Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Screaming at the ocean

Years ago, on moonless nights, I would sometimes go to a small ocean-side park. There wasn’t much of anything there – just a few picnic tables. No one else was ever around.

I’d go down to the ocean’s edge and stand in the pitch-black darkness and scream.

I screamed and screamed and screamed.

I screamed until my voice gave out. I screamed until I was depleted.

There at the ocean’s edge, my screams became one with the sound of the crashing waves.

The waves brought my screams immediately back to my ears, but transformed them.

Sometimes the waves took my screams and made them even louder, as though the ocean itself were roiling in rage along with me.

Sometimes the waves took my screams and allowed them to simply join with the cosmic chorus, as though they were mere accompaniment to the ocean’s own endless music.

However the ocean responded, I would keep screaming until I could scream no more.

Once I was surprised when I heard a man’s voice mock my scream. He sounded no further than 25 feet away, but it was so dark I couldn’t see him. When he started making fun of me, a woman’s voice immediately rose. “Stop it John. Let her scream.”

I pondered the darkness and the voices and I left that night. But my need to scream didn’t go away so easily. It called me back to the ocean’s edge again and again.

I didn’t have a clue why I was screaming. Nowadays, the reason seems obvious to me. But back then, I only knew that I needed to scream and that, when I stood in the dark at the ocean’s edge, the screams came forth from within me.

Monday, October 29, 2007

BGCT provides counseling for clergy perpetrators

Since about 1990, the Baptist General Convention of Texas has provided counseling for clergy “to help them put their lives back together after sexual misconduct.” And the BGCT has repeatedly defined “sexual misconduct” as “including child molestation.”

So the BGCT provides readily available counseling for clergy perpetrators but it doesn’t provide counseling for the clergy’s victims. Instead, it insists that clergy abuse victims should ask for help from the church where the abuse took place, even though it knows full well that most churches “just try to keep it secret” and don’t help the victims.

This BGCT duality drives me nuts: counseling for clergy perpetrators but none for clergy victims. I could go on and on about it, but for now, I’ve actually got a different dichotomy to talk about.

A while back, I had a lengthy email exchange with a prominent Texas Baptist who is considered by many to be one of the most knowledgeable Baptists in the country on the subject of clergy abuse. The BGCT frequently consults with him.

This man views clergy who commit “sexual misconduct” as falling into two categories: “predators” and “wanderers.” So I began by telling him that I thought this academic dichotomy was being misused as a rationalization for denominational inaction. In effect, denominational leaders seem to avoid taking action against “predators” on the theory that they all may be mere “wanderers.”

I reminded this man that I had been abused as a kid, as have many others, and I told him that the “wanderer” label could not ever be appropriate for clergy who abuse kids. For a minister to molest a kid is predatory. Period. To allow that such a minister might be considered a mere “wanderer” is to minimize a terrible crime, I said.

In response, this prominent Texas Baptist persisted in defending the predator/wanderer distinction. My point about clergy child molesters seemed to completely elude him.

Then he told me about a man “who for years counseled ministers for the BGCT” and who “indicated he had NEVER had a ‘predator’ come for help, but he had worked with numerous persons who fit the category we describe as a ‘wanderer’.”

I suppose he thought this bit of information might comfort me, as though it would prove how few in number the “predators” are because ALL the ministers who go through the BGCT’s ministerial counseling service are mere “wanderers.”

But I didn’t see it that way. I saw that bit of information as another horrifying piece of the puzzle. It makes the BGCT’s ministerial counseling service sound a lot like the sort of counseling that many Catholic bishops sent child molesting priests to. The bishops provided blind-eyed counselors who quietly treated the priests and then sent them back out for restoration to ministry.

Is that what has been happening for the past two decades with abusive Baptist ministers who got counseling provided by the BGCT? Was every single one of them a mere “wanderer” who got restored to ministry?

In the course of the same email, this prominent Texas Baptist repeatedly referred to clergy sex abuse as “moral failure,” “moral trangression,” “sexual immorality,” and “sexual misconduct.” Then he ended by saying “I have NEVER known anyone to excuse or minimize the sexual misconduct of a person.”

I feel as though I should hold up a mirror for this prominent Texas Baptist.

The reason he has “NEVER known anyone” to minimize it is because he simply doesn’t see the minimization when it happens. He doesn’t see the minimization even when he himself does it with his own language.

It’s no wonder Texas Baptists are so far off the mark in how they address clergy sex abuse. Their most prominent leaders and advisers just don’t get it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Help for clergy victims like taxis to Mars

When I heard the recorded voice of my perpetrator telling a congregation about how blessed he was to work with them in their children’s ministry, I threw up on the spot.

He had been working in children’s ministry all along and no one had stopped him. He had been working in children’s ministry despite my report of being abused and raped as a kid. He had been working in children’s ministry even though my report was substantiated by another minister who knew about the abuse when I was a kid. He had been working in children’s ministry even after 18 Southern Baptist leaders in 4 different states were informed about my substantiated report of abuse. He had been working in children’s ministry even though the SBC had told me it had no record of him being in ministry. He had been working in children’s ministry even while the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ lawyer threatened to sue ME instead of doing anything about HIM.

All of those facts were more than I could bear, and I began to slowly unravel.

My friend Elana noticed. She saw how much I was struggling, and she wouldn’t let up about trying to get me to see a counselor.

I contacted several. But each time, it was so difficult that I would back off and wouldn’t try again for weeks.

I even went to a couple appointments, but I didn’t think the person I saw had a clue about clergy abuse, and I became even more discouraged.

It felt as though I was cutting myself open and bleeding all over the place just to try to tell someone even the bare gist of why I needed a counselor. I couldn’t figure out what to say, or how to say it. My throat would clutch and I couldn’t get words out. Even calling for an appointment became an impossible task.

Elana offered to call counselors for me, but I wouldn’t let her. I wanted to be able to hear their voices and get some feeling about them.

So finally, Elana flat-out put the words in my mouth. “Trauma response.”

“You need someone with experience in trauma response,” she said. “That’s what you should ask about."

On our weekly walks, Elana insisted that I practice saying the words: “Do you have experience with trauma response?” It seemed silly, but I did it. I said the sentence over and over until I could get the words out smoothly. I liked it because, that way, I didn't have to start out saying anything at all about church, sex, religion, or ministers.

Finally, I found a good counselor with the right sort of background and experience, and I began to make progress. (I considered myself fortunate to be able to afford counseling. That would be still another problem for many people, but that’s another topic.)

When I realized what a huge hurdle it had been for me to even find an appropriate counselor, and when I thought about how difficult it must also be for others, I asked the Baptist General Convention of Texas to put together a referral list that they could give to clergy abuse victims who contact them. I asked them to simply make a list of counselors in the major cities of Texas who had experience with the dynamics of clergy sex abuse.

I thought a referral list could at least give clergy abuse survivors a starting place for getting help. And it wouldn’t have cost the BGCT one dime. Just a list. A simple list.

They wouldn’t do it.

I might as well have asked them to provide taxis to Mars. That’s how difficult it is to get denominational leaders to provide any help for clergy abuse victims.

The reality of the victims’ suffering has not penetrated the consciousness of Baptist leaders. Until they allow themselves to see that reality and to feel the suffering of the wounded, there will be no effective change in how Baptist leaders address clergy sex abuse.

They must be changed in their hearts before they will change what they do about it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

If only....

Baptist leaders in Texas cannot bring themselves to admit even to themselves the tragedy that they’re allowing to happen. The Baptist General Convention of Texas persists in the delusional belief that local churches might somehow be educated so that they will report clergy sex abuse.

But this delusion has been going on for well over a decade. If only the BGCT puts together a committee…if only the BGCT publishes a brochure…if only the BGCT puts information on its website…. If only this… if only that…but virtually nothing really changes.

There is no “if only….”

With every attempt the BGCT makes, it becomes even more painfully clear that the BGCT has nothing to offer on this subject except more of what has failed in the past and shows no sign of working in the future.

The BGCT fails at this because the most critical problem is denial…and denial is something normal. It’s a normal human response in the face of horror and a very common aspect of human psychology.

It is precisely because denial is such a normal human response that institutions must have systems of accountability that recognize the reality of human denial.

No matter how often the BGCT revises its website or how many brochures it publishes, most churches will not report their own ministers. Church people know that sexual abuse is wrong. But they simply don’t bring themselves to the point of realizing that their own ministers commit abuse. It’s called denial.

Or they tell themselves that maybe it wasn’t the way it seemed, or that it happened just once and so he’s not really a child molester, because after all, child molesters are bad people, and Brother Bill isn’t bad.

Or they tell themselves that, even though it looked bad, they don’t really KNOW exactly what happened (and they don’t really want to know), and so to make everyone more comfortable, they simply allow Brother Bill to move on without ever getting to the bottom of it.

This pattern of denial has been played out over and over again, and BGCT leaders know it. They know that “in the normal scenario” churches “just try to keep it secret.”

Did you get that? “Normal.” So why does the BGCT keep pretending that something outside the normal is going to happen. It almost never does.

“In the normal scenario,” churches do nothing, and because the BGCT provides victims with nowhere else to turn, clergy-perpetrators remain in their pulpits even after victims have tried desperately to report them.

No one would expect Grandma to have to decide whether beloved Uncle Joe molested little Suzy. Her instinct for denial would be too great. Congregations are similar. Typically, they love and trust their minister. They are incapable of objectively considering whether he may have done something so heinous as to molest a kid.

Those who have been victims of clergy sex abuse know and understand this. The BGCT still acts as though it doesn’t.

It’s one thing for churches to engage in denial. But it’s long past time when the BGCT should lift its own veil of denial and exercise leadership. The consequences of its failure are terrible. Perpetrators stay in their pulpits. Additional kids get molested. And adults who try to heal their wounds get re-wounded by churches that “just try to keep it secret.”

The BGCT must move past “if only” and start dealing with reality.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Why the BGCT?

“Why so much focus on the Baptist General Convention of Texas?”

  1. Because the BGCT has repeatedly bragged that it does more than any other statewide Baptist organization to address clergy sex abuse. If indeed the BGCT is doing the most, then it bears a close look because it shows us how horrifically little this denomination is doing…even among those who claim to do the most.
  2. Because, given how much the BGCT has bragged, it ought to be doing something that's brag-worthy, but it's not. (It’s like a runner who’s been lapped on the track and doesn’t even know it. The BGCT acts like it’s a leader when, in reality, it’s a quarter-mile behind if you look at what the leaders of most other major faith groups are doing.)
  3. Because I am aware of more Baptist clergy abuse survivors in Texas than in any other state. (Florida and Tennessee are close seconds. South Carolina and Missouri aren’t far behind.)
  4. Because too many clergy abuse victims have been RE-wounded by the BGCT. It lures victims into thinking it has functional policies, when it doesn’t, and as a result, victims who try to report their perpetrators wind up being further betrayed. As best I can tell, no other statewide Southern Baptist group is doing any better, but the others don’t put forward as much pretense. It’s the BGCT’s pretense that draws victims in closer and effectively allows them to be sucker-punched… so that it winds up hurting all the worse.
  5. Because the BGCT is the largest of the statewide Southern Baptist groups. If only the BGCT would take effective action, so many kids and families could be protected, and so many wounded people could be helped.
  6. Because the BGCT has managed to provide counseling for clergy perpetrators since 1990, and yet it still can’t come up with the will or the funding to readily provide counseling for clergy abuse victims.
  7. Because the BGCT has had more opportunities than most other Baptist groups to lift its veil of denial, and this makes its continued failures all the more tragic. Fifteen years ago, former Southern Baptist missionary Dee Miller started trying to educate BGCT people on the dynamics of clergy abuse and cover-ups. After Dee, there was a succession of us: Deborah Dail, Stephanie Burt, myself, Debbie Vasquez, and others. So many of us have given so much of our time, anguish and energy in the belief and hope that BGCT leaders might be educated to respond more effectively and compassionately when confronted with clergy abuse reports. Some of the same leaders that Dee spoke with years ago are still there, but little has changed.
  8. Because the BGCT has a file with reported clergy child molesters against whom there is “substantial evidence” of abuse, and it keeps that information secret from people in the pews. That sort of secrecy serves only the predators. It does nothing to protect kids, and it’s an abdication of moral responsibility.
  9. Because I’m fed up with the way BGCT leaders constantly refer to clergy child molestation as mere “misconduct.” How much longer will it take before the largest statewide Baptist organization in the country stops minimizing this horrific crime?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Protecting the Innocent"

Next Monday, at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Sonny Spurger will lead a workshop called “Protecting the Innocent.” He'll talk about “how to keep your own children and those in your church safe against sexual predators.”

It seems surreal that Sonny Spurger would be the person to lead such a workshop. He's "all hat no cattle."

In handling clergy sex abuse, Sonny’s role is like the “good cop” role in a twisted sort of good cop/bad cop routine that the BGCT plays with clergy abuse victims. Sonny dishes out pastoral pats on the head and effectively says “oh boo hoo.”

But Sonny also acts as the BGCT’s crisis intervention specialist for churches. In that role, he often refers churches to the BGCT’s attorney, who then goes to work to try to make the “problem” go away. In effect, Sonny is a sort of front-man for this other guy who plays the “bad cop” role. (The BGCT’s attorney reminds me a lot of the Mr. Wolfe, character in the movie “Pulp Fiction.” Remember him? The guy who “takes care of problems.”)

How does the BGCT’s attorney try to make the problem go away for the church? One way is by threatening to sue the victim. He does that, even while knowing that the victim’s report of clergy child molestation is substantiated by another minister. He does that, even while the known clergy-perpetrator continues working in children’s ministry.

Does that sound like a good way to “protect the innocent”?

If the threat of legal recourse doesn’t silence the victim, then the BGCT’s attorney tries to get the victim’s signature on a secrecy agreement. We’ve talked with enough people to know that he’s actually been doing this for over a decade with clergy abuse victims. But the BGCT’s attorney doesn’t try to deny it. He is so blind to how morally reprehensible this is that he himself recently described these sorts of agreements as being “standard.”

So his “standard” method is to wear down the victim, who is usually a person in desperate need of counseling, and then get them to sign a secrecy agreement. That silences the victim and saves the church from scandal. All too often, it also allows the perpetrator to stay in his pulpit.

Does that sound like a good way to “protect the innocent”?

For Sonny Spurger to talk about “protecting the innocent” while, in reality, the BGCT continues to engage this good cop/bad cop treatment of clergy abuse victims is disingenuous.

For Sonny Spurger to talk about “protecting the innocent” while, in reality, the BGCT fails to warn people in the pews about reported clergy child molesters is duplicitous.

For Sonny Spurger to talk about “protecting the innocent” while, in reality, the BGCT continues to keep a secret file with the names of child molesting ministers against whom there was “substantial evidence” is downright dangerous.

If the BGCT won’t even warn people in the pews about the clergy child molesters they’ve already been told about, why should anyone imagine that the BGCT will be able “protect the innocent” against the clergy child molesters they don’t yet know about?

Spurger’s co-leader for the workshop is Emily Prevost, who is on the BGCT’s congregational leadership team. When the BGCT announced today that Spurger will be retiring next January, Prevost praised Spurger as being “the presence of Christ for churches in times of distress.”

As someone who has personally experienced Spurger’s handling of clergy sex abuse, I absolutely disagree with Prevost.

I believe the actual "presence of Christ” would have been very different in those churches. Christ would have loudly turned the tables upside down in some of the churches where Spurger chose to quietly intervene. But of course Christ wasn’t much concerned with appearances and public relations the way the BGCT seems to be.

And Christ would have gone to work to help heal the wounded, not to revictimize them with strong-arm tactics and silencing strategies.

And Christ wouldn’t just talk about “protecting the innocent.” He would actually do it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

BGCT's Secret File is Tip of Iceberg

Not quite a year ago, I stood with SNAP members Debbie Vasquez, Susan Dancer, Ron Dancer, and Kris Galland outside the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and urged the BGCT to disclose the names of reported child-molesting ministers who are in the BGCT’s secret file. That’s right. The BGCT has a file. They’ve had it since early 2000. A minister’s name could get into that secret file if he was reported by a church and if the BGCT determined there was “substantial evidence” of sexual abuse.

You might imagine that disclosure of those ministers’ names would be a no-brainer. In this day and time, how could anyone possibly believe that such information could rightly be kept secret?

Yet the BGCT does keep that information secret. They defend it by calling it “confidential;” I call it “secret.” Whichever word you use, the reality remains the same: The people who most need to know – i.e., the parents in the pews – have still not been told the names of the ministers in that file.

How many molesting ministers’ names are in that file and how many kids have they hurt? Why aren’t the parents of Baptist kids entitled to know which ministers’ names are in that file?

I asked those same two questions over a year ago in a Dallas Morning News op-ed piece. The questions are just as valid today as they were then.

Last year, we also urged the BGCT to begin archiving abuse reports received from abuse victims, and not merely abuse reports received from church officials. Why? Because all too often church officials try to keep scandal a secret, and perpetrators wind up moving on to other churches. It’s a well-known pattern.

Just a few months ago, Joe Trull said that the BGCT’s confidential file contains “about 11 cases involving clergy abuse with minors.” Since it’s a secret file, we are afforded no alternative other than to simply take Trull’s word as to the number. However, Trull himself acknowledged that these 11 are “just the tip of the iceberg” because churches don’t have to report cases to the BGCT and “aren’t likely to.”

“In the normal scenario, they just try to keep it secret,” said Trull.

So…the BGCT receives clergy abuse reports only from churches, and not from victims, even though the BGCT knows full-well that most churches don’t report abuse. That doesn’t seem very functional, does it? It’s certainly not a system that’s likely to be effective for protecting kids and ridding the ranks of clergy predators.

Even in the rare case when a church actually does report abuse, the names that comprise even that most-substantiated “tip of the iceberg” will still remain secret anyway. They sit in that secret file cabinet at the BGCT.

Who are the Baptist clergy-perpetrators in those 11 “tip of the iceberg” cases? Why aren’t the parents of kids in Baptist churches entitled to know at least that much?

The BGCT’s annual meeting is coming up again at the end of October. How many more annual meetings will come and go before Texas Baptists finally rise up out of their pews and say “Protect our kids!”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The BGCT's self-delusion

"If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly." - Ronald Reagan

The Baptist General Convention of Texas knows their system for dealing with clergy sex abuse doesn’t work. Yet, they continue with it. What kind of madness is that?

It’s an intellectual disconnect. It's self-delusion. It’s denial.

Of course, it’s easier to countenance that madness when the issue is an abstraction and doesn’t involve you.

But what does it feel like when it’s not an abstraction? What does it feel like when it is “you” who are gaping in wonder at men so mad as to tell you to report your clergy-rapist to his ministerial colleagues and cronies at the church where everyone loves him?

This is sort of like telling a rape victim that she should just go talk to the guys’ buddies who hang out at the bar on the corner. “Just go on down there and tell them all about it and they’ll straighten him out.” Uh-huh.

Or imagine telling a man who woke up to a cross burning in his yard that he should just go talk to those guys in white hoods. “After all, they’re good men – they’re leaders in our community - I’m sure they’ll do the right thing.” Uh-huh.

It makes so little sense to those of us who try to report clergy perpetrators that we sometimes try to suspend belief when we talk with Baptist leaders. We tell ourselves that they just don’t understand. We tell ourselves that we just haven’t found the right person to talk to. We tell ourselves that, if only we try hard enough, we’ll find the right words to make them understand. We tell ourselves that surely they won't leave a child-rapist in the pulpit with no warning to people in the pews. We tell ourselves that surely they’ll come to their senses and choose to protect kids instead of engaging this obvious delusion.

But then....when we finally give up, the air closes in on us like a coffin lid. The darkness surrounds us, and we realize that no one – NO ONE – in this denomination is going to help us.

Either they just don’t really care about protecting kids, or they simply care a great deal more about protecting their own power structure. Either they just don’t really care about helping the wounded, or they simply care a great deal more about helping their colleagues avoid scandal. Why else would they keep turning away wounded victims who attempt to report clergy child molesters and insist that they must go to the church where the perpetrator is the most beloved one?

I don’t pretend to actually know the BGCT’s motivations. I simply know the reality of what is happening.

But of course, they know the reality too. That’s what makes it so bizarre. As the BGCT’s Executive Director Charles Wade expressly said: “When churches discover such behavior, it is frequently swept under the carpet and kept a secret, thus doing further damage.” (Broken Trust at p. 5)

So BGCT leaders know full-well that churches “just try to keep it secret,” and yet BGCT leaders keep pretending that something other than that is going to happen. It’s a very dangerous delusion that causes a lot of damage.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

FBC-Tyler: Did they tell people in the pews?

The Baptist Standard reports that Mike Massar, pastor of First Baptist Church of Tyler, will be nominated for first vice-president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas at the BGCT’s annual meeting.

First Baptist Church of Tyler is still another prominent church where my perpetrator worked. He was their children’s minister for about a decade.

Do you think Pastor Massar ever told all the people in the pews about the fact that their prior children’s minister was reported for sexually abusing a kid? Do you think Pastor Massar told people in the pews that the molestation report was substantiated by another Southern Baptist minister who attested to his knowledge of it? Do you think Pastor Massar told people in the pews that their prior children’s minister was listed in the BGCT’s secret file of clergy for whom there is “substantial evidence” of sexual abuse? I wonder.

First Baptist Church of Tyler received written notice about my perpetrator, Tommy Gilmore. They received notice from me, and nineteen months later, they also received notice from FBC-Farmers Branch, the church in which I was abused as a kid. That was something I insisted on as part of the settlement of my lawsuit -- a lawsuit I filed because it was the ONLY way I could get the church that knew about the abuse to do something to warn people.

Those letters were sent by certified mail and received by the Chairman of Deacons at FBC-Tyler in July 2004 and February 2006. So there were certainly leaders within the church who knew, and it seems likely that Pastor Massar would have known as well.

But were people in the pews ever told?

Or do you think it was handled at FBC-Tyler similarly to how it was handled at First Baptist Church of Atlanta? That's another prominent church where my perpetrator worked, and even though FBC-Atlanta received the same double-notice that FBC-Tyler received, Atlanta church leaders ran us off the property when we tried to leaflet people leaving the church. If church leaders had already informed their congregants about Gilmore, why would they care if people saw our leaflet about him?

My perpetrator sure was well-connected to ambitious men and prominent churches. At FBC-Atlanta, he worked with 2-term Southern Baptist president Charles Stanley. From there, he went to First Baptist Church of Oviedo, where he worked with former Florida Baptist Convention president Dwayne Mercer (who, incidentally, is reported to have had some other sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct allegations against his ministerial staff).

He may have even had some connection to Paige Patterson. They went to Hardin-Simmons University together. It’s a small Baptist school in Abilene, and my perpetrator was just a year or two ahead of Patterson.

It seems strange that Gilmore was so well-connected to denominational leaders, and yet when I notified the Southern Baptist Convention about him, they wrote back that they had no record of him being in ministry. Of course, it’s easy enough to delete a name from the SBC’s ministerial registry, and so perhaps it’s true that there was no existing record.

But isn’t it hard to imagine that no one in Nashville knew where he was?

And why was there no one at the SBC, at the BGCT, at FBC-Tyler, or at FBC-Atlanta who was even willing to help me track this clergy child molester?

Did they not want me to find him? Did they not care about what he did to a kid? Did they not think parents in his current church were entitled to be warned?

If your kids grew up in a church with a known child-molesting minister, wouldn't YOU want to know?

That brings me back to my initial question: Do you think Pastor Massar told people in the pews at FBC-Tyler about the fact that their prior children’s minister was known to have sexually abused a kid?

Additional Note of 10/30: I just learned that Mike Massar was a member of the Board of Trustees of East Texas Baptist University, where minister James A. Moore works as the Director of Choral Activities. That's the same Moore who knew about minister Tommy Gilmore's sexual abuse of me as a kid and who kept quiet about it for 30 years while Gilmore continued to work as children's minister in other churches, including Massar's church, First Baptist of Tyler. Not only might it have been troubling for FBC-Tyler to learn that its prior children's minister was a child molester, but perhaps it would have also been troubling for ETBU if news got out that its Choral Director kept quiet and covered up for a clergy child-molester. Are all these guys connected??? Clergy perpetrators, clergy cover-uppers, and denominational leaders -- do they all just look out for one another?

Correction: One letter to FBC-Tyler was sent by certified mail and the other by regular mail.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tough talk without action

No one wants to be viewed as coddling clergy child molesters. But religious leaders often do exactly that, without realizing it and without admitting it to themselves. They do it by inaction.

That’s what makes this such a difficult problem. Denial runs deep, and inaction is by far the easiest response.

Anna Salter is a widely recognized expert on pedophiles and sex offenders. In her book, “Predators,” she explains this denial phenomenon this way:

“Mention ‘child molesters’ to the average audience, or even to most professional audiences, and they will immediately suggest ‘Colt .45 therapy’ or castration….It is a strangely comfortable answer for those who give it, and it absolves them of the harder work….The strangest part of this answer is that those who see child molesters as monsters seem the quickest -- when their neighbor, friend, or family member is accused -- to say that it is definitely a false report. After all, child molesters are perverts, creeps, and monsters, and their nice neighbor/minister/father/uncle/friend/priest is not a monster. Ergo, he is not a child molester. Once this kind of denial locks in, no amount of evidence will change their minds.”

I saw this phenomenon in my own case. When church leaders finally agreed to meet with me in person, one of the deacons bragged about how he’d “like to take a baseball bat and teach that man a lesson.” It was tough talk, and the other church leaders all nodded and said how much they cared about kids. I suppose it made them feel good about themselves, but I wasn’t impressed.

I had reported my perpetrator to church and denominational leaders over a year earlier, and no one did anything even though my report was readily substantiated by another minister in that very church, who knew about the abuse when I was a kid. In fact, rather than trying to stop the perpetrator or warn people in the pews, the church chose to threaten ME with a lawsuit. So the tough talk about “taking a baseball bat” to the perpetrator seemed a bit silly when the actual intimidation tactics had been inflicted on ME for trying to report him.

And even while that deacon was sitting there talking tough, my perpetrator was still working in children’s ministry.

And despite the deacon’s tough talk about “taking a baseball bat,” in actuality, he didn’t even have the courage to send a simple letter to the church where my perpetrator was currently working.

In 3 different states, associational and state Baptist leaders also chose inaction, as did national Baptist leaders in Nashville.

I didn’t want a baseball bat, and I sure wasn’t interested in their braggadocio or their self-congratulatory words on how much they cared about kids. I wanted a warning to people in the pews. But it took 18 months and filing a lawsuit myself to finally get the church that knew about the abuse to send a simple letter to the man’s current church. Even then, I don’t think the news would have made it to people in the pews without my own additional efforts.

It’s a lot easier for Southern Baptist leaders to talk tough than it is for them to actually take tough action to deal with reported perpetrators. That do-nothing road is the road that gets taken over and over again in Southern Baptist circles. It’s a deeply entrenched road of institutionalized denial.

I feel certain that every Southern Baptist leader would tell you how much they loathe clergy child molesters and how much they care about kids. But without effective action, all that talk only makes them feel better about themselves. It doesn’t serve to actually make kids safer.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Image problem"

In Tulsa, Southern Baptist president Frank Page talked about his concern for the “image problem” of Southern Baptists. “We've apparently come across as very legalistic and mean-spirited,” he said, “and I think that's sometimes accurate, because sometimes we've acted that way.”

Amen to that! But it’s not just an “image problem;” it’s a real problem.

Of course, Southern Baptists have “acted that way” in a lot of arenas, but none more glaring and tragic than in the “legalistic” ways in which they have mishandled the clergy sex abuse issue and in the “mean-spirited” responses to abuse victims who try to report their perpetrators.

When a paid Southern Baptist spokesperson publicly places the protection of “autonomy” above the protection of kids, that’s “legalistic” in a very Pharisee-like way.

When an abuse survivor tries to report her perpetrator and gets sermonized on forgiveness, that’s “mean-spirited.” When an abuse survivor tries to report the minister who sodomized him as a kid, and gets sermonized on homosexuality, that’s not merely “mean-spirited,” it’s hateful and ignorant. When an abuse survivor tries to report her perpetrator and gets threatened with a lawsuit even while another minister substantiates her report, that’s not merely “mean-spirited,” it’s brash bullying and intimidation.

When Southern Baptist leaders use these tactics to silence clergy abuse victims, while leaving perpetrators in their pulpits, it’s not merely “mean-spirited,” it’s an abdication of moral responsibility. It’s also way more than an “image problem;” it’s a kid-safety problem.

The “mean-spirited” morally-blind treatment of clergy abuse victims isn’t just the work of a few rogue Baptist leaders. It’s happening in churches and state conventions all across the country, and at national headquarters.

Southern Baptist president Frank Page himself chose a decidedly “mean-spirited” route when he publicly trashed a support network for clergy abuse victims as being “nothing more than opportunistic persons.” (I’m still trying to figure out exactly what part of it he sees as being such a great “opportunity.” Would any decent parent choose such an “opportunity” for their own kid?)

If Frank Page is genuinely concerned about Southern Baptists’ “image problem,” he could start by making a public apology for his own “mean-spirited” statement. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it.

Recently, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma presented SNAP’s national director, David Clohessy, with a lifetime achievement award, publicly recognizing his extraordinary contributions in this area. Yet, just three days before receiving this award, when Clohessy was in Nashville, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee workgroup that is charged with addressing clergy sex abuse didn’t even invite him to speak. They didn’t give him one minute of time or ask him a single question. Obviously, Southern Baptist leaders didn’t consider this lauded expert’s views to be of any importance. They were more interested in hearing themselves talk. Is it any wonder that the world outside their insular ranks winds up with a negative image?

Over and over again, SNAP has asked Southern Baptist leaders to create an objective, professionally-staffed, independent board to review reports about clergy sex abuse. There’s nothing radical about this suggestion. Virtually every other major faith group in the country has already instituted such a process in some form or fashion. Yet, Southern Baptist leaders continue to balk.

Is it any wonder that Southern Baptists “don’t have the greatest reputation” when they effectively put their denomination last in line for implementing the same sorts of child protection measures that other faith groups already have?

When Southern Baptist leaders actually make protecting kids more important than protecting their power, polity, or public image, then maybe Southern Baptists will actually be deserving of a better image.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Oceans and churches

A Catholic abuse survivor told me that, when he’s driving out in the country and sees a small white steepled church, he’ll often stop and try the door. If it’s unlocked, he goes in and just sits for a while. It’s the only kind of church where he feels safe, and only if it’s empty.

I laughed because I do the same thing, except for me, it’s great cathedrals. I just go in and sit with the quiet stillness.

I can’t bear to go in Baptist churches. But great cathedrals are different enough from the church I was abused in that they don’t have the same effect. I can still breathe when I’m in them. They don’t trigger the fear, the pain, or the trauma. Surrounded by stained glass and ornate columns, my chest doesn’t tighten up. The adrenaline doesn’t kick in. I don’t feel the need to bolt.

Perhaps that sounds a bit crazy, but of course, it’s really pretty normal. It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s very common among clergy abuse survivors. I just wish churches were the only trigger. But they aren’t.

I try to map my triggers, but sometimes my brain runs up on one anyway. They aren’t always predictable.

Imagine that someone is telling you about their trip to the “beach” and about how much they love the “ocean.” Since you know what those words mean, you can imagine what their trip was like.

But when you hear the word “ocean,” do you actually hear the crashing waves? Do your eyes sting from the salt spray? Do you feel the breeze in your hair and the sun on your skin? Do you waft the sea smell into your nostrils?

And when you hear the word “beach,” do your toes curl reflexively into the soft sand? Do you grind an errant grain in your teeth?

Probably not. If you’re like most people, you don’t experience the physical sensation of the “ocean” and “beach” just because you hear the words.

But for people with a post-traumatic disorder, that’s sort of what it’s like. We re-experience pieces of the trauma when we encounter a trigger. Of course, it’s nothing like a trip to the beach.

I smell his breath. I am suffocating. I am so afraid.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Pornographic pictures

Not long ago, a freelance reporter asked me this: "Why should we keep writing people’s stories about clergy sex abuse? It’s just one after another after another, and after awhile, doesn’t it all just seem sort of.....pornographic?"

I looked at him. He was young. He was probably doing his best.

But I hated the question. I hated the word. I didn’t know what to say.

Finally, I mumbled something about how I believed that EVERY individual’s story was important and that, as with so many things, individual stories carry the power to bring about change because they make the problem real. It was a safe and light-weight answer.

What I wish I had said is something more like this.

None of us like having this reel running in our heads. We try every way possible to put some distance between ourselves and those images. But there comes a point when we can’t.

Do you imagine that any of us enjoy being a child-star in such a seedy, ugly movie? A movie with a church setting and Bible verses for a soundtrack? We weren’t given any choice about it.

But however ugly these reels in our heads may be, WE were NOT the pornographic part. We were kids.

THIS is what is truly pornographic: That so many Southern Baptist leaders receive information about ministers who do this to kids, and they turn a blind eye. That many deacons allow their churches to develop a culture of impunity by refusing to do anything about ministers who turn a blind eye to clergy child molestation. That rather than stopping the clergy-perpetrators, Baptist leaders often sermonize the victims on forgiveness. That a paid SBC spokesperson publicly elevated the protection of autonomy over the protection of kids. That the Baptist General Convention of Texas keeps a file of ministers for whom they determined there was "substantial evidence" of sexually abusing a kid, and it doesn’t bother to warn parents where the ministers currently work. That the Baptist General Convention of Texas retains a long-time attorney whose first response to a clergy abuse report is to threaten suit against the molestation victim despite another minister’s substantiation of the report. That Southern Baptist churches across the country still silence clergy sex abuse victims by getting their signatures on secrecy agreements, while leaving reported child molesters in their pulpits. That the SBC president publicly labels a support network for child rape victims as "opportunists."

The men who commit these deeds wear suits and ties. But no amount of clothing can cover up the perverse reality of what they do.

They choose to protect themselves rather than protect kids. They choose to savage the wounded rather than help them. And they do it all with a soundtrack of sickening false righteousness.

With one story after another after another, these so-called religious leaders choose the path of doing nothing when confronted with the evil of clergy child molestation. And yes... the pornographic picture of their chosen path should indeed be shown.