Monday, March 31, 2008

If they really cared

Once again, the Baptist General Convention of Texas came up with rationalizations for why it keeps secret the names of ministers who have been reported by churches for sexual abuse.

Spokesperson Emily Prevost justified keeping those names secret by mischaracterizing them as “unsubstantiated claims.” Yet, published BGCT policy reflects that those names are ministers who have confessed to abuse, ministers for whom it was determined there was “substantial evidence” of abuse, and ministers who have been reported by churches. These are all forms of “substantiation.”

Of course, Prevost isn’t dumb. She surely knows that a confession and “substantial evidence” are forms of “substantiation.” But since the secrecy of such a file is virtually impossible to credibly justify, Prevost opts to mischaracterize the file.

And after she does that slick spin-job, Prevost then has the audacity to talk about how the BGCT is “very committed to protecting not just children but members.”

Southern Baptist abuse survivor Debbie Vasquez saw right through that line, and bluntly called it “a lie.” Debbie ought to know. She tried repeatedly to get help from the BGCT in protecting other kids against the minister who abused her, but the BGCT did nothing.

True commitment is shown by deeds, not words. Those of us who have been around the block with the BGCT on clergy abuse know how huge the chasm is between its words and its deeds.

If BGCT leaders really cared, here’s what they would actually do:

  • Stop defending the indefensible.

  • Release the names of all ministers who have been reported by churches to the BGCT and for whom there was a confession or substantial evidence of sexual abuse.

  • Locate the whereabouts of ministers in that file and inform the people in the pews of every church in which a file-listed minister has worked about the reported abuse in his past.

  • Provide clergy abuse victims with a safe place to report abuse to someone who has the appropriate education and training.

  • Begin assessing and archiving sexual abuse reports received from the victims themselves and not merely reports received from church officials.

  • Stop telling victims to “go to the church” when the BGCT knows full-well that “in the normal scenario, they just try to keep it secret,” with the result that victims who report to the church of the perpetrator are typically revictimized and further wounded.

  • Insist that the attorney the BGCT sends out to “help” churches will never again threaten to sue a victim reporting abuse. (Churches who seek help from the BGCT should understand that the BGCT will no longer help them to hush-up abuse via intimidation of victims. This may be less “helpful’ in solving the problem for the particular church, but it will be of service to many other churches by assisting victims with reporting abuse instead of assisting churches with covering it up.)

  • Insist that the attorney the BGCT sends out to “help” churches will never again seek a confidentiality agreement from a clergy abuse victim. That’s what is also called a “hush money” agreement and it is reprehensibly immoral in this context. (Again, churches who seek help from the BGCT should understand that the help that will be provided will not only be within the bounds of bare legality but also within the bounds of morality.)

  • Release a public statement offering to indemnify any victims who would now choose to speak out about the abuse they suffered but who previously signed confidentiality agreements that make them fear being sued if they speak. (Not only would this allow people in the pews to be better informed about clergy-perpetrators, but it would also set a strong policy against such secret agreements in the context of clergy sex abuse.)

  • Beg clergy abuse victims who have previously tried to report abuse to the BGCT to give the BGCT a second chance and report their abuse again, explaining that, this time, a professionally trained and compassionate person will receive their reports.

  • Provide immediately available counseling stipends for clergy abuse victims. For almost 2 decades, the BGCT has provided readily available counseling for clergy perpetrators. It should provide at least the same level of counseling support for the victims and it should be provided independently of any church.

  • Publicly apologize for the immoral misjudgment of having allowed clergy perpetrators to remain in pulpits and for having kept such secrets.

  • Publicly apologize for having failed to help victims seeking to report abuse and to expose their perpetrators.

  • Publicly apologize for having used a secret file to help shield churches against potential liability and to facilitate the secrecy of clergy abuse.

  • Publicly acknowledge the BGCT's moral complicity for doing too little for too long. Own up to the BGCT's share of the shame for having long chosen to protect itself, its image, and financial coffers rather than protecting kids and congregants.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas is the largest statewide Baptist organization in the country, with 5500 affiliated churches. What a powerful example it could set for the moral and compassionate handling of clergy abuse reports… if they really cared.

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