Thursday, July 31, 2008

The risk of false accusation

The woman who accused a Kentucky Southern Baptist youth pastor of sexually abusing a teen “now admits the story was made up.”

Clayton Pruett was arrested in mid-December 2007, after a mother filed a police report alleging that Pruett had abused her 15-year-old daughter.

With a packed courtroom of church-goers, the court dismissed those charges in January 2008 when the lead investigator was unable to attend the hearing because of a family emergency. Pruett then filed a defamation lawsuit against the mother who made the accusation.

Now, in settlement of Pruett’s defamation suit, it’s reported that the mother has signed a document saying that her statement to police was false. The mother, Debra Johnson, was a school board member for the district in which Pruett also worked as a substitute teacher and wrestling coach.

Pruett, who was on paid voluntary leave, has been reinstated to his duties as youth minister at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. The school district has also reinstated him as a substitute teacher and wrestling coach.

Pruett states his great relief and his belief that the truth got out.

False allegations of sexual abuse are a terrible travesty that cause great harm. The possibility of a false allegation is a possibility that should never be overlooked. But it should also be kept in perspective.

Experts say that, for those who report having been sexually abused in childhood, fabricated sexual abuse reports constitute only 1 to 4 percent of all reported cases. It is a real risk, but it is also a risk of low likelihood.

For this reason, the risk of false allegations cannot be a legitimate ground for church and denominational leaders to do nothing about reports of clergy child molestation. Every allegation deserves to be treated seriously -- for the sake of both the accuser and the accused. This is why other faith groups now have lay-person review boards to objectively assess those clergy abuse allegations that cannot be prosecuted through the criminal justice system -- and that’s most of them.

Clayton Pruett’s nightmare ended after 7 ½ months. I have no doubt that those were miserable months for him. However, I also know that, for most clergy abuse victims, a mere 7 ½ months of misery would be a blessing.

It is far easier for a falsely accused minister to get his career back than it is for a sexually abused kid to ever again regain their innocence and trust. For most clergy abuse victims, the nightmare continues for decades.

This story shows the essential choice that confronts church and denominational leaders when they face a clergy abuse allegation. On the one hand, the feelings and reputation of a grown-up are at stake. On the other hand, the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and sexual safety of potentially many kids are at stake. The prudent and moral choice would be to err on the side of protecting those who cannot protect themselves -- children. It is easier for an adult to repair his reputation than for a child to repair his psyche.

To be falsely accused of abuse is a terrible thing. But it is even more terrible to be sexually abused and then attacked or disbelieved upon reporting it.

Clayton Pruett states, “The church has been behind me 100% the entire time.”

Among the many scores of Baptist abuse survivors I have spoken with, I have never heard a single one say anything remotely similar to that. To the contrary, most would say that the church was 100 percent against them.

And they would tell you how profoundly painful that failure of the faith community was for them.

Additional news: Accuser recants sex abuse charge against Baptist youth minister

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Kudos to Ben!

SNAP members handed out flyers at a Virginia courthouse yesterday, urging a stiff sentence for admitted Baptist preacher-predator George Lowe. (That’s them in the photo, with SNAP-Virginia leader Becky Ianni second from right.)

Ben Marsh is the courageous man who brought Lowe to justice. (Ben is at the far right.)

Lowe molested Ben two decades ago when Ben was a 15-year-old church boy who had gone to Lowe for counseling.

Several years later, when Ben reported the incidents to a church deacon, he was quoted scripture about Christians not taking other Christians to court.

Then, when he was about 20, Ben contacted the police. But no charges were filed.

Time went by, and Ben struggled with the psychological fall-out from what was done to him by that Baptist minister. It had a profound impact on his life, as clergy abuse does with most people.

Last year, Ben again contacted police. This time, they put a wire on him and Ben went to Lowe’s office to discuss the things that happened years ago.

Lowe’s recorded statements gave police the evidence they needed for indictments. (And Virginia has a better statute of limitations than many states.)

Lowe pleaded guilty to two counts of taking indecent liberties with a child. My guess is that he pleaded guilty in order to avoid prosecution on 7 more counts that were initially charged.

Lowe now faces a possible penalty of 10 years in prison. Sentencing is set for August 25.

The people of Virginia owe Ben Marsh a debt of gratitude. It wasn’t church leaders who worked to protect their kids. It wasn’t Baptist officials who worked to protect their kids. It was a brave and persistent clergy abuse survivor named Ben Marsh.

Kudos to Ben!

See Ben’s picture as a kid in the school band, and read Ben’s own survivor story here.

Write to the judge and urge the maximum sentence for child molester George Lowe: Judge Gordon Willis, Circuit Court, P.O. Box 69, Stafford, Virginia 22555.

Update 9/2/2008: George Lowe was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Joker card

On her blog today, Danni Moss talks about documents which show the Catholic Church’s long awareness of clergy sex abuse and its imposition of secrecy. Here’s what she said:

“As I read this information I was filled with very mixed feelings. Yes, this seems deplorable. At the same time, isn’t it worse to have a system which just blows around platitudes and does the “aw-shucks” shuffle, while playing the we-can’t-do-anything-about-it card? This is just as disingenuous and offensive as some feel about the Pope’s recent apologies to abuse victims. At least he’s apologizing! That’s more than we’re getting over here.”

Danni’s right. What Southern Baptist leaders are doing is just as offensive, if not more so, than what Catholic bishops did in failing to protect kids against clergy sex abuse.

Catholic clergy abuse victims reported their priest-perpetrators to bishops, and the bishops kept things secret and often assigned priests to new locations.

Baptist clergy abuse victims reported their pastor-perpetrators to denominational leaders, and denominational leaders kept things secret and allowed the pastors to stay in their pulpits or move to new locations.

Whether the clergyman is “assigned” to a new location or “allowed” to move to a new location, the kids who are molested, raped and sodomized are just as horribly hurt.

As Danni’s comments make apparent, the only real difference is that Southern Baptist leaders have an extra card in their deck. It’s the “we-can’t-do-anything-about-it” card.

They play it as a joker.

Bishops don’t have that card in their deck. Everyone knows they have power and so they bear blame – and rightfully so.

But Southern Baptist leaders should also bear blame. Their joker card is exactly that. It’s a joke.

Southern Baptist leaders have power. They simply don’t choose to exercise that power for the protection of kids against clergy-predators. Instead, they throw down their joker of “we-can’t-do-anything-about-it.”

And they walk away smiling. Just like a joker.

But that card is an evil pretense.

They cloak their cowardly joker in words of religion. They toss down the “we-can’t-do-anything-about it” card, and then they say the Bible dealt it to them.

They claim the Bible tells them that all churches are autonomous and that this trumps their obligation to protect kids.

Worst of all, they don’t even have the gumption to call their card what it really is: “a joker.” Instead they pull a “Word of God” label from their sleeve and try to fool everyone.

Southern Baptist leaders distort the Word of God to propagate their own small-minded pile of chips, and they do it at the expense of kids.

But peel back their stealthily-slapped-on label and you’ll see what’s really on the table.

It’s a joker.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What should I tell them?

“Tom Robbins has become the face of the Archdiocese of Louisville for people who continue to come forward and report their abuse,” said the Louisville Courier-Journal in recounting the history of Catholic clergy abuse claims in Kentucky.

As I read the words of the article, I literally ached, thinking of all the people who have contacted me, asking who they could report a Baptist perpetrator to.

What should I tell them?

Who is “the face” of the Southern Baptist Convention for people who want to come forward and report Baptist clergy sex abuse? Who will hear the cries of the 90 percent whose cases cannot be criminally prosecuted?

For Baptist abuse survivors, there is no “face.” There is no one.

It hurts even to say such a thing. And yet it’s true.

A few days ago, I got still another email from a man asking who else he could try for reporting the Baptist minister who abused him as a kid.

What should I tell him?

I’m not about to send him to anyone at the SBC in Nashville. I’ve seen too many of their terse responses that sermonize on forgiveness and instruct on autonomous polity.

And I’m not about to tell him to go to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Why would I put any abuse survivor through the hell of that organization’s duplicitous do-nothingness?

Besides, over and over again, the BGCT has told abuse survivors to “go to the church.” Rather than helping the person who reports abuse, they send the person to the den of the very wolf who abused them. It’s crazy.

It’s also extremely hurtful for victims. Reporting sexual abuse is painful, and reporting to a hostile environment makes it unbearably so.

For those trying to report priest abuse in Louisville, “the experience is so traumatic for some that they become ill on the steps" to Robbins' office.

“The walk up those stairs… is a heroic walk,” said Robbins.

At least for those who report priest abuse in Louisville, there is a “face” at the end of that “heroic walk.” There is a person who will compassionately hear them and who will look into the matter.

For those who want to report Baptist clergy abuse, there is no one.

Baptist victims are no less traumatized by sexual abuse, and they are no less heroic when they seek to report it. The difference is that there is no one in the Baptist faith community who will hear them.

“Am I having to relive everything for no reason?” That’s what another emailer asked.

He wants to help protect others, but if there’s no system for reviewing abuse reports, and if no one will do anything anyway, he wonders why he should keep putting himself through the misery of trying.

What should I tell him?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Credibly accused

The Diocese of Davenport just released the names of 24 priests who were “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, Southern Baptist officials won’t even establish a system for assessing the credibility of sexual abuse reports, much less for releasing the names of credibly accused clergy to the public.

If you listen to the excuses and rationalizations of Southern Baptist officials, you might imagine that SNAP had asked them to do something radical and unprecedented in imposing clergy accountability measures. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We asked Southern Baptist officials to do LESS than what most other major faith groups are already doing. And still they thumbed their noses.

We didn’t ask Southern Baptist officials to exercise authority over local churches, or to control the hiring decisions of local churches, or to revoke the ordination of ministers.

We simply asked Southern Baptists to create an office where victims may safely report clergy abuse, and where their reports will be responsibly assessed. And we asked Southern Baptist officials to inform churches of the outcome of those assessments.

In other words, while other major faith groups are actually removing credibly accused clergy from ministry, all we asked of Southern Baptist officials was that they inform people in the pews about credibly accused clergy.

And Southern Baptist officials refused.

By now, we’ve all seen how they distort their autonomy doctrine to rationalize refusing to act on this. But that’s just one of their excuses. I’ve also seen much whining, wailing and gnashing of teeth about the “credibly accused” language.

“What’s the standard?” they ask. “How could anyone possibly decide whether someone was ‘credibly accused’?”

And then they act as though the very posing of the question renders the answering of it impossible and thereby justifies their own refusal to act.

Of course, that’s ludicrous. It’s just more of their excuse-making.

Thanks to their own extraordinary recalcitrance, Southern Baptist officials don’t have to invent the wheel on this. Other faith groups have already done the work of developing standards for assessing the credibility of clergy abuse accusations. So, Southern Baptist officials could draw from the models, examples and standards that are already being used by other faith groups.

For example, as paraphrased in the news article, the standard used by the Diocese of Davenport to assess whether a clergy abuse accusation is “credible” is this: “The abuse must be more likely than not to have occurred, corroborated with other evidence or other sources, and/or acknowledged or admitted to by the accused.”

There are also professional investigatory firms that help in assessing sexual abuse allegations. The Episcopal Diocese of Texas recently used a professional investigatory firm to assist with reviewing clergy abuse allegations dating back to the 1960s.

All sorts of factors are used in these sorts of assessments, including documentary evidence such as letters and diaries, any corroboration from other witnesses, circumstantial information, the context in which the event occurred, and statements by the alleged perpetrator (e.g., perpetrators sometimes admit to the conduct but rationalize it in some way such as by calling it “consensual” or saying it was "just" fondling). These sorts of factors are weighed every day by the clergy abuse review boards of other faith groups, by social service agencies, and by investigatory agencies.

Yet, Southern Baptist officials persist in throwing up their hands and acting as though it would be an impossible task.

It’s not. That reality is demonstrated by the fact that other faith groups are already doing it.

But of course, there may be other unstated reasons why Southern Baptist officials don’t want to start assessing clergy abuse reports in the way that other faith groups do.

The assessments of a denominational review board are something news reporters can write about. And that serves to bring clergy abuse into the light of day.

Perhaps that is exactly what Southern Baptist officials don’t want to happen. By refusing to provide any system for the responsible assessment of clergy abuse reports, Southern Baptist officials effectively assure that the public will not find out about most Southern Baptist clergy sex abusers. The predators stay hidden.

This may help to temporarily preserve Southern Baptists’ self-aggrandized image as a moral beacon. But it does so at the cost of kids’ safety.

That’s why it’s an illusory image. There's nothing moral about it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

SBC leaders need to lead

Kudos to the Tennessean for today’s insightful editorial!

It sees that the problem among Southern Baptists is a lack of leadership. Ordinary people in the pews put trust in their leaders, and those leaders have failed them on the very issue that families care about most -- the safety and well-being of kids.

Why should anyone imagine that Southern Baptist leaders will be able to prevent clergy child molesters they don't yet know about when they do nothing about clergy child molesters they are specifically told about?

That’s right -- Southern Baptist leaders do nothing to responsibly and objectively assess clergy abuse reports in the way that other major faith groups now do. And they do nothing to warn people in the pews.

If Southern Baptist church-goers fully realized how far behind the curve their leaders are in addressing clergy abuse, they would stand on the pews and demand action. Or perhaps they would simply march their families down the street to a church in one of the other denominations that is doing more to protect against predators.

Oh, but Southern Baptist leaders put out some nice brochures, you say? Yeah, right. Deeds protect kids, not words.

And why should anyone imagine that Southern Baptist leaders will be able to prevent clergy child molesters they don't yet know about when they don't even bother to remove convicted, charged and admitted child molesters from their own ministerial registry in Nashville?

Six times during the past 20 months, Southern Baptist leaders were repeatedly and publicly told about convicted and charged child molesters on their ministerial registry. The Tennessean's fine reporting on this was the seventh time.

What sort of real-world message does it send when the highest leaders of this denomination don't even bother to remove convicted predators from their own ministerial registry, despite being repeatedly told about it?

The message it sends to wounded clergy abuse victims is "We don't care."

The message it sends to clergy-predators is "You're safe among us."

Today’s Tennessean editorial got it right: “It is about trust.”

Why should people in the pews trust leaders who, by their deeds, send such dreadfully dangerous and uncaring messages?

The Tennessean is also running these pieces today:
“Reader views: Should the Southern Baptist Convention do more to let members know about sexual predators?” (Answer: Yes!!!)
“Cost plays a role; child safety a priority” (guest column by Rev. Wade Burleson, who sponsored the database motion)
“Convention takes this issue seriously” (guest column by SBC official Roger “Sing” Oldham)

[The photo, from the Tennessean, is the Centennial Tower of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville.]

Saturday, July 5, 2008

It's not about "sexual temptation"

Last week, the First Baptist Church of Paducah, Kentucky, sent out a letter to its members, telling them about what the church is doing to prevent “sexual impropriety.” The stated goal was “to reassure church members that things like supervised counseling, internet monitoring software, and large windows will create a safer atmosphere.”

I figure the first question you’re probably asking is this: Why would Christa take an interest in FBC-Paducah?

Two reasons:
  1. Dr. Stephen Wilson, chairman of the bylaws workgroup of the SBC Executive Committee, teaches just a few miles down-the-road at MidContinuent University in Mayfield, Kentucky. His group was the subcommittee that was supposed to study the creation of a database of Southern Baptist clergy-predators… and did virtually nothing other than to put out a glossy brochure.

    I can’t help but wonder whether First Baptist of Paducah might be Wilson’s own home church. And that leads me to wonder whether this is an illustration of what he thinks will work to protect kids against clergy predators in Southern Baptist churches.

  2. FBC-Paducah went to the trouble of getting media attention for its letter. According to the news report, “the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee have already shown interest in possibly using this letter as a model for other churches across the state and maybe even across the country.”

    Since Kentucky will play host to next year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Louisville, I predict that we will indeed see FBC-Paducah’s model put forth as exemplary of what Southern Baptist churches should do.

So, is FBC-Paducah's model a good one?


What FBC-Paducah is doing is not nearly enough. Not even close.

Supervised counseling, internet monitoring, and large windows are all good things. But they constitute so little that no one should be reassured by them.

Let’s not forget that the SBC executive committee just blew an opportunity to take real, meaningful action. It refused to establish any system for objectively assessing the credibility of clergy abuse reports and refused to establish any denominational database for keeping track of credibly accused clergy predators. It’s sad to think that they would now try to reassure people with these feeble measures when they refused the chance for far more effective measures.

I know many of you wrote to Dr. Wilson and to other members of the SBC Executive Committee. Some of you told them about your abuse at the hands of Southern Baptist clergy. Yet, I don’t think a single one of you got any help at all in exposing your perpetrator, getting him out of the pulpit, or protecting others.

Why should anyone imagine that Southern Baptist leaders will be able to prevent clergy child molesters they don’t yet know about when they do nothing at all about clergy child molesters who are specifically reported to them?

No parent in a Southern Baptist pew should sit easy until this denomination provides a safe place where victims themselves may report abuse and where their reports will be responsibly assessed.

This is what does not exist. This is what is essential. This is what other major faith groups are doing. This is what Southern Baptists are tragically failing to do.

Instead, Southern Baptist leaders tell victims to report their abuse to the church of the accused perpetrator. This is like telling a person savaged by a wolf that he must go to the wolf’s own den to seek help.

Most clergy abuse survivors will not go to the wolf’s den, and understandably so. For those who try, they are almost always re-wounded as those who love and trust their pastor circle the wagons and stone the messenger who brings such unwelcome news.

This is the reality of human behavior in churches where ministers are accused of sexual abuse. Southern Baptist leaders must address this reality if kids in Southern Baptist churches are to be made safer.

People in the pews will find out about clergy child molesters only when victims report them. Victims will do that only when they are psychologically able and only when they feel safe in doing so.

If Southern Baptists hope to find out about clergy child molesters, denominational leaders must provide a safe place where victims may report abuse and where their reports will be responsibly assessed. Until that happens, steps like those taken at FBC-Paducah will amount to little more than window-dressing.

The letter of FBC-Paducah is a poor model for another reason. In talking about “the danger of sexual temptation,” it reflects a horribly minimizing view of clergy sex abuse. But it’s a view we’ve seen too often among Southern Baptist leaders.

In treating it as a matter of “sexual temptation,” they effectively take the perspective of the perpetrator and they objectify the victims as the source of the temptation.

The clergy-predators who commit these deeds do not simply fall into “temptation.” They commit their deeds intentionally, deliberately and methodically. They often groom their victims for months in advance, slowly moving in on their prey.

The victims are neither tempters nor temptresses. They are human beings, often children, who were victimized by predators through no fault of their own.

It's not about "sexual temptation." It's about sexual savagery, child molestation and rape.

These are awful words but not even a fraction so awful as the actual deeds. Southern Baptist leaders need to stop minimizing this conduct as “sexual temptation” and see it for the full awfulness of what it actually is.

When Southern Baptist leaders begin to view this horror from the perspective of the victims, rather than the perspective of their predatory colleagues, then they may finally begin to see the need for effective action.

Until then, people in the pews should not feel reassured of any safety.


Addendum: According to Executive Committee background material, Stephen Wilson's home church is NOT FBC-Paducah.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Leonard Pitts put this word into print in September 2006: “Talibaptists.”

Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, was talking about the sometimes brash influence of “Talibaptists” on Florida politics, and he complained that they allow little room for those who refuse “to drink the Kool-Aid of fundamentalism.”

Even though Pitts didn’t say anything at all about clergy sex abuse, his word “Talibaptists” resonated with me. By that time, I had already had quite a few encounters with state and national Baptist leaders, and the word “Talibaptists” rang all-too-true.

Pitts’ word came to mind again when I saw the recent EthicsDaily article about Baptist seminary professor Bruce Ware’s sermonizing on wifely submission.

Ware says men abuse their wives because the wives refuse to adhere to their proper biblical role and refuse to be submissive. So, according to Ware, abuse occurs because women rebel against the God-given authority of their husbands.

Nothing new here. This is a strongly dominant strain in Southern Baptist theology: It’s the woman’s fault.


For me, that one word just about says it all by way of response to Ware’s way of thinking.

The sad thing is how unsurprised I was by Ware’s remarks. That’s because the same sick belief-system bleeds over into the arena of clergy sex abuse.

Men who abuse their wives do so because of their need for control and dominance. With Southern Baptist teachings on “biblical manhood,” those abusive men find biblical justification for their dominance.

Baptist clergy sex abusers also have control and dominance issues. And guess what? They also use biblical justification. Why? Because their victims were raised from the cradle to believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

“The Bible tells me so.” Every 3 year-old in a Baptist Sunday School sings that song. If the Bible says it, then I believe it, and that’s what I must do. It’s what we were all taught. Thinking otherwise wasn’t even thinkable.

Clergy-predators know how to exploit that early indoctrination. They become masters at biblical perversion and they turn the word of God into a weapon.

They even convince themselves they’re entitled. After all, they’re called by God Himself. And countless other Southern Baptists fall into that same thinking whenever an abuse victim tries to speak up. “Touch not mine anointed!”

In Baptist churches all across the country, pastoral “authority” carries the day when abuse allegations are raised.

It’s tempting to dismiss people like Ware as being a fringe-element. But that would be a mistake because Ware is hardly unique in his views. To the contrary, he’s a prominent Southern Baptist seminary professor, and there are countless other Southern Baptist leaders of similar mind.

Ware’s words are not idle words. These men mean it. They teach it. They train the next generation of Southern Baptist pastors.

Pollster George Barna, himself an evangelical, did a study which concluded that women in traditional, male-dominated marriages were 300 times more likely to be beaten than women in egalitarian marriages. (Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 80)

Yeah. Words like Ware’s have an impact. They bring about blood, bruises and broken bones. They also bring about dreadful emotional wounds in women whose faith leaders have inculcated in them the belief that they brought abuse down on their own heads by failing to follow the way of “biblical womanhood.”

Now here’s the real kicker. You all know that the SBC executive committee recently rejected the creation of a “database” of clergy-predators. Less widely reported was the fact that the SBC executive committee also rejected a rule that would disfellowship churches that harbored clergy-predators or that failed to respond appropriately to clergy abuse allegations. This was action that SNAP requested of Southern Baptist officials almost 2 years ago.

Yet, the SBC executive committee is now considering a proposal to amend the SBC constitution so that they can disfellowship churches with women as senior pastors. There’s actually only a few such female-led Southern Baptist churches in existence, but apparently that's still a more important issue for SBC leaders than what to do about clergy who molest kids.

"Talibaptists." The word fits.

Thanks to the undermuchgrace blog for the photo.

Read more on "The Strange Sexual Obsessions at Southern Seminary."
Read more on the theology of submission as proclaimed by former SBC president Paige Patterson.