Friday, May 30, 2008

Priesthood of the unaccountable

I’m still pondering Suzii Paynter’s explanation for why Southern Baptists can’t institute the same sorts of pro-active protective measures as other faith groups.

Remember? She said “because there are no bishops.”

What’s sad is that I think Paynter actually believes this blasphemous Baptist spin. I think she actually believes that words such as these can somehow excuse the reality of a powerful religious organization that leaves clergy child molesters in their pulpits without warning people in the pews. She says the words like a loyal foot soldier for Baptist power-brokers.

Baptists have a truly amazing capacity for denial when it comes to the consequences of their own acts and beliefs. As long as they can couch it in the rule-based language of “autonomy,” they can even convince themselves that it’s O.K. to leave kids in harm’s way of clergy-predators.

Paynter’s “because there are no bishops” explanation reminded me of something a high-level official from the Baptist General Convention of Texas said to me at last year’s SBC annual meeting. I was trying to tell him about how desperately clergy abuse survivors need a safe place to report abuse -- a place that is outside the church of the pastor-perpetrator.

He said “maybe so” but insisted that, for Baptists to implement such a system “would make us into slaves.” Baptists aren’t subject to bishops, he explained. “What we lose in safety, we gain in freedom.”

Apparently, this seemed like a fair trade-off to him -- the safety of kids for the freedom of a free-wheeling polity that renders clergy unaccountable.

I realized then that we were having parallel conversations. His abstract words about religious slavery seemed meaningless to me as I tried to tell him about the real problems of real people who have been terribly wounded by real Baptist preachers, many of whom still stand in real Baptist pulpits. But from his vantage of religious nobility, it seemed that my talk about real people was equally meaningless to him.

Perhaps this is how it has always been. The religious high-honchos talk high-falutin’ religious talk, but they are blind to the real-world human beings who are hurt by their religiousity.

Baptist leaders toss out rote words - “because there are no bishops” - to displace the emotional immediacy of real people raped and molested by Baptist clergy. Abuse survivors ask for bread, and Baptist leaders give them only the stone of wrong-headed religious talk.

They wall themselves off behind their “no bishops” excuse and use it to proclaim their own powerlessness. Powerlessness to prevent reported Baptist clergy child molesters from abusing others. Powerlessness to warn congregants. Powerlessness to minister to the wounded.

With all their self-proclaimed powerlessness, it seems to me that Southern Baptists are already slaves.

They are slaves to a belief system that says it is better to protect the status-quo than to protect kids. They are slaves to a belief system that says it is better to allow credibly accused clergy child molesters to stay in their pulpits than to do anything about it. They are slaves to a belief system that spews forth religious rhetoric at the cost of kids’ safety.

Southern Baptist leaders have turned “priesthood of the believer” into “priesthood of the unaccountable.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day a year ago, I posted the column below about my dad. A few days later, the long-time attorney for the Baptist General Convention of Texas phoned up an attorney friend of mine, suggesting that he might slap a lawsuit against me or drag me up before a State Bar disciplinary review board.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? However baseless his complaint, this guy had the possibility of threatening to haul me before an independent disciplinary board for lawyers. But there doesn’t even exist such a thing as a board for reviewing the conduct of Southern Baptist clergy. And of course, the complaints of clergy abuse survivors are typically far more troubling and of far greater concern to the safety of others than the complaint of a guy who doesn’t like a blog posting.

Lawyers, police, doctors, cosmetologists, other clergy, and people in all sorts of other occupations are subject to review boards. But not Southern Baptist clergy.

Though this guy’s complaint never made much sense, from what I heard, he seemed to think that, since I’m a lawyer myself, I should have realized that he was just giving legal advice and didn’t do anything out of bounds. He also complained that he didn’t know anything about my father’s military service.

So, let me be excessively clear about a few things.

One: I have no reason to think this guy knew my father was a veteran. But though he seemed to think his non-knowledge of my father’s military service was something that mattered, I can’t see how. What I consider contemptible is that he would twist what he did know to try to further shame myself and my family (presumably as another silencing tactic), and meanwhile, no one was doing anything about the child-molesting clergy-perpetrator.

Two: I believe responsibility for the horror and harm in how the Baptist General Convention of Texas mishandles clergy sex abuse reports should rest at the doorstep of BGCT leaders. The attorney works for THEM (and for churches the BGCT refers him to), and presumably he is handling clergy sex abuse reports in the manner that the BGCT wants. (But fyi…for his post-Memorial Day threat, I don’t actually know who he was purporting to represent. Though he made an earlier threat on behalf of the church, it’s possible that, on the post-Memorial Day occasion, he was simply being a jerk all on his own.)

Three: When it comes to how religious leaders handle clergy sex abuse reports, there is a big difference between acting within the bare bounds of the law and acting in a morally responsible manner. The two are not one and the same, and if anyone should realize that, it ought to be leaders of a religious organization. So what if they are within the bounds of the law? Big deal. That does NOT mean they are within the bounds of moral behavior or Christian behavior.


My father had chronic post-traumatic stress symptoms from his service in World War II. He was wounded in the liberation of Luzon and survived by playing dead while they bayoneted bodies around him. When night fell, he crawled through the darkness and over bodies and back to allied troops.

As a kid, I didn't understand, and sometimes my father seemed terrifying. As an adult, I know that we were probably like a great many families of those stoic men who never spoke of their ordeals. Families simply coped as best they could with the psychological wounds so many of those men had.

After one particularly bad incident, the police were called to our house. They just talked a bit and then called our pastor, who came to the house and prayed. He said we should think about others in the church and how upsetting it would be if people found out that a good Christian family like ours had such problems. He told us not to talk about it.

A week or two later, the youth and education minister approached me. He said he knew what had happened in my family and that he’d like to talk with me about it. He asked me to come to his office.

I guess the pastor’s “don’t talk about it” message didn’t apply to him. He obviously breached our trust and told the youth and education minister about the trouble in my family. But I didn’t see that hypocrisy at the time. I saw only that the youth and education minister seemed to care about me. In hindsight, I now see that this was when the grooming for abuse really began. He used my family’s difficulties to move in on his

Years later, when I again tried to report that clergy child molester, I mentioned that the abuse began shortly after this incident of family violence. Naively, I thought this information would help to educate church and denominational leaders on how predatory clergy work. Instead, long-time attorney for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Stephen Wakefield, tried to use that information against me. He wrote back that because I had “suffered from abuse at home” this would have been what caused my distress.

Then he threatened to seek recourse against me if I pursued the reporting of my perpetrator. (Yeah – that’s right – he threatened to sue ME.)

Wakefield brought it up when he spoke with me in person too. In effect, he tried to use my dead father’s mental illness against me to say that I was emotionally damaged anyway, as though no greater harm was done by the sexual abuse of the church’s minister. This attitude offended me beyond all words. And this Memorial Day, I’m still angry about it.

In yesterday’s sermons, I imagine lots of Baptist ministers paid tribute to servicemen and said some nice words. But when it comes to deeds, the reality of what I encountered, both as a kid and as an adult, were Baptist leaders who used my father’s war wound to exploit his family, savage his adolescent daughter, and intimidate her once again as an adult.

Stephen Wakefield isn’t just some rogue attorney. He has been attorney for the largest statewide Southern Baptist organization in the country for over a decade. And this is how he treats those who attempt to report clergy child molestation (even when another minister who knew about the abuse when I was a kid substantiated the report). I think you have to assume that the BGCT approves of his tactics.

My father was a hero, both at war and at home. He worked double and triple shifts his whole life to put Big Chief tablets in his kids’ hands and shoes on their feet. He literally wore his body out trying to provide for his family.

That a know-nothing like Stephen Wakefield would effectively suggest that my father’s psychological war wound was a form of “abuse” in any way akin to the devastating sexual savagery of a Southern Baptist minister is something I will not forget anytime soon. That he would use my family's difficulties to try to minimize the great harm done by a Baptist minister’s sexual abuse is unconscionable.

Over the past couple years, as I have worked at trying to bring the Baptist clergy sex abuse problem to light, I have been kicked countless times by Southern Baptist men. In person, in emails, in letters, on blogs, and even in the Baptist Press, they have said outrageous things, mean things and even hateful things. On a good day, I could probably find it within myself to forgive almost all of it. But for the likes of Stephen Wakefield to effectively degrade my father and try to use his war wound against me is something I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive.

My father was far from perfect, but he was more honest, hard-working, courageous and decent than any Southern Baptist leader I have yet encountered. I honor the memory of my father in continuing to speak truth about Baptist clergy sex abuse and about the horror in how this denomination handles it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Gracepoint Baptist wants "fresh start"

Walnut Grove Baptist Church has changed its name to Gracepoint Baptist Church.

Why? Because they want “a fresh start.” They’re hoping a new name will help them move on from the ugliness of their recent past.

This is the Memphis church where accused child molester Steven Haney was pastor for 20 years.

This is the church that kept Haney as its pastor even after allegations that he sexually abused a teen in the mid-1990s. Reportedly, 30 families left the church at that time. But Haney stayed the church’s pastor… with the result that at least one more kid has been hurt and probably more.

Just last fall, Haney was charged with the sexual assault of another teen. He has also been recently indicted on federal charges of child pornography.

According to the now-grown young man who testified against Haney, this church’s former pastor called the sexual abuse a “test of faith.”

One of the women who left Walnut Grove after the mid-90s allegations said “thank God” when she learned that Haney had finally been brought up on criminal charges. She also stated her belief that the young men bringing forward accounts of abuse “have gone through hell.”

So why the new name for this church that harbored a man like Haney as its pastor? Is it just a whitewash of the past? Or did the church really work at reconciliation of the past?

How much effort have they made to extend help and healing for the victims of Haney?

How much effort have they made to reach out to other possible victims of Haney?

Perpetrators almost always have multiple victims, and so there could be still more victims who remain mired in quiet shame and self-blame.

What’s particularly sad in this case is that more recent victims might have been spared if only the church had treated more seriously the accusations against Haney a decade ago.

Given the church’s dreadful failure, it should now do everything within its power to reach out to other possible victims and to help them.

A new name may be nice for the congregants. But what about the victims? The church’s new name won’t give them a fresh start.

What would be nicer would be for the church to extend a strong hand of healing for those who were so horribly wounded behind its doors.

And what would be still nicer would be for this church to use the example of its own failure as a reason to work for change within the Southern Baptist denomination so that other kids might be better protected.

Gracepoint’s desire for “a fresh start” is similar to Prestonwood’s desire to put it in “the rearview mirror.” But before they simply move on, churches need to learn and impart lessons so that others can be safer.

Unless Gracepoint takes pro-active measures to deal with its past, learn from its past, and reconcile its past, I can’t help but wonder if the new name is just one more way of sweeping the ugliness of clergy child molestation under the rug.

This name-changing incident also illustrates still another reason for why clergy abuse among Southern Baptists is so much harder to get a handle on than it is with Catholics.

Imagine that another Haney victim may have moved away from Memphis and decided to never look back – a not-unusual response for a person so utterly betrayed by his faith community. Many years later, he decides to try to report the abuse that was done to him in that church.

But where’s the church?

Unlike Catholic dioceses, which typically endure for generations, autonomous churches can readily rename themselves and restructure. It makes it all the easier for them to avoid accountability.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Prestonwood hit by sex sting arrest

No church is immune from the scourge of clergy sex abuse.

A minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas has been charged with online solicitation of sex from a kid.

This is one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the nation. It’s the church pastored by former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham.

It’s a church with a highly-affluent and highly-educated congregation. It’s a church with ample resources.

The arrested minister, Joe Barron, was previously the pastor at Northrich Baptist Church in Richardson, Texas, and before that, he was at the First Baptist Church of Lewisville, Texas.

Barron had two weeks’ worth of sexually explicit conversations with a person he believed to be a 13-year old girl. She turned out to be a police officer.

According to police, Barron was arrested when he drove three hours to meet with his intended child-victim. He had a box of 10 condoms in his car, along with a web-camera and headset that police believe he was going to give to the girl.

Police are now investigating whether Barron may have previously engaged in sexual contact with minors.

Meanwhile, pastor Jack Graham told church members, “We want to put this in our rearview mirror.”

Sad, isn’t it? Rather than focusing on the perceived need of his church to move on, Graham should instead be focusing on the needs of children who may have been hurt.

Instead of talking about putting it in the “rearview mirror,” Graham could do a lot more good if he would use his powerful voice to reach out to other possible victims and to urge anyone with any information to bring it forward to police.

Instead of putting it in the “rearview mirror,” Graham himself should seek to learn from this tragedy. If Graham would begin to understand how easily a child predator can infiltrate a church’s ministerial staff, then perhaps he could also use his powerful voice to urge change within the denomination so that ALL Southern Baptist kids might be made safer.

But I doubt that’s going to happen.

The tendency to hastily put clergy sex abuse in the “rearview mirror” is deeply entrenched in this denomination.

Religion writer Terry Mattingly picked up on the Prestonwood story and pointed to it as providing a clue to the scope of the larger story about clergy sex abuse among Southern Baptists and about why it is so difficult to bring much-needed attention to the Southern Baptist abuse story.

“This is an important – although frustrating – story worthy of more coverage,” he says.

Mattingly should know. Five years ago, Mattingly was one of the first journalists to write about the difficulty that Southern Baptists have in cracking down on clergy sex abuse. Mattingly recognized how unrealistic it was to think that a Southern Baptist church could investigate and discipline its own pastor, and he also saw the easy shield that the “free-wheeling and autonomous” polity provided to Baptist leaders.

Where does the buck stop?” he asked. For Southern Baptists, the buck seems to stop nowhere.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

No bishops is no excuse

"Because there are no bishops...."

That´s what you hear Suzii Paynter saying in this news video.

Paynter, of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is apparently explaining why Baptists CAN´T institute the same sorts of preventive measures as other faith groups to protect kids against clergy sex abuse.

It´s the standard "can´t - won´t - won´t even try" response that Baptist leaders make when confronted with clergy child molestation.

How much longer will Baptist leaders keep telling us why they CAN´T?

When will Baptist leaders start telling us how they WILL?

Maybe someone should give Paynter a copy of "The Little Engine That Could." Remember? "I think I can - I think I can - I think I can...." And over the hill the little engine went.

If Baptist leaders would stop clicking replay on their rote "we can´t" excuse and instead start thinking "we can", then maybe they would find a way.

Until then, their standard "because there are no bishops excuse" is self-defeating. It assures that they WON´T institute effective measures to address Baptist clergy sex abuse.

This means that kids in Baptist churches won´t receive the same sorts of protections as kids in Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist churches.


"Because there are no bishops."

It´s their standard line, but Baptist leaders are making a dreadful mistake when they keep saying it. "Because there are no bishops" can never be a good enough excuse for failing to protect kids against credibly accused clergy child molesters.