Monday, June 4, 2007

BGCT's counsel works for the BGCT

I want to be very, very clear about something. I’m no fan of long-time attorney for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Stephen Wakefield. But WAKEFIELD WORKS FOR THE BGCT. He does their bidding. He has for over a decade. Presumably, he handles Baptist clergy sex abuse matters exactly as the BGCT wants and directs. Therefore, I believe responsibility for the horror and harm in how the BGCT handles clergy abuse belongs right at the BGCT’s own doorstep.

On another site, Wakefield recently commented on my blog postings, including my Memorial Day posting. I want to give you a chance to see Wakefield’s side of it, and besides, I found his comments revealing. So, I’m reposting them here, along with my replies. Keep in mind that this is what the BGCT’s counsel says when he’s writing for a public forum. I don’t think there’s much reason to imagine he would show greater sensitivity or enlightenment when speaking privately. (I’ve shortened the comments only slightly. If you want to see the entirety, just go to Spiritual Samurai.)

W: Ms. Brown refers to one matter where recourse was threatened against her and that a child molester was “left in the pulpit.” The “recourse” was mentioned only in very early correspondence after receipt by the client church of a threatening letter from Ms. Brown some 35 years after the fact. The minister “left in the pulpit,” was not working in a BGCT affiliated church and had not lived in Texas in many years and, until Ms. Brown’s complaint, there was no history of any complaint against this minister. The BGCT was not even a party to this case. Ms. Brown, who is a practicing attorney, should understand all of this.

Me: There was no “threatening letter” from me to the church. I made a report of clergy child molestation that followed the guidelines set forth in the BGCT’s own booklet, “Broken Trust.” (Any wonder I have so little regard for the words of that booklet, given the misery that followed after I was fool enough to take that booklet at face value? If I had intended a lawsuit, I would not have started out by voluntarily providing as much information as I did, and most lawyers would recognize that.) The first threat of legal recourse was made BY THE CHURCH. That was how it responded to my report, even though another minister who knew about the abuse when I was a kid was still on staff. For Mr. Wakefield to say there was “no history of any complaint against this minister” is not quite accurate, unless you completely dismiss the fact that I myself told the music minister about the abuse when I was a kid – a fact that has been expressly acknowledged in court documents - and unless you completely dismiss the harassment complaint of a church secretary. Besides, how would anyone know how many complaints may have been made since no one seems to be keeping good records and since Baptist churches still use secrecy agreements?

Mr. Wakefield is correct that the perpetrator was no longer working in a BGCT affiliated church. That’s because a BGCT affiliated church allowed the perpetrator to move on to work with other kids in Georgia and Florida. Doesn’t anyone care about the safety of THOSE kids? Mr. Wakefield is also correct that I never sued the BGCT. That made it all the more puzzling when the BGCT, via email, shut off communication with me and told me to direct any further communication to their lawyer, Stephen Wakefield, who was also attorney for the church.

W: The BGCT, after consultation with me, included the individual against whom Ms. Brown brought her complaints in its file of persons who engaged in inappropriate conduct. This was done even though the perpetrator declined to admit misconduct in court documents.

Me: Isn’t it interesting how a complaint about clergy child molestation and rape can be referred to as simply “inappropriate conduct”? To me, it seems a great deal more serious than something merely “inappropriate.” By the BGCT’s own published policy, it puts a minister’s name in that file only if he is reported BY A CHURCH (i.e., not merely by a victim) and only if there is a conviction, a confession, or “substantial evidence that the abuse took place.” Once the BGCT decided there was “substantial evidence”, shouldn’t they have done something to warn people in the pews of the church where the man was working?

Contrary to Mr. Wakefield's statement, the BGCT put the perpetrator's name in its file over six months before I filed a lawsuit - I know because the BGCT gave me written confirmation of that. So the BGCT's decision to put the perpetrator's name in the file could not possibly have had anything to do with court documents. And note....even Mr. Wakefield refers to him as “the perpetrator.” This makes me wonder...did the perpetrator confess wrongdoing to the BGCT or the church? Since the BGCT keeps its file confidential, how would anyone know?

W: Ms. Brown dismissed (non-suited) her case against this individual when he sought to take her deposition, but she maintained her case against the church and an individual within the church whose only involvement was to receive limited information from Ms. Brown about the minister’s conduct. Ms. Brown was treated with respect and courtesy throughout the process. Even though the BGCT was not a party to the lawsuit, representatives of the BGCT met with Ms. Brown and, as noted, added the name of her former minister to its records.

Me: By written, court-filed apology and in a court-filed settlement agreement (paragraph 16), the church expressly acknowledged that its music minister knew that its education minister had "sexual contact with Brown as a minor." Information about a minister’s “sexual contact with a minor" should not be lightly dismissed as mere “limited information” and it’s troubling that the BGCT’s counsel would view it in such a minimizing manner. It is information that should have been reported to the police long ago, that should have been reported to my parents, that should have been reported to other parents so they could talk with their kids, and that should have been reported to people in the pews in every church in which the man subsequently worked.

As for Mr. Wakefield’s notion of “respect and courtesy,” that’s not how I would describe it. I flew at my own expense to Dallas to meet with church officials, and not a single deacon or minister of the church even deigned to show up and sit down with me face-to-face. They wouldn’t bother to even meet with me until AFTER I finally filed a lawsuit and over a year after I made my written report. The BGCT met with me once, four and a half months after my report, and subsequently shut off communication (I guess because I didn’t simply accept my pastoral pat on the head and walk away) and wrote me that I should direct any further communication to their lawyer, Stephen Wakefield, who was also representing the church. To give you an idea of the chasm between our two differing perspectives, consider this: In meeting with BGCT officials, as I struggled to keep composure while speaking of something so profoundly painful, one man across the table looked at me and said, “It’s not personal.” I suspect Mr. Wakefield might view such a remark as an indication of “courtesy.” But I was simply dumbfounded that anyone could be so oblivious as to even imagine that speaking about a person’s childhood molestation and rape could be anything other than “personal.”

In any event, as part of its court-filed apology, the church expressly acknowledged that its response to my abuse report was “less than compassionate.” That’s a gross understatement, but it does at least indicate that Mr. Wakefield's notion of "respect" may be a bit bizarre.

Mr. Wakefield doesn’t look like any of those 3 men in the picture above, but I do think that picture conveys the feeling of what it’s like to try to report clergy sex abuse to Baptist officials. If you saw The Matrix, you know that even those guys had a veneer of civility.

Mr. Wakefield is correct that I nonsuited my case against the perpetrator as an individual, but I continued in my suit against the church as the employer of the perpetrator and as the employer of another minister who knew about the abuse. (A “nonsuit” does not mean that the perpetrator was cleared in any way.) Most clergy abuse victims lack the money, resources, time, and emotional energy to pursue lawsuits and to take on multiple opposing attorneys at the same time, which is what I would have had to do. It’s all too easy for church and denominational officials to simply wear down most clergy abuse victims...and then they go away and shut up.

W: The confidentiality (“secrecy”) provision she refers to is a standard provision of most settlement agreements. Ms. Brown, as an attorney, should know this. It was not part of the agreement reached with Ms. Brown. No one demanded that she agree to it. It was part of an initial draft and deleted.

Me: Confidentiality or secrecy clauses are indeed a standard part of many settlement agreements, but they should NOT be when what is at stake is the protection of kids against clergy child molesters. That is information that should NOT be kept secret, and neither the BGCT nor any church should even attempt to keep it secret. Back in 2002, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference adopted an express policy that no diocese or parish in the country should use confidentiality agreements in clergy abuse cases. (See Article 3) If Catholics were able to see how morally repugnant such secrecy agreements are in clergy abuse cases, why are Baptists still using them? Mr. Wakefield is correct that the secrecy clause was NOT part of the settlement agreement in my case. Why? Because I myself refused to sign it.

W: Ms. Brown suggests that her father or her relationship with her father was besmirched in some way. This has never been the case. Ms. Brown, from the very first communication with my client, described her family life as less than ideal. Neither my client nor I ever played “hardball” with Ms. Brown….

Me: I am not the only clergy abuse survivor who has been deeply disappointed in their dealings with the BGCT and in the horror of how the BGCT handled their attempt to report clergy abuse. (I know of a couple who had painful experiences with the BGCT over a decade ago, and I don’t have the sense that anything has changed for the better since then.) But of course, Mr. Wakefield is a fine attorney, and as I said above, he’s doing the bidding of his client, the BGCT, which also refers churches to him. The most reasonable assumption is that Wakefield is doing exactly what the BGCT wants.

The difficulties of my family had to do with the fact that my father had post-traumatic stress symptoms derived from his service in World War II. If anyone is interested, you can read more about it here.

W: The “other” clergy child molestation case to which Ms. Brown refers is one in which the BGCT was only briefly a party. The BGCT was dismissed from this case and was not a party to the settlement agreement. The victim was represented by counsel and that counsel agreed to the terms of the settlement. Again, the BGCT did not negotiate, propose, or otherwise have anything to do with the terms of the Settlement Agreement in that case.

Me: The BGCT was indeed a party in the particular case we’re talking about, and so it was served with notice of the child molestation allegations against the minister. The Dallas court’s online docket shows that the BGCT was a party in DC-06-05674 from 6/8/06 until the nonsuit of 11/30/06. Ultimately, that minister confessed that “proper boundaries were not kept.” If you had kids in that church, wouldn’t you have wanted to know that the “boundaries” involved a 14-year old? Wouldn’t you have wanted to know about those allegations?

W: As a Christian and an attorney, I’m sure I have fallen short in many ways and that I can be criticized for many things. I can accept that Ms. Brown is bitter and angry; and that I cannot fully appreciate how a victim of ministerial misconduct might be affected. My client and I are working to do all we can to address such misconduct. Ministerial abuse is a subject that deserves to be discussed and dealt with effectively, but I do not see how anything positive will occur if someone who purports to be a spokesperson, such as Ms. Brown, gives false and misleading accounts of what has happened.

Me: Once again, I am concerned when I see clergy child molestation and rape being lumped under a minimizing term like “ministerial misconduct.” It sounds like little more than running a yellow light. Clergy sex abuse does indeed deserve to be dealt with effectively, but I do not see how anything positive is likely to occur when the BGCT continues to treat the issue in a minimizing manner. Maybe when the BGCT can honestly own up to the horror in how it has handled things in the past, and to the enormous pain it has inflicted on abuse survivors by its uncompassionate blindness, then perhaps there will begin to be positive improvements.

I don’t give much credence to it when someone tags themselves with the “Christian” label, because that label doesn’t excuse anything. In fact, if I thought the BGCT’s conduct toward clergy abuse survivors exemplified the conduct of a “Christian,” then I would tell people to “RUN” whenever they hear the word. (I’m thinking of Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” movie…)

“Bitter and angry”? I don’t think so. But I am profoundly concerned about the safety of kids in Southern Baptist churches and about the failure of this denomination to hold accountable clergy child molesters and those who turn a blind eye. And I will not be quiet. Numerous court documents and letters are posted on my website. People can evaluate for themselves the question of who's misleading whom.

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