Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Niceness isn't enough

“I know his heart,” she said.

She was defending Jan Daehnert, the new interim executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and writing in response to my posting about how Daehnert was the BGCT’s long-time keeper of its ugliest secrets.

I winced when I saw the words. They’re the same words that countless congregants have said when their minister is accused of clergy sex abuse. They can’t believe the accusations because they “know his heart.” Sometimes, they still say this even after the pastor is criminally convicted.

The normal human reaction that drives this woman to want to defend Daehnert, whom she works with in the Baptist building, is the same normal human reaction that prevents congregants from being able to take an objective view of their beloved pastor when he’s accused of sexual abuse.

That gut-felt “I know his heart” belief is a large part of why the BGCT’s system on clergy sex abuse is a failure. The BGCT receives abuse reports only from churches, and everyone already knows that “in the normal scenario, they just try to keep it secret.” Why? Because church members trust their pastor and believe they “know his heart.”

So long as the BGCT makes churches the linchpin for any record-keeping on clergy sex abuse, kids in Baptist churches won’t be safe. There must be a place to which the victims themselves can report abuse with some reasonable expectation of being objectively heard by professionals who have the training and experience to do so. This is what most other faith groups now provide. It is critical, both for the prevention of future abuse, and so that those who have been wounded by clergy will not be revictimized in trying to report it. All too often, because church leaders are anxious to defend their pastor and believe they “know his heart,” they respond to abuse victims in ways that are deeply hurtful, ignorant, intimidating and awful.

For BGCT officials to keep thinking that churches are going to report their pastors is delusional. It’s like thinking that grandma can assess the truth about whether beloved Uncle Joe molested little Suzy. She can’t and she shouldn’t have to.

There are exceptional grandmas and exceptional churches, but the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t happen. That’s why the BGCT’s own go-to guru Joe Trull described the cases in the BGCT’s secret file as being just “the tip of the iceberg.” He knows that churches “aren’t likely” to report clergy abuse to the BGCT’s registry.

Yet, even for those “tip of the iceberg” cases, the BGCT still keeps the ministers’ names a secret.

This means that, even in the extraordinarily exceptional situation when a minister is reported by a church, and when there is a confession or “substantial evidence the abuse took place” (as determined by the BGCT’s own lawyer), the name STILL stays in a file cabinet in the Baptist building... and the minister can go on working with kids at another church... and people in the pews won’t be told.

This is wrong.

No amount of BGCT public relations people can make it right. No amount of spin-doctoring can make it right. And no amount of having a good heart can make it right.

For the record, I’ve met Jan Daehnert and also had several phone conversations and email exchanges with him. He seems like a genuinely nice person.

So what? Niceness will not make kids in Baptist churches any safer. Niceness won’t heal the wounds of clergy abuse survivors.

Another Texas survivor told me she once got a Christmas card from Daehnert. She laughed grimly. “So this is what the BGCT does for clergy abuse survivors?”

The card arrived several months after she had talked with Daehnert on numerous occasions, always hoping that by doing so, it might make a difference for others.

But her perpetrator was still in the pulpit… and he still is.

She told me that no one at the BGCT ever even took a stand on her behalf, spoke to the congregation, or helped her in any way. To the contrary, the BGCT’s long-time lawyer (the same Mr. Wolfe-style guy that I later encountered) eventually tried to get her to sign a confidentiality agreement, saying that she would never again speak of it. She felt insulted and greatly disillusioned.

Under the circumstances, the Christmas card didn't seem nice. It seemed like a pathetic joke.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure this woman means well when she claims to "know his heart." However, she needs to recognize that this statement is contrary to the Scripture she believes in.

I Samuel 16:7, a very familiar verse to many Christians, says "But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.' "

If we want to truly protect the victims of sexual abuse, we must stop taking on the role of God by claiming to know a minister's heart and turning deaf ears to the cries of the victims.

Christa Brown said...

michael: Very insightful comment!