong.

The inaction of Baptists derives not from a failure of understanding but from a denominational lack of will and a surfeit of institutional self-protection.

Does the fact that I was so wrong mean that this decade of effort in Baptistland has been of no value? Far from it.

Gains during the last 10 years

Over the past decade, there have been over 560,000 pageviews on this blog, and even more on the website (which I stopped maintaining in 2012). So a whole lot of people have been made aware of this systemic problem in Baptistland, and many have seen the cruelty that resides at the heart of this faith group -- the cruelty of turning a deaf ear to those sexually savaged by clergy and of leaving children as sitting ducks for predatory pastors.

Over the past decade, many journalists have become more savvy in understanding the dynamics of clergy abuse cover-ups in Baptistland. I will always feel grateful for the few journalists who were at the forefront in chronicling Baptist clergy abuse stories, and now, the next generation’s  journalists are more attuned.

Over the past decade, more attorneys have begun exploring avenues for legal accountability in Baptist abuse cases. For the first time ever, a jury verdict was handed down against a statewide Baptist denominational entity, and you can bet that we will see more of such “appropriate” rulings in the future. I’ve been told that Baptist denominational entities have settled other abuse claims, and though it sadly seems that Baptists are still using confidentiality agreements, even with such secrecy, the spending of denominational dollars on defense will eventually have an impact. The tenacity and creativity of America’s trial lawyers will someday bring Baptists into the movement for clergy accountability.

Over the past decade, other bloggers and advocates have begun to speak out about Baptist clergy sex abuse cover-ups, and no doubt, more will follow.

Over the past decade, the world’s largest clergy abuse survivor network, SNAP, has increased outreach efforts to Baptist abuse survivors, and recently, SNAP predicted that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé would likely focus on the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over the past decade, Baptist churches themselves have begun adopting policies for dealing with clergy sex abuse. One prominent pastor estimated that, ten years ago, “probably much less than 1%” had any kind of policy at all. Now, at least some churches do. The policies tend to be inherently inadequate and often little more than window-dressing -- for reasons I’ll talk about below -- but ten years ago, most in Baptistland were denying even the existence of a problem.

Finally, and most importantly, over the past decade, hundreds of Baptist clergy abuse survivors have begun their own healing journeys and have realized that they are far from alone in what was done to them -- done to them not only by the sexual abuse of predatory pastors but also by the re-victimizing complicity of countless other Baptist leaders. Some of their stories have been reported in the media; most have not. But this much I know for sure: What will someday bring change to this recalcitrant faith group is not the preached platitudes of Baptist leaders but the cumulative courage of clergy abuse survivors. This is where hope resides -- in the terrible truth of survivors’ stories.

Backward steps in 2016

Despite the decade's many gains, 2016 was a year in which that “hopeless” word often took hold in my head. Not only was there the continuing flood of clergy abuse cases with the same awful patterns of cover-ups and do-nothingness, but there were also institutional decisions that made the Baptist badlands seem even bleaker.

For starters, in 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention, this country’s largest Protestant faith group, elected a known clergy sex abuse cover-upper as its president. It was as though the cover-up of child sex crimes had rendered the pastor promotion-worthy rather than making him subject to accountability.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas, the largest statewide Baptist denominational entity, announced that it was abolishing its confidential file of abusive ministers. Though the BGCT’s public relations people spun this as a positive, survivors saw it for what it was -- a step backwards. The BGCT’s file was always part of a seriously flawed practice -- because the BGCT would receive reports only from churches (who almost never report their own ministers) and because it kept the information in a closed cabinet rather than proactively seeking to warn other churches -- but survivors had long hoped that the BGCT would amend its practice so as to accept abuse reports from the victims themselves. In 2016, that hope was dashed.

The national body of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship established a “clergy sexual misconduct task force” in 2016, and from initial reports, it appears the CBF has opted to follow the denominational hands-off model of the BGCT and SBC, with the timid provision of “awareness” workshops and policy samples for churches. These things are fine but they’re a far chasm from what’s needed -- and from what other faith groups, including some congregationalist groups, are already doing. I had long hoped that the CBF would eventually follow the model of the American Baptist Churches USA, the one Baptist group that has implemented denominational review bodies and record-keeping so as to provide at least the possibility of holding abusive pastors accountable within the faith group even when they cannot be criminally prosecuted. And, back in 2007, the small Alabama CBF had actually adopted such a model, giving rise to even greater hope that the national CBF organization would someday follow suit. That hope is now gone. (The Alabama CBF’s prior denominational review policy can no longer be found on its website, but you can still see the elements of that policy here).

Rationalization for denominational do-nothingness

It was particularly sad to see the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship offer up the same “local church autonomy” rationalization that Southern Baptists have spouted from the get-go, as though their purported lack of “hierarchical structures” could insulate denominational officials from moral obligation. It is a rationalization that has left a trail of destruction in countless lives, as survivors have pleaded with denominational officials to consider their reports and to help them in trying to protect other kids. But even when it’s too late for criminal prosecution (as it so often is, in part because of church cover-ups in the past), and even when the accused pastor is still in the pulpit, and even when he’s still working with kids, denominational leaders wash their hands of the problem and tell survivors to go to the church of the accused pastor to report him. Not only is this a callous response in terms of care for the wounded -- akin to telling bloody sheep that they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them -- but it’s also an ineffective response in terms of prevention -- local churches necessarily lack the objectivity to responsibly consider abuse reports against their own ministers. This is why Baptist church policies are usually inadequate: Effective accountability systems require the use of outsiders.

The reality of how few cases can be criminally prosecuted and the importance of outsiders in accountability systems are two reasons other faith groups have instituted denominational processes for considering abuse reports and warning congregations. But Baptists refuse to follow this developing standard of care, and their refusal gives rise to a critical safety gap. Less than ten percent of child molesters ever encounter the criminal justice system, and so most won’t have a record that shows up in a criminal background check. So, without denominational record-keeping, most clergy sex predators can easily roam to find new prey.

The simple truth is that Baptist churches are networked in all sorts of ways and they cooperate for all sorts of other endeavors. This is why Baptist ethicist Robert Parham wrote that “Baptist leaders are being disingenuous when they hide behind the shield of local church autonomy to avoid taking needed actions to protect children from predatory preachers.” In effect, by distorting their doctrine of polity, Baptist leaders render faith itself complicit in abuse: “It’s our religion” is the Baptist excuse for denominational inaction against clergy predators.

Like many, I have come to believe that Baptist leaders’ posturing on “local church autonomy” is primarily a risk management strategy. They have weighed the “responsibility and liability issues” and, unlike most of this country’s other major faith groups, Baptists have come down on the side of trying to protect their denominational coffers against liability risks rather than on the side of trying to protect kids against the risk of clergy predators. It is a perverse ordering of priorities and one that, shortsightedly, serves only the corporate structures of the denomination rather than its people.

Without modern systems for accountability and record-keeping, Baptists’ denominational structures enable the secrecy that allows clergy sex abuse to thrive. A church in Florida should be able to readily learn if a new minister from Texas has been credibly accused of sexual abuse. But without denominational systems to facilitate the sharing of such information, it will reside at best, and if at all, in the closed file cabinets of local churches -- churches that are often reluctant to say anything when another church calls for a reference for fear of being sued by the very man who has been accused. So they do little more than to confirm dates of employment. This is such a common practice that it has a name:  “passing the trash.”

Networked churches should rightly carry networked responsibilities and risks. A denominational review board wouldn’t intrude on the autonomy of churches but would instead empower them. Not only could it provide churches with the resource of outside experts to assess abuse reports, but with systematic record-keeping, it could provide churches with better information for better decision-making. In addition, it would allow autonomous churches to pool the risk of speaking out about a minister who has been credibly accused but who has not been criminally convicted.

What’s needed in Baptistland

Here is what Baptistland needs: (1) a denominational “safe place” office to receive reports about clergy sex abuse (particularly for cases that cannot be criminally prosecuted, which is most); (2) the systematic logging of abuse reports within the denomination; (3) the responsible assessment of abuse reports by a trained panel of experts who are outside the church of the accused minister; and (4) an efficient means of assuring that assessment information reaches people in the pews -- i.e., a database. In these ways, not only would Baptist churches be better served with shared information about a minister's fitness, but children and congregants would be better protected.

Someday, change will come even to this most recalcitrant of faith groups, and these sorts of denominational safeguards will seem quite ordinary. People will look back in wonder at why it took Baptists so long.

Thank you

Many thanks to my readers over the course of this past decade. I don't plan to blog further at this site, but I will post a notice here when my next book is released. Survivors: My heart is always with you. Happy trails.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Common misconceptions about the Baylor sexual assault scandal

The media coverage of Baylor University’s sexual assault scandal continues, and I give thanks that the outside world is keeping the world’s largest Baptist university in the spotlight.

In one of the more recent news accounts, the headline proclaims that Baylor’s scandal is “far worse than previously disclosed.” This “far worse” reality should come as no surprise to anyone who read the Pepper Hamilton investigatory report, released last May, because the horror of the scandal’s scope was always right there, both in the lines and between the lines. As one Dallas radio host recently said: “We knew it was all going to come out someday. It was a matter of time.”

With multiple legal claims now pending against Baylor, I predict that still more of the ugly truth will come out via the slow drip of revelations from depositions and discovery. Here are a few common misconceptions that I expect will be completely debunked in the coming months.  

Baylor’s failure in dealing with sexual assault is not a recent anomaly.

Many have talked about the Baylor scandal as though it were an anomaly of recent years coinciding with Baylor’s push toward becoming a football powerhouse. This is a mistaken assumption that is not supported by the Pepper Hamilton investigatory report.

The reason the investigatory report focused on only three academic years, 2012-2015, is because Baylor officials specified those years as the “scope of engagement” when they hired the investigatory firm, and because the firm stayed within the designated “scope of engagement,” as it expressly stated on pages 1 and 2 of its report. The mere fact that Baylor officials limited the investigatory firm’s scope of engagement to only three years does not mean that Baylor’s problem existed for only three years. Rather it simply means that the investigatory firm was never hired to review anything beyond those three years.

One can only imagine what a predicament it may have been for Baylor if it had allowed the investigatory firm to review the university’s handling of sexual assault reports prior to 2012. Why? Because federal law requires that universities report crime statistics to the U.S. Department of Education, and because despite this federal requirement, Baylor did not report a single instance of sexual assault occurring between 2008 and 2011.

The fact that Baylor didn’t report any assaults for that four-year period doesn’t mean there weren’t any. To the contrary, Neena Chaudhry of the National Women’s Law Center described Baylor’s “zero incidents” report as a “red flag” which means, she said, that “it’s probably not true.” Similarly, assistant district attorney Hillary LaBorde, who works for McClennan County where Baylor is located, said it was “ridiculous” to think that Baylor had no sexual assaults during those years.

Not only do Baylor’s “zero incident” filings suggest that the university was likely noncompliant with federal law even prior to 2012, but there is also powerful evidence that Baylor had a problem with its handling of sexual assault reports as far back as 1991. That was when Baylor failed to act on a freshman girl’s sexual assault report against undergraduate ministerial student Matt Baker, who was later convicted of murder. According to a 2008 Texas Monthly exposé, Baylor not only “took no action” on the girl’s assault report, but it also discouraged her from going to the police; then a few years later, Baylor even readmitted Baker into its Truett Theological Seminary. The institutional failures described in that Texas Monthly article are quite similar to the failures that we now see described in the Pepper Hamilton report. If only Baylor had shown some care when its failures were made public in 2008, much subsequent harm may have been prevented. But it didn’t, as the current scandal makes apparent.

The football program was only one part of Baylor’s broader institutional failures.

In its gross mishandling of sexual assault reports, Baylor’s institutional failures went far beyond the athletic program. Yet, over and over again, columnists and commentators have talked about Baylor’s failures as though things had simply gotten “out of hand with football” while the rest of the university was doing things right. Baylor regent, James Cary Gray, recently reinforced this misconception, telling the Wall Street Journal that Baylor had been “putting winning football games above everything else.”

This notion that the scandal was only about football got a lot of traction, but it was never true. Worse, it is a misconception that has served to minimize the true massive scope of Baylor’s institutional failures.

From the get-go, the Pepper Hamilton findings of fact refuted this misconception by pointing to “broader University failings” and by expressly stating that there were “institutional failures at every level of Baylor’s administration.” More recently, this misconception was refuted by Baylor’s first full-time Title IX coordinator, Peggy Crawford, who stated that football was “only a small component” of Baylor’s problem and who affirmed that Baylor’s failure was manifest at the highest levels, including the board of regents. Crawford also filed a formal complaint against Baylor, claiming that the university’s senior leadership had retaliated against her for trying to do her job of addressing sexual assault allegations. Finally, the regents themselves effectively negated this misconception when they informed the Wall Street Journal that “football players were involved in 10.4 percent of the Title IX-reported incidents during the four-year period ending in 2014-15.” A recent Dallas Morning News editorial asked the obvious question: “What about all the other sexual assault reports?”

Certainly, Baylor did indeed throw “all manner of decency to the wind” in favor of building its football program. That is clear from the three pages that Pepper Hamilton devoted to findings about failures in Baylor’s athletic program. But from the other ten pages of findings, it is also clear that the problem at Baylor is about a whole lot more than the sexual violence of some student athletes.

It is about university officials who became inured to violence against women. It is about university officials who essentially thumbed their noses at federal laws designed for the protection of women. It is about university officials who allowed themselves to become complicit in violence and in the betrayal of young women charged to their care. It is about the abysmal failure of university officials to be forthright in their handling of problems. It is about university officials who not only “contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment,” but who also directly discouraged” sexual assault complainants from reporting.

Federal law, civil lawsuits and the media are prodding change, not Baptist values.

Within mere days after the Pepper Hamilton report was released, many Baptist bloggers and commentators were immediately singing the praises of Baylor’s regents for rising to their Baptist heritage and restoring Baptist values. This too-fast optimism not only belied the entrenched depth of the institutional problem, but it also misplaced priorities in envisaging a solution. Rather than beating the drum for “Baptist values,” Baylor would do far better to focus on the values that underlie federal laws for the protection of women and to ensure Baylor’s compliance with both the letter and the spirit of those laws.

After all, Baylor has not been brought to accountability by virtue of any oversight exercised by Baptists. No. Despite Baylor’s strong affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas (which elects 25 percent of the Baylor board of regents), we are not learning the truth about this horrific scandal from within the world of Baptists, but rather, from without it.

This is why I am so thankful for the continuing media coverage of this scandal. I have seen no reason to believe that Baylor’s regents are truly committed to the hard road of institutional change; rather, it is the discomfort of the media’s spotlight, the processes of our civil justice system, and the obligations of federal law that will ultimately prod Baylor into creating a campus where young women who report sexual assault will be treated with dignity and decency. That day is long overdue.  

Sexual violence is pervasive and pernicious, and all sorts of institutions have failed miserably in dealing with it. Baylor has that in common with the rest of the world. But as a Baptist institution, Baylor has some additional challenges. It is “commonplace in Baptist life to dismiss women’s voices,” and this aspect of Baptists’ heritage tends to work against their ability to hear women who allege sexual assault. Moreover, in Baptistland in general, we have seen massive resistance to institutionally addressing sexual violence in churches, particularly when the violence is committed by Baptist clergy. This too is an aspect of Baptist culture that works against Baylor.

It is as though the masses in Baptistland hold some unspoken belief that this just doesn’t happen in their world. Indeed, this was one of the findings of fact in the Pepper Hamilton report: Baylor’s failures occurred in “the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’” Thus, the Baylorite belief that Baptist values make them somehow special is not necessarily a belief that forms part of the solution; to the contrary, it is more likely to be part of the problem.

"Sexual assault crisis could cost Baylor $223 million, expert estimates," The Baptist Standard, 12/13/2016. (Included in those costs are $32.9 million in "legal, consulting and public relations" expenses. Yet, even while spending millions on lawyers and public relations gurus, Baylor has not been able to squelch the stench of the scandal. Not this time. Note too that a prominent donor, who has naming rights to the football field, is considering putting his next installment into an escrow account "until we have transparency, accountability and reform" at Baylor.)
"New Baylor lawsuit alleges 52 rapes by football players in 4 years," Dallas Morning News, 1/27/2017. ("As hard as the events at Baylor have been for people to hear, what went on there was much worse than has been reported.")
"The Rise, Then Shame, of Baylor Nation," New York Times, 3/9/2017. ("The group estimated that the scandal had cost Baylor $223 million in expenses such as legal fees and settlements as well as in lost revenue from projected contributions.")
"Ex-Baylor president: Some women 'willingly' make themselves victims of sexual assault," Associated Press, USA Today, 9/22/2017. (Court filing reveals email in which Baylor's former interim president, David Garland, "referred to some women who said they had been sexually assaulted as willing victims" and then cited Bible verses referencing God's wrath on those who commit "sexual sin." Attorney says Garland's viewpoint is shared by other Baylor leaders.) And in another email, Baylor's former regent Neal "Buddy" Jones calls students suspected of drinking alcohol "perverted little tarts.")

Thursday, June 30, 2016

SBC church seeks to 'out' child sex abuse victims

David Clohessy speaking to the press, along with other SNAP members,
outside Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas
(Kansas City Star photo)

A Southern Baptist megachurch that is being sued over sexual abuse inflicted on minor girls has filed a court petition requesting that the girls’ names be made public.

Although sexual abuse lawsuits involving minors are typically filed under “Jane Doe” or “John Doe” pseudonyms in order to preserve the children’s anonymity, Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas, has requested that the court require the children and their mother to proceed in open court under their real names.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, described it as a “stunningly callous” and “mean-spirited” tactic.
Clohessy’s organization, SNAP, has been instrumental in bringing countless clergy sex abuse cases into the light of day. It was originally formed by survivors of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, but today, SNAP has members who were sexually abused within many other faith groups, including Baptist groups.   
Clohessy stated that, in his 28 year history of advocacy work, this was the first time he had ever seen a religious institution seeking to “out” a minor who was bringing forward a claim of sexual abuse. “I’ve never seen a defendant try to ‘out’ kids who are still kids in a child sex case,” he said.
For those of you who don’t know much about SNAP, let me just point out that SNAP is the organization whose work helped bring to light the child molestation cases that formed the basis for the movie “Spotlight,” which recently won an Academy Award. Clohessy himself has talked with hundreds upon hundreds of child sex abuse survivors and mostly survivors abused in religious institutions. He knows the ugly patterns of such cases better than probably anyone else in the country. Yet, with all the cases he has seen, Clohessy had never seen a church seek to “out” the identities of children who were sexually abused.
Incidentally, there’s no doubt that these children were sexually abused. The perpetrator is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence. The fact that he also had two prior felonies was a factor in determining the length of his sentence, and it also forms part of the basis for the family’s civil lawsuit against the church. The suit alleges that the church knew the perpetrator was dangerous and failed to take adequate precautions for the protection of kids.
And now … so desperate is this Southern Baptist church to pull out all the stops in trying to defend against the family’s civil suit that it is doing what virtually no other religious institution has previously done. It is seeking to publicize the names of children who were sexually violated.
Brad Russell, attorney for
Westside Family Church
(photo: Shawnee Mission Post)
The attorney for the church -- i.e., the guy who is pursuing this deplorable tactic -- is Brad Russell. In his court filing, he tried to justify the tactic by claiming that the family had used “a Pearl Harbor styled barrage of negative publicity” against the church.

As SNAP often does when it is trying to draw attention to a serious safety problem in a church, it held a press conference outside the church. I’ll leave it to you to take a look at the photo of that group of concerned citizens speaking out for the protection of children and decide for yourself whether you think it looks like “a Pearl Harbor styled barrage.” To me, it looks like attorney Russell went off on a grossly exaggerated and untenable rant.      
Since Westside Family Church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, SNAP called on SBC officials, including newly-elected SBC president Steve Gaines, to denounce the church’s “inexcusable” tactic of trying to “out” children victimized by sexual violence. But of course, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting. Gaines himself has a much-publicized prior history of having kept quiet about an admitted child molester on his own ministerial staff. Yet, despite Gaines’ known cover-up history, Southern Baptists chose him as their leader just a couple weeks ago. That’s how dysfunctionally oblivious this denomination is to the dynamics of child sex abuse and to the ways in which its own leaders create such a hostile climate for those who would seek to report child molesters who prey on church kids.

Update 10/25/2016: The district court judge rejected the argument of the church's attorney and ruled that the minor plaintiffs will remain anonymous in court proceedings. The judge also denied the church's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. So, the case is currently set to go to trial in August 2017.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Southern Baptists elect known clergy-sex-abuse-cover-upper as president

Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis
(photo by Joni B. Hannigan)

At its June 14-15 annual meeting in St. Louis, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Steve Gaines as SBC president. Gaines, who is the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, was implicated in a widely-publicized clergy child molestation cover-up about nine years ago.
Here's what was uncovered at the time: Gaines knew for at least six months that a Bellevue staff minister, Paul Williams, had molested a child, and Gaines simply kept quiet. He did not report the crime to the police, and he also kept Williams’ conduct a secret from the congregation. If a blogger had not made the news public, there’s no telling how long Gaines would have persisted in keeping Williams’ dangerous conduct under wraps.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Gaines had obviously chosen to prioritize the protection of his staff minister rather than the protection of kids, and despite Gaines’ secrecy, the church chose to retain Gaines as its senior pastor. Gaines faced virtually no consequences.
Furthermore, not only did Gaines keep quiet about the fact that a staff minister had admitted to molesting a child, thereby leaving other kids at greater risk, but he also allowed Williams to continue to serve as a counselor for congregants who had been sexually abused as children. Can you imagine how those people felt when they learned that the very minister who had been counseling them was someone who himself had molested a kid? As one woman later explained her pain: “That a suspected pedophile might have been titillated by the story of her abuse at the hands of a since-deceased relative -- the thought turns her stomach.”
It seemed plenty bad enough at the time that Gaines’ mega-church, Bellevue, had no apparent problem with retaining a senior pastor who kept quiet about a child-molesting-minister. But leave it to Baptists to go from bad to worse in dealing with clergy sex abuse. It now appears that the entire Southern Baptist Convention also has no problem with such cover-up conduct in their highest leaders.
In electing Steve Gaines as SBC president, the largest Protestant denomination in the country has spoken loud and clear: Clergy child molestation cover-ups are no big deal in Baptistland.

See also SNAP's 6/15/2016 press release blasting Southern Baptists' election of new president.

Update: "Advocates fault new SBC president's record on child sex abuse," Baptist News Global, 6/17/2016

Related posts:
"Steve Gaines on Protecting Kids," 12/4/2007
"The Malignancy of Baptist Oblivion to Clergy Sex Abuse," 4/8/2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

SNAP prediction: Next "Spotlight"-style exposé will focus on Baptists

David Clohessy
Executive Director, SNAP
On June 3, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released a letter to top officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling on them to create a "safe place" office to which clergy sex abuse survivors can file reports about their alleged perpetrators and predicting that, without action, Baptists will become the next target of a "Spotlight"-style exposé. The letter, from SNAP's Executive Director David Clohessy and Outreach Director Barbara Dorris, was directed to SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page and SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore. Here it is.

Dear Dr. Page and Dr. Moore:

With the approach of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2016 annual meeting, we are writing with two requests:

First Request.  We ask for the creation of a denominationally-funded “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may file a report about their alleged perpetrators and that the “safe place” office be widely publicized.

Reason for First Request. It is flat-out cruel for Baptist denominational officials to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must go to the church of the accused pastor if they want to report him within the faith community. This is like telling abuse survivors that they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is a response that inflicts additional harm on greatly wounded people and that turns a cold shoulder to those who seek only to protect others. To avoid the hopelessness that often besieges survivors who see no realistic avenue for even making a report, and to encourage Baptist clergy abuse survivors to speak out, the SBC needs to provide a “safe place” where survivors may report their perpetrators to people who have the professionalism and experience to receive those reports with compassion and care.

Because of the traumatic damage that is done to them, most clergy abuse survivors are well into adulthood when they seek to formally report those who abused them in childhood. Often, their claims can no longer be criminally prosecuted. Indeed, most experts estimate that less than 10 percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. Church cover-ups frequently contribute to the failure of prosecution because many survivors made some outcry in childhood only to have their outcry suppressed within the church while the perpetrator was allowed to move on. Yet, despite these harsh realities, many survivors still strive in adulthood to protect others by reporting their perpetrators within the faith community. By providing a “safe place,” the SBC could facilitate their reports rather than stifling them.

As you know, in the past, we requested that the SBC provide its affiliated churches with the resource of trained outsiders for assessing clergy abuse reports that cannot be criminally prosecuted and for informing congregations about credible allegations. These were reasonable requests because realistic response protocols are essential to the prevention of clergy sex abuse, and realistic response protocols require the use of outsiders. Sadly, the Executive Committee declined those requests, claiming that “local church autonomy” precluded them, and that is why we are now making this smaller request for the creation of a “safe place” to receive reports. The mere fact of denominational record-keeping -- i.e., of receiving reports and logging allegations -- presents no plausible possibility of interfering with local church autonomy.  

Frankly, our hope is that, if the SBC Executive Committee would simply begin to receive reports and systematically log allegations, there would eventually come a point when SBC officials would realize the need to provide churches with a professionally-staffed office for responsibly assessing those reports and for informing churches about credible allegations -- and would also realize that providing churches with this kind of information doesn’t violate their autonomy. In other words, we hope for incremental change. Our view is that an outsider’s assessment should happen whenever a minister has even a single allegation, but even if you disagree with us on that, surely you would agree that there would be some point at which multiple allegations against a minister should be responsibly assessed and churches should be warned. For example, if a minister had accrued 3 abuse allegations in 3 churches in 3 different states, would you think this was enough to warrant a denominational assessment as to whether churches should be informed? What if the minister had accrued 10 allegations? 20? Surely there would be some point at which you would agree that denominational officials should help churches with the provision of information about church-hopping ministers who have multiple credible accusations of child sex abuse? Whatever that point may be, the place to start is with receiving reports and systematically logging the allegations.

The SBC Executive Committee has the power. Dr. Page, your predecessor, Morris Chapman, described the role of the Executive Committee as the “fiduciary of the Convention” and as the denominational entity “empowered to function” on behalf of the SBC. Therefore, we ask that the Executive Committee exercise its power for the creation of a “safe place” office for receiving reports about clergy sex abuse in SBC churches.

Alternatively, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has the power. In 2008, when the Executive Committee rejected the proposal for a denominational database of admitted and credibly-accused clergy sex abusers, it pointed to the existence of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and said that no additional office was needed because the ERLC was “fully capable” of “the provision of ministry called for by sexual abuse victimization.” The Executive Committee further stated that “should the ERLC arrive at a different conclusion in the future about the advisability of receiving reports of sexual abuse … and desire to serve as the office of receipt, it may so advise the Convention….” Dr. Moore, although your ERLC predecessor chose to do essentially nothing for the provision of ministry to clergy abuse survivors, we are asking you to choose differently and to “serve as the office of receipt” for reports about clergy sexual abuse in SBC churches. Put an end to the dysfunctional denominational cruelty of insisting that survivors report to the church of the accused perpetrator.

Second Request.  Dr. Page, nine years ago on April 19, 2007, you wrote a column, published in the Florida Baptist Witness, in which you demonstrated the antithesis of compassion and care for clergy sex abuse survivors, and once again, we are asking for an apology.

Reason for Second Request. Writing as the president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country, you labeled those who were speaking in the media about Baptist clergy sex abuse as “nothing more than opportunistic persons.” As was noted in EthicsDaily at the time, the only group that was publicly speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse was our organization, SNAP, whose members are, for the most part, people who were molested and raped by clergy when they were children. Your words were extremely hurtful, set a terrible example, and helped to foster within your faith group a climate of hostility toward clergy abuse survivors. We are still hoping that, someday, you will understand the harm of what you wrote and will make a public apology, which we would be happy to receive.

Conclusion. Data gathered by the Associated Press demonstrated that clergy sex abuse is not only a Catholic problem but also a huge problem for Protestants. If the SBC persists in denominational do-nothingness, we predict that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé will be focused on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that time comes, we earnestly implore you to at least take the step of creating a “safe place” for denominationally receiving clergy abuse reports.

Reported by Baptist News Global, "Victims' group asks Southern Baptists to create 'safe place' for reporting sexual abuse," June 3, 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's wrong with the "sexual predation" resolution

In anticipation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 14-16 annual meeting in St. Louis, Pastor Bart Barber of Farmersville, Texas, has floated a proposed resolution “on sexual predation in the Southern Baptist Convention.” In explaining his reason, Barber wrote: “What drives me to submit this resolution is my concern that the worst days of church sexual misconduct may be ahead of us rather than behind us.”
I believe Barber is probably right that the worst days of clergy sex scandals may be ahead for Baptists -- because they don’t yet seem to have learned the needed lessons from past scandals -- and I applaud Barber for his apparent recognition that Baptists do indeed have a dire problem. However, I don’t think for one second that Barber’s resolution will actually bring about any significant change in how the Southern Baptist Convention deals with clergy sex abuse. Here’s why.
1. What’s being proposed is a “resolution.” Nothing more. It’s just talk. A resolution doesn’t actually do anything. It was almost 10 years ago that SNAP wrote its first letters to top SBC officials, requesting specific action, and action is still what’s needed. It is not enough -- not nearly enough -- to simply resolve that things should be better.
2. While the resolution generically expresses disapproval of churches that have acted in ways to prevent victims or others from reporting sexual abuse, the fact of the matter remains that the SBC provides no denominational mechanism by which survivors may safely report clergy abuse and church cover-ups with any realistic hope of being compassionately and objectively heard. By continuing to insist that clergy abuse survivors must go to the church of the accused pastor, the denomination itself institutionally discourages the reporting of clergy abuse, and assures that, most of the time, denominational officials will not even have to feel the discomfort of hearing about clergy abuse and cover-ups. Cases that make it into the media are the bare tip of the iceberg. If the SBC wants to express disapproval of churches that have acted in ways to prevent people from reporting instances of sexual abuse, then it must start by being willing to institutionally hear the voices of those who are trying to tell about such instances. And that would require a system by which survivors could make a report to a “safe place” office staffed by people with the training, experience, objectivity and professionalism to at least receive them with compassion and care.
3. While the resolution affirms the role of “proper authorities” in investigating sexual abuse allegations, it gives no consideration to the reality that the vast majority of clergy sex abuse claims cannot be criminally prosecuted -- often because of church cover-ups in the past -- and it makes no mention of how the SBC should deal with the many clergy abuse survivors who, even when their claims cannot be criminally prosecuted, would nevertheless seek to report their claims within the faith group in the hope of protecting others.
4. While the resolution cites 1 Timothy 5 with its call for “public rebuke” of "sin on the part of elders,” the resolution itself does not even attempt to actually make any rebuke of any church, pastor, deacon or minister. Denominational entities have disfellowshipped churches for having women pastors and for being too welcoming of gay people, but I am unaware of any instance in which the SBC has ever disfellowshipped a church on the basis of a clergy sex abuse cover-up. So, rather than a toothless resolution, it would be far more meaningful if this were an actual motion to rebuke or disfellowship a specific church based on a clergy sex abuse cover-up. The prominent Dallas megachurch, Prestonwood, would be a good place to start. Thanks to the enormous efforts of SNAP member Amy Smith, it was finally brought to light, as reported in several news sources, that Prestonwood church officials had not reported child molestation allegations involving a staff minister, John Langworthy, but rather had allowed him to move on to another church, essentially unleashing him into the denomination at large where he was able to continue in a position of leadership with children. It was only years later, after more than two years of effort on Smith’s part and with no help from Prestonwood or the SBC, that Langworthy finally pled guilty on multiple molestation charges in Mississippi. Not only did Prestonwood officials, including senior pastor Jack Graham, fail to make kids’ safety a priority at the time, and not only have they shown no public remorse since then, but in a statement to WFAA-News, executive pastor Mike Buster publicly bragged that the church had “dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly” because Langworthy was “dismissed immediately.” Thus, from all appearances, to this day, Prestonwood officials seem to think that what they did was right. Furthermore, since SBC officials made Jack Graham a featured speaker on “leadership” at the 2013 Pastors’ Conference, it appears that SBC officials have no problem with what Prestonwood did either. Yet, this is exactly the sort of conduct that the SBC should rebuke in its affiliated churches if the SBC hopes to have any moral credibility on this issue.
5. Finally, by using the language of “sexual misconduct,” the resolution inappropriately (and perhaps inadvertently) minimizes conduct that should not be minimized. When you are talking about the molestation and rape of children by trusted religious leaders, and the cover-up of those crimes by other religious leaders, you are talking about something a great deal more serious than mere “misconduct.”
Conclusion:  The time for mere talk is long past. The Southern Baptist Convention needs to undertake cooperative action for (1) the provision of a denominational “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may make a report when it cannot be criminally prosecuted; (2) the systematic logging of clergy abuse reports within the denomination; (3) the assessment of clergy abuse reports by a panel of experts who are outside the church of the accused pastor; and (4) the provision of a denominational resource by which local churches may obtain reliable information about clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

1) The comments under the SBC Voices "preface to a resolution" post are worth reading as are the comments under this related post which argues for "grace" to those pastors who handled things poorly in the past.
2) Thanks to the widely-read for linking to this post, saying "Christa Brown discusses the limits of that resolution, and what more the SBC needs to do."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why Ted Cruz should see "Spotlight"

Paige Patterson (AP photo)
In the same week that the movie “Spotlight” won Oscars, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz created a Religious Liberty Advisory Council and named Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as one of its members to provide Cruz with guidance.
This is the same Paige Patterson who, in emails made public by the Nashville Scene and EthicsDaily, characterized SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as “evil-doers” and said they were “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” SNAP is the very organization whose tireless work helped to uncover the story on which “Spotlight” is based -- i.e., the story of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Boston archdiocese. SNAP’s former New England leader, Phil Saviano, is portrayed in the movie by actor Neil Huff, and Phil himself attended the Oscars ceremony and took the stage, along with the actors and filmmakers, when the “best picture” award was announced.
“Just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” Think about those words. Can you imagine anything more hateful for a religious leader to say about a group of child rape victims? SNAP people are people who seek only to support one another, protect others, and shine a light on the problem.
Furthermore, Patterson wrote those words to a distraught young woman who, as a teen, had been sexually assaulted by a pastor who was still in the pulpit. Patterson’s response was obviously far from compassionate or helpful.
But it’s not just harsh talk. Patterson wrote those ugly words shortly after SNAP requested that Southwestern’s trustees put Patterson on administrative leave to consider whether he should have done more in the handling of repeated abuse allegations against Darrell Gilyard, a pastor whom Patterson had mentored. By the time Gilyard was convicted on child sex charges in Florida, over forty young women and underage teens had made allegations against him -- and that’s just the ones we know about. According to the Dallas Morning News, many of those claims had been reported directly to Paige Patterson, but to no avail.
So, at the time Patterson made those hateful remarks, SNAP was doing the same sort of work to try to expose Baptist abuse cover-ups as what it had done to expose Catholic abuse cover-ups. And Patterson didn’t like it. SNAP’s president Barbara Blaine pointed out that, even with all the difficult work that SNAP had done over a period of twenty years, and even with all the hostility that many Catholic clergy had dished out, no one had ever before called the organization “evil” or said that they were just as bad as sex criminals. It took a Southern Baptist preacher named Paige Patterson to stoop to such a low level as that.
I can’t imagine why a presidential candidate would want to seek guidance from someone who has demonstrated such a harsh and wrong-headed attitude toward a support group for child rape victims. And I would think that a presidential candidate should have considered the import of the Patterson-Gilyard connection before elevating Patterson to the role of a trusted advisor.
Perhaps Ted Cruz should take a break from the campaign trail, go see "Spotlight," and ponder the lessons that it offers.

Thanks to Baptist News Global, Real Clear Religion, and My Christian Daily for picking up this column. And SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, did a press release urging Cruz to oust Patterson from his advisory panel.