Friday, February 29, 2008

My childhood church

First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch just celebrated its 138th birthday. That’s my childhood church in a Dallas suburb. It’s the church where a minister, Tommy Gilmore, repeatedly molested, abused, and ultimately raped me in the sanctuary, in the choir loft, in the balcony, and in his office.

It’s the church where another minister, Jim Moore, knew about the abuse and stayed quiet. He first learned about it from the perpetrator himself, but didn’t stop it, and so he allowed the abuse to escalate. He didn’t tell my parents. He didn’t report it to the police. And he didn’t help me in any way.

It’s the church where minister Moore finally told the perpetrator to move on only after I myself, as a kid, broke down crying uncontrollably. Gilmore did move on, but his career as a children’s minister continued.

It’s the church where, as a kid, I was made to apologize to minister Gilmore’s wife just before he left. And I did.

It’s the church where minister Moore told me it would be better if I didn’t talk about it with anyone else. And I didn’t.

It’s the church where, after Gilmore moved on, pastor Glenn Hayden told me I should rededicate my life to Christ. And I did.

It’s the church where, as a kid, I was obedient and submissive to a sickening fault.

But the story of this church didn’t end when I was a kid. This is also the church where the same Jim Moore is still a minister. When I finally broke my silence and again sought his help, Moore said I had no business bringing it up.

It’s the church that responded to my clergy abuse report by threatening to seek recourse against ME… as a sort of preemptive strike, I suppose. It was hateful. This is the sort of leadership that was provided by the church’s current pastor, Sam Underwood, a man who was previously reported for sexual abuse of an adult congregant.

It’s the church whose current deacons wouldn’t even meet with me in person until over a year after I submitted my written clergy abuse report, and only after I filed a lawsuit.

It’s the church where, before I filed that lawsuit, I put a letter on cars in the parking lot, telling about what happened to me there as a kid and about the sort of help I was seeking. Naively, I hoped that congregants might call their deacon-body to task and insist that something be done (and thereby save me from filing a lawsuit). But of course, it made no difference.

It’s the church whose lawyer insisted, after I filed the lawsuit, that it wasn’t even the same church as what it had been when I was a kid. So why should I bother these people with my problems? After all, he said, these were different people and they had nothing to do with what happened to me as a kid.

Ironically, I was the one who argued that a church is an enduring body and not just a bunch of people at a particular point in time. It was the church’s attorney who wanted to minimize the meaning of “a church,” and I was the fool who still thought the concept of “a church” held meaning. (Of course, the church’s attorney was also ignoring the fact that the same music minister, who was very much involved in what happened to me as a kid, was still there.)

In light of this recent history, I can’t help but see some hypocrisy in the church’s birthday brag about how it has been a congregation for 138 years.

And I can’t help but feel revulsion at pastor Sam Underwood’s reflections on “the children” and his pondering on “What kind of church am I going to leave them?”

Here’s the answer, pastor Underwood. You’re leaving them a church that, from beginning to end, turned a blind eye and a cold heart to clergy child molestation.

You’re leaving them a church that chooses to keep a minister who admittedly knew about another minister’s sexual contact with a kid, but who allowed that minister to quietly move on and work as a children’s minister in other churches. By retaining the minister who kept quiet, the message your church sends is “no big deal.”

You’re leaving them a church that, then and now, chose to protect itself rather than to protect kids.

You’re leaving them a church that, long ago, broke covenant with the next generation and that continues to break that covenant by retaining leaders who treated clergy child molestation cavalierly.

You’re leaving them a church that is premised on little more than a self-serving pretend game. Why should anyone imagine that anything you profess holds any true meaning if you don’t even care enough to protect the safety and well-being of kids?

Recently, I watched the movie “Forrest Gump” again. Remember the scene where Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in where her father abused her? Remember how she fell to the ground in front of it, crying and flailing? Remember how, after she died, Forrest Gump bulldozed that house into the ground?

That’s how I feel about First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch.

Perhaps some feeling of goodness could have been retained if only the church had readily chosen to do the right thing in the here and now. If only the music minister had not again chastised me for speaking about it. If only the deacons had been willing to sit down with me face to face. If only the church had not tried to silence me by threatening to sue me.

As it is, I see nothing good in that church. Every molecule is polluted just as all my memories are. Every church service, every Sunday School class, every youth retreat, every bible drill, every camp-out, every Vacation Bible School, every mission trip, every choir trip, every prayer group, every ping-pong game....all of it.

If you go there, you’ll see a building with a sign that says “First Baptist Church.” But it’s not real. It’s an illusion.

There isn’t any church there. It’s just a phony facade.

What’s really there is a barren wasteland.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Deja vu: Why didn't Baptists bust him?

With a frank television news interview, counselor Don Simpkins told of how he went to the media in Dallas years ago to try to warn people about Baptist pastor Darrell Gilyard. That’s the pastor that former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson mentored and promoted for far too long, despite numerous allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault. Reportedly, Patterson was dismissive of the women who reported Gilyard and told some “to refrain from speaking about it.”

Despite the many allegations, Gilyard was able to move on to another church in Florida, and now he is accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to underage teens.

According to Simpkins, Paige Patterson asked him to counsel Gilyard so as “to help restore” him. (Wouldn’t it have been nice if Patterson had been even half so concerned about Gilyard’s victims and had sought out counseling for them?)

As Simpkins worked with Gilyard, he was deeply troubled by the aggressiveness of what he saw.

Gilyard told Simpkins this: “Nobody will believe you because you’re just a peon and I am an up and rising person.”

Gilyard had a point: Southern Baptist leaders had turned him into a rising star, and apparently they didn’t want to see their star fall. When Simpkins tried to tell Patterson his concerns about Gilyard, Patterson didn’t even return Simpkins’ calls.

If the lack of consequences can make clergy-perpetrators so confident that they’ll say such things to a pastoral counselor, can you imagine the sorts of things they say to their young victims?

And if Patterson wouldn’t even return calls to the pastoral counselor that he himself assigned, do you doubt the stories of the women who say that Patterson wouldn’t return their calls?

Counselor Don Simpkins finally went to the Dallas press to try to get Gilyard out of the pulpit. It’s sad that the only way to warn people was through the media rather than through some responsible office within the Baptist faith community.

For that action of trying to protect people, Simpkins was the person who wound up facing consequences. After the news about Gilyard was reported, Simpkins received “death threats.” He also had a lot of phone calls from people who identified themselves as pastors and who castigated Simpkins for taking “a godly person out of the pulpit.”

If this sort of hatefulness is inflicted on a counselor who speaks out, can you imagine the sort of hatefulness that all-too-often is inflicted on the victims who speak out?

And can you imagine how such hatefulness may be even more intimidating when it is used against sexual abuse victims? These are people who are often so wounded that they can barely bring themselves to speak at all about what a minister did to them, much less to continue speaking in the face of bullying tactics.

And what effect do you imagine it had on some of them when Patterson met with them, and rather than focusing on the allegations against Gilyard, the women themselves were grilled on their own pasts and their psychological histories?

When there is no responsible office to which victims can safely report clergy abuse, the perpetrators stay hidden and continue to abuse others. With no effective system for receiving and assessing abuse reports, kids and congregants in Baptist churches remain at grave risk.

According to news reports, it was 20 years ago when young women at Criswell College first attempted to tell Paige Patterson about Darrell Gilyard. Patterson wouldn’t listen.

A couple other ministers also tried to report Gilyard to Patterson, as did counselor Simpkins. But neither Patterson nor any other Baptist official took action to stop Gilyard. He was always able to move on.

While Baptist leaders in Texas sat on the sidelines, dozens more women and teens were hurt. Because of sexual abuse allegations, Gilyard resigned from 4 churches in 4 years, and there were 25 such allegations in just the first church. Then he moved on to a church in Florida,

Why didn’t Baptist leaders stop this man long, long ago?

How many kids, families and congregants are Baptist officials willing to sacrifice for the sake of image, power, and purity of polity?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Why didn't Baptists bust him?

Texas Monthly’s cover story is about a Baptist preacher accused of killing his wife. I don’t know whether he did it or not. But the investigation certainly uncovered some ugly stuff about how easily a Baptist minister can rise in the ranks despite allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault.

Investigators now say that Matt Baker “spent years in Waco leading… a secret life as a sexual predator.”

Let me condense some of the history and allegations set forth in the article.

Matt was a ministerial student at the largest Baptist school in the world, Baylor U. in Waco, Texas. It’s affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Matt was also a trainer for the football team. When another trainer, a freshman girl, was on her way to clean out a locker room, “Matt said he’d be happy to help.”

“…inside the locker room, he pinned her arms behind her back…spread her legs…forced her onto a bench….”

She went to Baylor officials at the time, but they “asked her not to contact police.” They “let him walk away.” They typed up a report and put it in a file.

The girl dropped out of college and moved away. “The Baylor people had thought I was just some screwed up slut who had wanted to ruin the life of a good ministerial student,” she says.

Matt continued to excel and got a prized internship at First Baptist of Waco, a church affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He ran their summer youth camp and worked in the church’s recreation center.

In 1994, Matt married Kari.

Soon after their wedding, a “minister at First Baptist received a report that Matt had grabbed a female custodian in the bathroom….”

“Around the same time, the pastor received a separate report that Matt had cornered a teenage girl in a small room where roller skates were stored.”

The church didn’t fire Matt.

“Unlike some denominations, Baptist churches have no defined hierarchies and operate independently of one another.”

“There are no rules, for example, requiring a church to inform” others about a minister accused of abuse.

“In fact, to avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy, which is perhaps why First Baptist officials said nothing about the allegations when other churches later called, interested in hiring Matt.”

“I didn’t want to be known as the man who ruined his career,” says the now-retired pastor of First Baptist Waco.

Matt “continued to make his way up the ladder.”

“To supplement his income, he ran an after-school youth program at the YMCA….He was fired. The director had received written statements from 4 young female employees, all of whom claimed Matt had sexually propositioned them,” and one said Matt “touched her pants near her genitalia and put her hands on his crotch.”

“For whatever reason, the YMCA decided not to press charges.”

“Just as they had been at Baylor and at First Baptist of Waco, the written complaints about his behavior were put in a file and…forgotten.”

“Apparently, no administrator from the YMCA, First Baptist, or from Baylor itself uttered a word in 1996,” when Matt was accepted into Baylor’s renowned Truett seminary.

“Nor did anyone say a word” when he got a job as pastor at Pecan Grove Baptist Church, also affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In 1997, a woman told Matt’s wife that her 16-year-old daughter said Matt had “grabbed her and kissed her” in a parking lot.

In 1998, Matt became the pastor at Williams Creek Baptist Church, and from there he went to First Baptist Church of Riesel, and to Northlake Baptist in Dallas. All are churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In 2005, Matt moved his family back to Waco and accepted a job as chaplain for the Waco Center for Youth, a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents. He was also asked to be the pastor of Crossroads Baptist, a church near Lorena, just outside Waco.

Crossroads Baptist Church is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In 2006, after the death of Matt’s wife, Kari, still more stories from teenage girls surfaced: “…a hand on a leg”… “his hand against her breast”… asking “if she was wearing panties.”

Kari’s mother says that Matt had set his sights on a new target, a young, single mom who was the daughter of the music minister at Crossroads. She contends this may have been a motivation for Matt to kill Kari, or perhaps because Kari found out about Matt’s “other life.”

Telling friends that he didn’t want his daughters to endure the “rumors” sweeping town, Matt moved to Kerrville to work as a director for the Baptist Student Union at Schreiner University. Even with so many allegations of abuse and assault on teens and young women, Matt was able to get still another job working with students. His position was funded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. After his arrest on murder charges, Matt was suspended "with pay."

Matt also worked as a substitute teacher in Kerrville. He was teaching at a high school just before he was taken into custody.

Matt Baker denies all charges.

Kari’s family says that it has pursued the murder investigation because of what they described as “our shame that we didn’t see Matt for who he really was.”

The woman who was assaulted as a freshman in the Baylor locker room says that she feels “enormous guilt.” “If I hadn’t done what Baylor told me to do…back in 1991, I think Kari would be alive today.”

Isn’t it sad that Kari’s family and a sexual assault survivor are the ones who feel such guilt?

What about the Baylor officials who did nothing? Do you think they feel guilt?

What about the prior minister and pastor at First Baptist of Waco. They received reports about Matt and did nothing. Do you think they feel guilt?

Every step of the way, Matt Baker was in churches, schools and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Do you think officials there feel guilt? Why didn’t they have an effective system in place for investigating and keeping track of abuse allegations against Baptist ministers in their affiliated churches?

On a blog devoted to this case, a recent comment said, “This guy should have been busted by an organization like this many years ago.”

I agree. Why didn’t Baptists bust him? Why didn’t they even investigate?

A sexual predator can often become emboldened by a lack of consequences. Did too many people allow this guy to get away with too much for too long?

April 2009 Update: Matt Baker has now been indicted on a murder charge in connection with his wife's death. Read more in the Waco Tribune and the Associated Baptist Press. Follow the continuing story at the Don’tEvenGetMeStarted blog.

Friday, February 22, 2008

More hurt than help

A clergy abuse victim recently had second thoughts about disclosing an email she got from a top Southern Baptist official. Why? Because she feared he might retaliate in some way.

Isn’t it sad that abuse victims would have to fear retaliation by religious leaders? Yet, I’ve heard this same fear expressed by quite a lot of abuse survivors. It’s not at all unusual.

In fairness, I don’t personally believe that the particular Southern Baptist official who was involved this time would have been one to retaliate. But I nevertheless consider this to be a legitimate fear for Baptist abuse survivors.

After all, what are Baptist abuse survivors supposed to think when they see the head of a Baptist seminary calling a victims’ support group “evil-doers”?
[SNAP’s founder said that, in almost 20 years time, no church official in any other faith group had ever before called SNAP "evil." It took a Southern Baptist leader to stoop that low.]
And what are Baptist abuse survivors supposed to think when they see a former Southern Baptist president saying that the survivors’ support network is “just as reprehensible as sex criminals”?

What are Baptist abuse survivors supposed to think when they see the current Southern Baptist president publicly castigate the victims’ support group as being “opportunistic persons”?

What are Baptist abuse survivors supposed to think when they see that the long-time attorney for the largest state-wide Baptist organization in the country will threaten to sue the victim who brings a substantiated report of abuse, rather than doing anything about the perpetrator?

What are Baptist abuse survivors supposed to think when they see that a survivor who attends an SBC committee meeting gets called “a person of no integrity” while every other committee member sits silent and allows it?

What are Baptist abuse survivors supposed to think when, over and over again, they write to state and national denominational officials and their letters are ignored or treated dismissively…while their perpetrators remain in their pulpits?

And then there are the retaliatory threats that the clergy-perpetrators themselves have made. Many victims were told that they will “burn in hell,” that they will be “crucified,” that they will be killed, that their siblings will be hurt, or that they will be “ruined.” Then, while the victims ponder those threats, they watch their perpetrators continue to stand in pulpits and other religious leaders do nothing.

So why shouldn’t Baptist abuse survivors believe that Southern Baptist officials are more likely to hurt than help?

When Southern Baptist officials can realistically answer that last question and can show abuse survivors why they should turn to them for help, then perhaps abuse survivors will begin to stop fearing them.

When Southern Baptist officials can point to what they are actually doing to help abuse survivors, instead of what they are merely preaching, then perhaps abuse survivors will slowly begin to trust them.

Of course, Southern Baptist officials will also need to stop with the trash-talk, and they owe some apologies. But I’m not holding my breath.

For now, I think the instinct of most abuse survivors is exactly right: Southern Baptist officials are more likely to hurt than help.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Late again

“The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t yet ready to respond” on the issue of creating a database of convicted, confessed and credibly accused clergy. The committee met yesterday, and that’s what EthicsDaily reported.

It “isn’t yet ready” even though action is long overdue.

It “isn’t yet ready” even though Southern Baptists are way behind the curve compared to what most other major faith groups are already doing.

It “isn’t yet ready” even though the committee has only one more scheduled meeting, which will be on the very day before it’s supposed to report back to the convention in June. If something was going to get done, it should have been much further along by now.

But of course, Southern Baptist leaders have a long history of being late on issues of human dignity and justice.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported on how Southern Baptists are finally attempting to reach out to minorities, and the article recounted the sad history of the Southern Baptist Convention on race relations.

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded as “a haven for white Baptists who supported slavery,” and for 150 years, it was “hostile to black progress.” Not until 1995 did the Southern Baptist Convention issue an apology for its history of bigotry and for “condoning and perpetuating individual and systemic racism.”

It was a nice gesture, but it was decades late in arriving.

Where were Southern Baptist leaders back in the 1950s and 1960s? Where were they when Martin Luther King and others were marching for civil rights? Where were they when standing up for an oppressed group might have required of them a bit of courage?

Martin Luther King himself pondered that question and expressed “deep disappointment” in the silence of the “white religious leadership.” In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, he spoke of how “too many have been more cautious than courageous.”

“In the midst of blatant injustices,” he said, “I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Much the same could now be said about Southern Baptist leaders’ lack of courage in stepping up to the plate to effectively address clergy sex abuse. Instead of taking action, they stand on the sideline, mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” about “autonomy” and “polity”… as if any of that could possibly be more important than protecting kids against clergy who molest and rape them.

I wept at an email recently forwarded to me from the mom of a girl who was sexually abused in a Southern Baptist church. She wrote to numerous SBC officials and told them about how none of her children would now have anything to do with Southern Baptists. “The resistance of the Southern Baptist Convention to do something about clergy abuse within its ranks has spoken loudly to them that the sexual abuse of minors in the Baptist church is of little significance to the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

With a rote-sounding response, a top SBC official wrote back, “I am saddened to hear that your daughter was molested…I hope and pray that the Lord has healed her wounds...and that she is living a joyous life in the Lord Jesus.”

I wondered how anyone could possibly look at that mom’s email and imagine that her daughter’s wounds were healed. Did he even read what that mom said?

He went on to talk about “the autonomy of the local church” and how the leadership needs “to arrive at a conclusion that is palatable with the concerns of Southern Baptists as well as the Convention’s polity.”

That’s what I would call “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

And then Baptist leaders wonder why they seem “uncaring” to victims of abuse.” Isn’t it obvious? They’re way more concerned about polity than they are about victims.

If Southern Baptist leaders expect others to view them as champions of morality, then they need to start acting like champions and go to battle to clean up the mess in their own ranks.

Where are they when the rubber meets the road? Where are they when there is a crisis in their own faith group? Where are they when standing up for those oppressed by their own clergy would mean actually doing something?

Once again, Southern Baptist leaders are late.

Though virtually every other major faith group in the country has begun implementing review boards to assess the credibility of clergy abuse reports, Southern Baptist leaders continue to sit on the sidelines.

How late will they be this time? Will they wait decades? How many more kids will be hurt?

Once again, I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King: “I hope, sirs, that you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Good people do nothing

In last week’s Nashville Scene article, Rev. Wade Burleson said something that caught my attention. He’s the Oklahoma pastor who actually did something when he sponsored the predator database motion at last summer’s SBC annual meeting.

Burleson talks about how Southern Baptists are “good people” but says that, even though the committee-members have “great hearts,” funding will likely be a “sticking point” for any action. Then Burleson says this: “But...the answer to the money question lies in one simple truth: If you talk with just one Southern Baptist who’s been a victim, you will never ask that question.”

How I wish Burleson were right. But my experience, and the experiences of many others, tell a different story. Most Southern Baptist leaders continue to make excuses and demonstrate no incentive for action even after they talk to clergy abuse survivors.

I believe Burleson was simply saying what is true of his own feelings. I spoke with him briefly in San Antonio last summer, and I saw in his face that he was genuinely moved by the story of clergy abuse survivor Debbie Vasquez. So Burleson imagines that other “good people” would be similarly moved upon hearing a clergy abuse victim’s story.

I’m not at all critical of Burleson for thinking that. It’s what most people would think.

We all want to believe that “good people” will behave in ways that are good. We want to believe the best of others, and in particular, we want to believe the best of religious leaders.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, I believed the same thing as Burleson. It’s why I reported my abuse in detail to 18 Southern Baptist leaders in 4 states. I was literally incapable of believing that there would not be someone who would want to help me in some way. But no one did.

I wound up meeting with 6 of those 18 leaders in person. It made no difference.

Months later, I stood on my feet in front of even more Southern Baptist leaders when I spoke to the subcommittee that is supposed to be addressing this at SBC headquarters in Nashville. It was a room of all men, and it was a pretty unnerving way to tell about traumatic abuse and rape by a trusted minister. But I hoped it would make a difference. It didn’t.

Most of the men in that room carried expressions of boredom or voiced hostility. It was a far-cry from any sort of compassionate environment.

Since then, I have talked with countless other clergy abuse survivors who also encountered nothing compassionate when they attempted to tell their stories to Southern Baptist leaders. A mid-40s man whose first sexual experience was that of being raped as a 14-year old was lectured on homosexuality. His perpetrator is still a Southern Baptist leader. Another man, raped as a 15 year old, was sermonized on forgiveness. His perpetrator is still a Southern Baptist minister.

Debbie Vasquez herself told the Nashville Scene that she “received a myriad of uncaring responses from Baptist leaders.” You look at that story in the Nashville Scene, and you tell me HOW religious leaders can coldly turn away from such stories. Yet, over and over again, they do.

Many other Southern Baptist survivors have related to me that, when they attempted to report their abuse, they received little more than a one-sentence response of “all churches are autonomous.” Many more were simply ignored.

These cold, uncaring responses have been the norm regardless of whether survivors contacted SBC headquarters in Nashville or any number of state convention headquarters. All across the country - in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and other states - the apathy of Baptist leaders to abuse survivors has been much the same. And it is appalling.

It makes no difference whether it’s a self-described “conservative” state convention or a self-described “moderate” state convention. On this issue, the conservatives and moderates share common ground: They do nothing to help clergy abuse survivors, and they do nothing to warn people in the pews.

After listening to so many abuse survivors tell of how they were treated when they tried to tell about their abuse, I can no longer believe as Rev. Burleson does. It would be like believing the earth is flat. There comes a time when the real-world data becomes too extensive.

The reality is that most Southern Baptist leaders will NOT see the need for action even after talking to a Baptist sex abuse survivor. It makes no difference whether Southern Baptist leaders have “great hearts” and are “good people.”

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

It is not bad people who allow the evil of Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse to persist. It is good people.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What would Jesus say?

“What would Jesus say?” That’s the title of yesterday’s Nashville Scene article about how the Southern Baptist Convention has been responding – and mostly not responding – to clergy sex abuse.

One thing speaks out loud and clear in that article. Jesus would NOT say the sorts of uncaring, compassionless things that were said by the Southern Baptist officials who were quoted in the article.

The worst remarks were from former Southern Baptist president, Paige Patterson. That's him in the picture. He is now the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, and so he's in charge of teaching young, upcoming Southern Baptist pastors how it’s done. Look at the sort of example he sets.

A woman who was raped by a Baptist minister as a 15-year-old girl contacted Patterson because she was so concerned about the news of how dismissively he treated women who previously tried to report the sexual abuse of a pastor who has now been accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to teens.

Patterson responded by immediately going on the defensive. “Debbie, what more did you want me to do?” he asked. “Would you feel better if I shot him?”

I’ve seen these emails. So let me just point out that Debbie’s immediate response to Patterson was to say this: “I would not want you or anyone else to shoot anyone…. What I do want you can do. You can help to bring about some changes.”

It’s what all of us who are Southern Baptist abuse survivors want. We want changes to try to make other kids safer than what we were. We want changes so that other families in Baptist churches will be better protected. We want changes so that the faith community will reach out to minister to those who have been wounded by clergy abuse instead of shunning and shaming them.

That’s why we join together in a support network, SNAP. The faith community isn’t helping us, and so we try to help and support one another. In the process, we also hope to join our voices to bring about change.

It’s obvious that Paige Patterson doesn’t view our support network that way. EthicsDaily reported on still more of the harsh things he had to say about SNAP, and about Debbie for turning to SNAP.

He referred to us as “evil-doers.” And he suggests to Debbie that her “mind is made up to do wrong” because she “protects evil-doers.”

Did you follow this? Despite numerous efforts on her part, the Southern Baptist faith community extended zero assistance to Debbie. She got no help from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, no help from the Southern Baptist Convention, and no help from any of the preachers and Southern Baptist officials she contacted. And her perpetrator remained in the pulpit.

So what did she do? She turned to SNAP, a support network of people who have been molested, raped, and abused by clergy.

For that act of trying to seek help and healing for herself, and of trying to find a way to protect others, she gets accused of protecting “evil-doers.”

That’s harsh. I can’t imagine that it’s what Jesus would say to someone like Debbie.

But, as the EthicsDaily article makes apparent, Patterson was just getting started.

He went on to state that SNAP is “just as reprehensible as sex criminals” and have “just as little integrity.”

What kind of man accuses child rape victims, who reach out to one another and try to shine light on the problem, of being “just as reprehensible as sex criminals”?

I don’t think it’s the kind of man Jesus was. Jesus would NOT tell people raped as kids by clergy that they’re “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”

Finally, here is the part that really turned my stomach. Patterson tells Debbie, “If you please God…He will make it up to you in ten thousand ways….But he will not bless if you allow your sorrows to cause you to join false accusers.”

How many of us had clergy-perpetrators who said things similar to this? Remember that kind of talk? Trusted ministers told us it was a “test of faith,” and that “if you please God,” then God will smile on you for your faithfulness.

Clergy-perpetrators use lines like this as weapons for manipulation. In a different way, manipulation is also what Patterson uses that line for. He’s trying to convince Debbie to turn away from her involvement with SNAP, the group of people who tried to help her.

In talking with EthicsDaily about Patterson’s remark, I said this: “I don’t imagine for one second that Paige Patterson has a clue about whether or not God will bless Debbie or me or anyone else. Who does he think he is telling Debbie that God will ‘not bless’ her? God will decide whether to bless us, not Paige Patterson.”

I stand by that statement, and it’s no false accusation: Paige Patterson doesn’t have a clue about who God will or won’t bless.

What would Jesus say to a clergy abuse survivor such as Debbie? I believe the words of Jesus would not bear even the remotest resemblance to the words of Paige Patterson.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Forgiveness and Justice-seeking (part 1)

"And from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wounds of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace."
Jeremiah 6:13-14

I often think of this verse when I hear the “forgive and forget” refrain that church leaders so often dish out to clergy abuse survivors.

It comes in different shapes and forms. “Move-on.” “Let it go.” Or “leave it in God’s hands.” How many times have we all heard these lines?

Whatever the words they use, the message is the same. It’s wrapped up in a faulty forgiveness theology that essentially says "put on blinders and pretend it never happened."

This is dealing falsely. The wounds are not healed. There is no peace.

When church leaders do this, what they want is a false, premature sort of forgiveness. They want to cover over the wound... lightly... before there has been any healing. And then they walk away and say "all is well" - "peace" - but in truth, "there is no peace."

We are the ones who KNOW that.

It’s a pretend sort of peace. It isn’t real. It isn’t authentic.

Saddest of all is that this sort of premature forgiveness throws away the possibility for real understanding and authentic human connection. And that’s the possibility that holds the hope for genuine forgiveness and for genuine reconciliation.

Their notion of premature forgiveness is self-serving. It’s a version of forgiveness that frees them from guilt and fosters a sense of impunity. Impunity for the perpetrators. And impunity for the cover-ups.

It’s also a sort of forgiveness theology that causes many clergy abuse victims to suffer even more. What it tells victims is this: It’s not enough that you were betrayed by a trusted minister, and it’s not enough that you endured abuse to your sacred body, and it’s not enough that you were again betrayed by other church leaders who sought to keep it secret. You must also carry the burden of preserving the good reputation of the very people who did the wrong and of the institution that kept it quiet. It's a terrible burden.

This turns forgiveness into nothing more than the shovel that digs the hole that buries the whole thing. And then it just becomes a rotting, stinking mess of decay that worms crawl through. This cheapens the very notion of forgiveness and turns it into nothing more than a tool for self-serving secrecy.

Obviously, I am very critical of church and denominational leaders who foist this sort of faulty forgiveness. But I also think this is something that WE, the survivors, must guard against for ourselves.

I remember how very much I wanted to immediately forgive my old piano teacher - the music minister who knew about the other minister’s abuse of me as a kid. He knew about it. He told me not to talk about it. He didn’t tell my parents or the police. And he allowed the perpetrator to move on to another church.

But I felt so certain that he would be older and wiser and better educated now, and that he would be glad to hear from me, and would want to help me and would feel badly that he hadn’t done more when I was a kid. I was certain of it. Absolutely certain.

So anxious was I to extend forgiveness that I held it there with the door wide open before I even had a clue what was going on. I wanted desperately to simply shake his hand, look him in the eyes, and say "All is well."

I told my Catholic friends, "Oh’s not going to be like it was with you. This is a man who has raised a daughter of his own by now. He’ll understand. He’s a good man. You’ll see. He’ll help me."

I was wrong. He didn’t give a hoot about any forgiveness from me. He only wanted me to go back to being quiet about it. Quiet about the perpetrator and quiet about the fact that he covered it up.

It took me a long time to see that. When I finally did, what I also saw was that I myself had been too desperately wanting of reconciliation .... when there wasn’t any reconciling going on. It was all one-sided. I had been too anxious for peace...when there was no peace.

If we forgive prematurely, before justice is done, before others are protected, before truth is made transparent, then we too become part of the process of simply looking for the easy way out.

Seeking to readily forgive is what feels comfortable to us. We grew up with forgiveness as a basic tenet of our faith. It’s a concept we’re comfortable with.

By contrast, confrontation is NOT something that most of us are comfortable with. Most of us were raised to be "nice." We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We don’t want to speak poorly of anyone. We grew up with moms who told us, "If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all."

For most of us, it is emotionally very, very difficult to even think about confronting our perpetrators or about confronting other church leaders who turned a blind eye. When we think about doing THAT, we push the boundaries of our own comfort zone. It feels uneasy. It doesn’t feel "nice." And so we shrink back from it.

And forgiveness provides us with a ready rationalization to avoid those confrontations. To avoid getting outside our comfort zone. To avoid doing what needs to be done.

Of course, we’re often so hurting and so wounded that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real forgiveness or a false forgiveness. We can convince ourselves it’s real. And we just want to forgive and move on.

Church leaders tell us to "move on." And that’s exactly what we WANT to do. We want that more than anyone.

But of course, lots of clergy abuse survivors have tried to forgive, have wanted to forgive, have believed they did forgive, and HAVE forgiven.... only to find that years later, the ugliness of it reared its head again and they wanted something more. They wanted truth-telling. They wanted truth-hearing. They wanted accountability.

A premature forgiveness is just that. It’s premature.

These are deep wounds and they cannot be healed... "lightly." Without truth-telling and accountability, there is no peace. And it only prolongs the anguish if we say "peace" when, in truth, there is no peace.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forgiveness and Justice-seeking (part 2)

How do we get church leaders to hear the truth?

We start by telling it.

But how do we tell it in a way that they may hear it?

Justice-seeking is one possible way.

For most clergy abuse survivors, the most critical component of justice that they seek is to have their truth told and honored.

When we bring forward the testimony of our truth to church and denominational leaders, we offer a gift.

Our gift is seldom well-received. But I believe it is a gift nevertheless.

We bring to church and denominational leaders the gift of truth and the opportunity to see that truth.

With that truth that we bring comes the opportunity for change and the opportunity for their own spiritual growth. It’s a chance for them to grow in wisdom.

We are the powerless in this battle for clergy accountability. We are the little Davids.

But what our gift of truth offers to all of these Goliaths is the chance to be more fully human and whole.

By refusing to see this truth, it is as though they bring down a clouded jar over their own heads. They stifle their OWN spiritual wholeness.

They are imprisoned in an illusion. We offer them the possibility of breaking the bonds of their own illusion.

Think about it this way: They persist in sticking their heads in the sand. When we seek justice, part of what we do is to make the sand a lot hotter, so that sooner or later, they will have to pull their heads out of the sand and look up and see the reality that surrounds them.

I believe in the ongoing mystery of grace. I believe that individuals and churches can heal from this and can work toward better futures. I believe that. But it cannot be done by turning away from this and refusing to see it. It cannot be done by covering it over... lightly.

This isn’t only about healing for the victims. It is also about healing for churches. For the body of Christ. For principles of faith. For goodness and truth.

By seeking justice, we refuse to cede power to evil.

That evil resides not only in the monstrous acts of the ministers who commit the abuse, but perhaps even more so in a system in which such monstrous acts are ignored.

When there are no consequences for evil, then evildoers are strengthened. By turning a blind eye to such monstrous acts, other church leaders communicate to predatory pastors that their actions are not merely without consequence but are protected. So evil expands and more innocent lives are torn asunder.

By seeking justice, we say “NO!” We refuse to cooperate with the system that ignores such evil. We refuse to be complicit with it. We refuse to participate in its silence. We say “NO!”

Whether we are heard or not is another matter. Whether justice is actually done or not is another matter. Those are things that we cannot control.

What we can control is what we ourselves do. And in that sense, there is honor and truth and dignity in justice-seeking. By doing so, we say “NO!” to the falsity of a system that ignores these monstrous deeds done by ministers.

Many of us have been taught that suing the church in a court of law is somehow wrong. But the people who taught us this are often the same people who shushed us when we tried to talk about our abuse and when we tried to protect others. So I’m simply saying, “think about it for yourselves.”

Justice-seeking in a court of law can be about shining the light of truth. And that is something good.

When you file a lawsuit, it allows for the possibility that the truth may be brought to light in 2 ways:
(1) The lawsuit may allow you to obtain documents and require people to testify under oath and to learn more about who knew what. Not only can you obtain more information about the predator, but you can also obtain information about what the church’s policies, procedures and actions were....or were NOT. I think that is an extremely important aspect of justice-seeking. It can force the church to take a good, hard look at itself and at what it needs to do in order to make people safer in the future.
(2) It allows for the possibility of media exposure. With the filing of a lawsuit, reporters have something they can write about. And that in turn means that information about the perpetrator can be broadcast to the larger community so that you can reach out to other possible victims and so that you can warn people. Even if you remain anonymous and are a “Jane Doe,” that outreach possibility is there when you file a lawsuit. And that is another enormously good aspect of justice-seeking. One thing we know for sure is that, if this scourge is ever to be ended, the bonds of secrecy must be broken.

Someone once said to me that, by speaking up about clergy abuse, and that by bringing so much attention to it, I was doing more harm than good and that I was bringing discredit to the church and to Christians. He said I was “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

I pondered his criticism, and finally, the pure irony of his words congealed in my head.

When churches cover-up child sex abuse, it is the churches who throw out the baby and save the dirty wash water. It is babies – potential future child victims – who are being thrown away by the churches who cover up and stay silent about clergy predators.

By seeking justice, we try to help them see the reality of what they’re doing - that they are throwing away babies for the sake of saving some dirty water.

Justice-seeking in a court of law is NOT an easy task. But it’s usually the last possibility left for trying to open the eyes of church leaders who don’t want to see.

They wear blinders on this issue, and those blinders are nailed shut. So determined are most church leaders not to see this that it is as though they have chosen to hammer nails straight into their own skulls so as to keep the blinders tightly in place.

When someone is that set in their own blindness, it takes forceful measures to pull the blinders off and to make them see. And sometimes it just can’t be done. But the courts are the last possibility.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just tell our stories, and people would believe us, and church leaders would do something about it? I had my own blinders on about that for a long time, and I imagine a lot of you did as well. I just kept thinking that if only I could find the right person to tell that someone would surely do something. Eighteen Baptist leaders later - across 4 different states - no one had done anything, and my perpetrator was still in the pulpit.

Seeking justice in a court of law is the last possibility for trying to make them take those blinders off.

And I believe that justice-seeking itself can be an act done with a spirit of hopeful forgiveness.

When no one is willing to see the truth, there is not much possibility of reconciliation.

So we keep trying and trying and trying. And justice-seeking is just one more way that we try.

Why do we try so hard? Because we want to protect others. Because we want truth to be known. And also because we want and seek reconciliation for our own healing. Reconciliation with people who were important to us and reconciliation with a faith community that we loved.

There’s nothing easy about justice-seeking in a court. Clergy abuse lawsuits have hurdles that many other kinds of lawsuits don’t have. People who know absolutely nothing will nevertheless say all manner of things against you when you file a lawsuit. And those things will hurt. Church attorneys will likely put you through hell. There’s nothing easy about it.

But we are the ones who keep extending ourselves and trying. Trying to lift their blinders so that they will see. Trying to connect with them. Trying to reconcile.

If we didn’t care about forgiveness and reconciliation, we would simply turn away. That would be a lot easier. But instead, in the process of justice-seeking, we stand there with the door open and we keep hoping and praying that they will finally see this gift of truth that we hold forth.

We hold open the door of our hearts for real forgiveness and not the false premature pretend kind. Not the kind that says “peace” when, in truth, “there is no peace.”

Conference of the Lambs

I’m still absorbing all that I heard at the Conference of the Lambs. I was honored to be invited as a speaker, but I feel as though I learned more from the people there than they could have possibly learned from me.

It was a joy to meet several who have emailed me over the past year, and I was thrilled to meet Kaye Maher and her husband Bill. They have been a constant source of support. Kaye used to work as a church secretary for my perpetrator when he was at First Baptist Church of Oviedo. Because of all the vile things she saw, heard and experienced there, Kaye never doubted the truth of my story, and she reached out to help me.

Many of the conference-goers were former members of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville. It’s the church in which 22 people have said they were sexually abused as kids by founding pastor Bob Gray. Others have said they were abused by former Trinity leader, Tony Denton.

Worst of all, letters and testimony indicate that current pastor Tom Messer and other key Trinity leaders knew about the abuse of children, and did nothing to warn or protect others.

I have followed the published news accounts of the Trinity saga for about 18 months. But yesterday, as I talked with people at the conference, I realized that the full horror of the Trinity scandal is really only beginning to unfold. I thought it couldn’t get worse, but it undoubtedly will. I expect there will be still more molestation victims who will speak up and there will be still more evidence of a long-enduring cover-up by key Trinity leaders.

I looked at those courageous people in that conference room and wondered what made them different. Why were they able to see the terrible wrong of what happened at Trinity, when so many others still turn a blind eye? Why were they strong enough to refuse any silent complicity with such evil while so many others still sit in Trinity pews and give their support to church leaders who betrayed the safety of children for the sake of image and power?

The people in that conference room were all ordinary-seeming salt-of-the-earth sorts. Some were parents of kids who were abused, but some were not. Some were there purely in support of those who were abused and because they grieved for the church they once loved and for the continuing blindness of those who used to be their friends and fellow-congregants.

The people in that conference room were people who had built their lives around Trinity. They had worked at Trinity, in both the church and the school. They had raised their families at Trinity, and they had given sacrificially of their time, money and energy to Trinity. Yet, when the ugly truth about clergy abuse and cover-ups came to light, they did not shrink back from it. They looked at it squarely and saw it for the terrible travesty and betrayal that it was.

What about the thousands of others who still sit in Trinity pews? Why don’t they see it? How do they blind themselves to it? Why do they not oust Tom Messer? Why are they so willing to stay with the status quo of church leaders who betrayed children rather than standing up for what is right?

Do they not realize the message that their silent pew-sitting complicity sends to the many Trinity child abuse victims? It’s a message that says, “No big deal.” It’s a message that says, “What happened to you doesn’t matter enough for any of us to want to rock the boat.”

Why are thousands of people sitting in Trinity’s pews willing to have their own silent inaction send such a sad message of complacency about clergy sex abuse and cover-ups? It’s a mystery to me.

The perpetrators have perverse drives that push them to prey on kids. I get it. The church leaders who cover-up for them are driven to protect their own power and image, along with church coffers. They’re acting based on shabby corporate principles rather than on Christian principles. I get it.

But what about all the countless other ordinary people who silently sit in the pews of churches where there have been child molestation cover-ups? That’s the part I don’t get at all.

Why do good people do nothing when confronted with evil? It’s an age-old question and it arises in lots of contexts. Thousands who sit silently in Trinity’s pews should look in the mirror and ask themselves that very question.

Don Boys, evangelist and former member of the Indiana House of Representatives, says that the truth about Tom Messer and Trinity will eventually come out and will “expose the disingenuousness, deviousness and dishonesty – all euphemisms for a simple word – cover-up.”

It would be so much more meaningful – and so much more Christian – if Trinity leaders would come clean on their own, fully and completely, instead of waiting for the sordid details to be drawn out document by document, deposition by deposition, witness by witness, victim by victim.

So much has already been revealed that there’s no excuse for the continuing inaction of the many people in those pews at Trinity. When still more details make their way into the public eye, will those Trinity pew-sitters finally see the tragedy of their own silent complicity or will they simply shrug their shoulders?

I think about the courage of those Trinity people who sat in that conference room with me, and I wish I could somehow extract from them a serum and inject it into those thousands of silently complicit Trinity pew-sitters. They need something that will immunize them against the “disingenuousness, deviousness and dishonesty” of their own religious leaders.

Stay tuned: At the Conference of the Lambs, Jeri asked me to speak to the subject of "Forgiveness and Justice-seeking." I'll post the gist of my remarks.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Interview by Dwayne Walker

Dwayne Walker, who blogs about the clergy abuse scandal at Trinity, interviewed me last week and posted these excerpts on YouTube. Dwayne will be hosting a discussion on "Child Molestation and the Clergy" and screening a couple of his films on February 9th at Fuels Coffee House in Jacksonville. Details on his blog.

Part 1: Talking about the origins of

Part 2: Discussing why church officials seem apathetic to clergy abuse victims

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Struggling with faith

Saint Sulpice used to be one of my favorite Paris cathedrals. This was long before The DaVinci Code put it on tourist maps, and it was almost always empty. Whenever I got a break from the young charges I had as a governess, I would sometimes go sit in the stillness of Saint Sulpice.

In one of its small side-chapels, Saint Sulpice holds a painting by Eugene Delacroix. In English, the painting is called “Jacob wrestling with the angel.” But I always hated that translation. In French, it’s “La lutte avec l’ange.”

It’s true that a “lutte” can be a mere wrestling match, but then again, it can be a whole lot more. A “lutte” can also connote a great cause or a life-long struggle. A “lutte a la mort” is a struggle to the death. And a “lutte contre l’injustice” is a struggle against injustice.

So I ask you: Does that picture of Jacob and the angel look like some mere wrestling match?

Perhaps some francophone will set me straight on why the “wrestling” translation is correct. But I spent a lot of time looking at that painting, and it sure looks like more than a wrestling match to me.

Lately, I’ve been pondering that painting again. It makes me think about my own struggle with faith.

I often think it would be so much easier if I could just walk away from faith. I yearn to let go of it. I pray to be free from it.

Most of the pure, raw hatefulness I’ve encountered is linked in with my faith. So in my neural networks, faith-related things are tethered to nightmares.

I envy people who find comfort in their faith. What a luxury. For me, faith is something I endure.

Faith is a constant, endless struggle. It’s not a source of solace.

I’ve tried so many times to let go of it. Wouldn’t that make more sense? If I was actually paying attention to Southern Baptist leaders, I would certainly think so. After all, what possible meaning can any faith group hold when its leaders become so wrapped up in themselves and their power that the safety of children is secondary?

But of course, I’ve quit paying attention to any Southern Baptist guidance on faith. I don’t think a group that breaks covenant with the next generation has much good guidance to give.

So I simply struggle with my own small core of faith and with holding it. On most days, about the only thing I can say for myself is that I haven’t let go.

Each time I think I may free myself and walk away from this thing called faith, I wind up reaching back and grabbing at the last remnant of the angel’s hem. Then I turn and re-engage the struggle.