Saturday, September 15, 2007

Autonomy as tool for evil

"The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is
for good men to do nothing."

When “congregational autonomy” is used as an excuse to do nothing, it becomes a tool for evil.

Southern Baptist leaders claim they’re different from Catholic bishops because they don’t “assign” clergy to new posts the way Catholic bishops do. So, because they don’t actually “assign” ministers, Southern Baptist leaders claim to have no power to do anything about reports of clergy sex abuse. They wash their hands of it and say “not my problem.”

And by doing nothing, Southern Baptist leaders allow child-molesting ministers to move on from church to church. That’s the reality of what happens.

They allow child-molesting ministers to move on from church to church even after victims make desperate attempts to report them.

It’s as though this denomination’s leaders all have “bystander syndrome” when it comes to clergy sex abuse. No one does anything. They don’t want to get involved.

For a clergy abuse victim, it’s as though you can scream “Rape!” into all the windows of this denomination, and its leaders will simply shut the blinds and turn out the lights.

And while you’re bleeding-out in the denomination’s courtyard, your clergy-perpetrator will strut on down the block to a new church with unsuspecting prey.

Southern Baptist officials don’t “assign” clergy. That’s true enough. But instead of looking at it from the perspective of Baptist officials, look at it from the victim’s perspective. What difference does it make whether a child-molesting minister is “assigned” to a new church or simply “allowed” to move to a new church?

A kid who is molested isn’t going to hurt any less because the clergy-perpetrator was “allowed” to move to his church instead of being “assigned” there.

The physical pain will be just the same. The psychological wound will be just as profound.

The trauma of being sexually abused by a trusted minister won’t be some over-intellectualized pseudo-theological abstraction for the kid. It will be very, very real.

“Allowed” or “assigned.” What difference does it really make?

By using “autonomy” as an excuse to do nothing, Southern Baptist men give evil all that it needs.


Anonymous said...

(I tried to send this through earlier, but my browser was doing weird things and so I don't know if it ever went through or not.)

Question: You've acknowledged that the SBC does not assign clergy to churches. Are you suggesting that the convention start taking on this role?

Christa Brown said...

No, of course not. You can find more info about SNAP's requests for action here and

Anonymous said...

As I have stated before, I think the lists are a good idea. (Given the reaction to the motion at the last SBC meeting concerning the study, most SBC Pastors and lay members do too.)

However, while I believe that the list will ulitmately be formed (even if it takes a while), all the convention can do is make it available to the churches, and encourage the churches to use it. They can't require the churches to do anything.

You've mentioned in the past that if the SBC will toss churches that have women pastors, they can and should remove churches that call known abusers. The problem with that statement is that there are still a few (not many, granted) women pastoring SBC churches. The reason why some have been expelled and some have not is that the decision to remove a church is made at the local level, with the Association.

In order to require churches to use the lists, you are going to have to either 1) go to each Association (all 1188 of them), or 2) have the executive committee start getting into the business of approving clergy assignments.

Either one of those are going to be extremely difficult.

You keep saying that church autonomy is no excuse for inaction. This is like telling someone, "I know you didn't have any have any bullets. You should have shot the guy anyway." The SBC EC does not have the authority that you suggest. (Can you give me the name of any church that has been tossed solely by action taken by the Executive Committee?)

In order to give the Executive Committee the authority to do some of what you are asking them to do (tossing churches), you are going to have to change the structure of the SBC. While I believe that the vast majority of SBC laymembers are sympathetic to your cause, I don't see the support extending to the point of eliminating or reducing church autonomy.

Jon L. Estes said...


Have you considered asking every baptist state paper to allow you to run an ongoing ad (every week for the life of the paper and free) which would give your contact information to church members to report to your organization in cases of abuse?

I ask because if churches are not stepping up to the plate and reporting or members are afraid to talk to anyone local your group could be a vital source for exposing the culprits.

I guess I am asking... If the church won't expose the abuse, will you try and find a way to be the one who will? I think it would be interesting to see if the state papers would back you on this. They ought to.

Anonymous said...

Christa, I totally agree with Jon. I seriously doubt if the state papers would allow that though. Even though individual editors might favor this, I think, as a whole, they are scared to stand up to the top dogs.

Take care and I am really anxious to hear about your week.


Jon L. Estes said...


Also... Yo have posted on and their home page has a list of blogs. You ought to ask Bruce Gurley if he will list your blog or other info for you.

Don't know if he will but can't hurt to ask.

Anonymous said...

As a retired SBC pastor it should be noted that the SBC does refuse to accept any money from a church that endorses homosexuality or has a gay pastor. So, there are areas where the leaders feel it is important to safeguard who uses the SBC logo. If a church refuses to do anything about a sex criminal in their midst, especially on staff, then why allow them to call themselves an SBC church?
John Harrison

Christa Brown said...

I don't see any need for eliminating or reducing church autonomy. I see a need for leaders to provide leadership and to provide churches with a much-needed resource. I'm not talking about requiring churches to check lists. I'm talking about national leadership providing a professional resource to which victims and other ministers can report information about abuse, with some reasonable expectation that it will be seriously looked at in a conscientious, objective manner. At least that would provide the possibility that people could find out about credibly accused clergy, and at least records would start being kept. Not only would it be a HUGE step forward for better protecting kids (similar to the sort of protective mechanism that most other mainline faith groups already provide) but it would also be a step forward toward providing a more compassionate and caring response to victims.

I'm not saying they should be able to shoot someone without having any bullets. I'm saying that when leaders have knowledge that a minister has horribly hurt a kid, and the kind of hurt has a high likelihood of being repeated, it's unconscionable that they choose to do nothing instead of taking steps to responsibly inform people in the pews. They don't need bullets to provide information, and Southern Baptist families deserve at least that much.

Christa Brown said...

Thanks for sharing some good ideas. Any chance you would take on the task of asking state papers to run the ads? I could use some help, and as a Baptist minister, you probably carry more persuasion in those circles than me. We often do ask churches to post notices in their bulletins -("Hurt by clergy? You aren't alone. Get help. Call 1-877-SNAP-HEALS")- but they seldom do so.

I think our group is indeed a vital resource for exposing abuse. The Romeoville story was a good example. It's sad that a CONVICTED sex offender could be in a Southern Baptist pulpit for so long, with so many other Southern Baptist leaders knowing about it, but no one could figure out where to turn within the denomination. It took having an anonymous minister contact SNAP before people in the community were informed and before that man was removed from a position of trust. We applaud that anonymous minister for contacting us, but there should have been some office within the denomination to which he could have turned for help.

In SNAP, we do the best we can, but we're mostly volunteers who have virtually no funding. The problem is enormous, and we're overwhelmed by the number of people who contact us. I am inadequate to the task - by a wide measure - and so is the organization I work with. The denomination needs to take on the burden of ministering to the wounded and exposing the perpetrators.

There are also risks involved with exposing abuse. The denomination needs to take on the burden of determining whether accusations are credible and informing/warning people in the pews. These are ministers who carry the Southern Baptist "brand" out into the world, and the denomination ought to take on the burden of keeping its "brand" clean. (And of course, they also ought to care about protecting kids.) The denomination should carry the risks involved in exposing abuse, rather than putting that risk onto the backs of ordinary ministers who want to try to report something and rather than putting it entirely on the backs of the already-wounded victims. The denomination has the resources to better carry that risk and can insure against it.

If the denomination would take on the burden of determining credible accusations, it would make exposing abuse much, much easier because reporters could then write about a denominational determination that an accusation was credible. Most of the news articles you read about clergy abuse in other faith groups are accounts of determinations made by review boards. That facilitates bringing credible accusations into the light of day and allowing people in the pews to be informed.