Friday, August 1, 2008

Nothing lovely about it

“You know what might be the best part of Southwood? The people of it…the church itself. They’re lovely. That’s it, lovely.”

Fort Worth’s Southwood Baptist Church has rotating quotes on its website, and that one was up when I clicked there this morning.

I nearly spewed my Diet Frostie out my nose.

Let’s take a look at how these “lovely” people behave.

Southwood’s pastor James “Jay” Robinson was arrested in June on charges of molesting a 16-year-old church girl.

Before the girl’s dad went to police, he first confronted Robinson after overhearing his daughter’s phone conversation with him. When Robinson denied wrong-doing, the dad went to church leaders. When Robinson continued to deny the accusation, and when church leaders did nothing, the dad took his daughter’s cellphone records to church leaders. They still did nothing.

We’re going to err on the side of the pastor,” said a church leader.

Ultimately, church leaders refused to fire pastor Robinson. Instead, they voted to put a “reprimand” in his file and they directed him to obtain counseling.

But when the dad talked about it with other church-members, the church leaders decided to retract even that tiny, inadequate measure of discipline for Robinson.

Instead, they issued a threat against those who were talking about the pastor’s conduct. According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram’s account, church leaders said that “anyone who is caught…talking about the issue at church will be removed.”

And guess what?

Church leaders made good on the threat. They used armed guards to remove from church services some of the people with whom the dad had been talking.

The next day, pastor Robinson and seven church leaders sent a letter to members saying this:

“Those who choose to follow the lead of these by gossiping, slandering, causing division and discord, or by holding or participating in sectional meetings, will face church discipline…. It is our desire and prayer that all would repent and be restored, but until that time, those who cause discord in the Church are to be shunned according to Scripture.”

The same "lovely" letter also invited church-members to pastor Robinson’s upcoming wedding. Nice touch, huh?

After that letter went out, the dad went to the police. They conducted a polygraph that showed “significant deception” on pastor Robinson’s part.

Nevertheless, even after pastor Robinson failed the polygraph, “church leaders didn’t waiver in their support” for him. Robinson stayed in the pulpit throughout the 3-month criminal investigation leading up to his arrest in June.

“Everybody is supporting the pastor,” said a man at the church.

Now… finally… the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported yesterday that pastor James “Jay” Robinson has resigned from Southwood Baptist Church. The resignation was described as “an agreement between Robinson’s criminal defense attorney and the church’s attorney.”

I think what that likely means is that church leaders shifted gears from protect-the-pastor mode to protect-the-church mode.

“Lovely” people? “Lovely” church?

That’s sure not what this sad saga reflects.

Perhaps the most that can be said of them is that they’re normal.

Over and over again, we have seen this pattern of how churches circle the wagons around an accused pastor. The people of Southwood Baptist Church behaved as countless others have in similar circumstances.

The pattern is so pervasive that it might be called “normal.”

But there’s nothing “lovely” about it.

See WFAA video of pastor James “Jay” Robinson delivering a sermon.

Update 8/30/08: After all this, James Jay Virtue Robinson wound up pleading guilty to sexual assault on a 16-year-old church member.


Junkster said...

Like I said in the last thread, I understand that the members of a church would love and support their pastor. I don't think its right to fault a congregation for that. But that loyalty is the reason resources for investigating and acting outside of the local church is needed. The members of a church just aren't in the best position to be objective about their own ministers, even when presented with evidence. I'm not defending churches that allow a known abuser to stay in ministry, just saying that its not surprising or wrong that they wouldn't see things objectively.

Christa Brown said...

Junkster: Your comment under the prior thread is part of what inspired this posting. Thank you. The story of this church in Fort Worth seemed perfectly timed to illustrate what you said there ... and of course there have been many other similar stories, as you know.

I'm not defending churches that turn a blind eye either, but I do think it's normal human behavior. The instinct for denial in the face of evil is a normal human instinct, particularly when it appears the evil may have been committed by someone you love and trust completely. This normal human instinct is why churches need the resource of an outside, objective body to assess clergy abuse reports and to inform the congregation of their assessment and advise them.

J. Davidson said...

While it may be the norm for members of the church to react this way it does not mean it is right. There are certain ways these things should be handled and every single church should have procedures in place on how to handle these things when they occur. Part of that means that the members are also made aware of how to handle these things in a decent civil manner and certainly not like they did.

Christa Brown said...

Of course it's not right. But it's normal. It's why there must be systems in place that recognize this normal human response by allowing for the intervention of outsiders. When a police officer is accused of abuse or of excessive force, his own partner and buddies aren't the people who review the matter and decide whether it was self-defense or abuse. There's an independent review board that assesses it. Similar sorts of independent review boards exist for all sorts of other occupations and professions. Even most major religious groups in the U.S. now recognize the need for outsiders to assess clergy abuse reports - Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians. It's beginning to look as though only Baptists are fool enough to deny the reality of this normal human response and to imagine that congregants can objectively assess an abuse report against a minister. It's a foolishness that is dreadfully costly in terms of lives savaged.

Lin said...

There is a part of this that is a problem. Because it is a pastor or other 'leader' they have a hard time believing the accusation could be true at all. What a safe place for an abuser!

Why would one want to err on the side of a possible perp? Instead of the victim? This is what confuses me. The perp in this case has power. The victim does not.

Every accusation should be sent to the police. I really do think people should quit wasting their time confronting those in the church FIRST. This is just as much of a civil matter in the possible breaking of the law. WE can deal with the spiritual at the same time.

Even using Matthew 18, it is still a matter of civil law.

Christa Brown said...

Lin: I agree that every accusation should be sent to the police. But the real-world problem is that, in the vast majority of cases, the police cannot do anything because of statute of limitations problems. This Southwood case is an exception because, essentially, the victim disclosed accidentally - i.e., the dad found out. But in most cases, by the time the victim himself is able to speak up, it's too late for prosecution. Many, many victims have gone to the police, only to have the police tell them they can't do anything.

Over 700 Catholic priests have now been removed from ministry but only about 3 percent have ever been convicted of anything. That means that, if they were Southern Baptist clergy instead of Catholic clergy, about 679 of them could still be in active ministry. Heck... not only would Southern Baptist leaders not remove them from ministry... they wouldn't even look into the matter, inform people in the pews, or keep records of it.

On the civil-suit side, this article from a couple weeks ago shows why Delaware is setting a possible example for other states to follow in extending limitations and opening a "window." It effectively recognizes the reality that most childhood molestation victims cannot speak of it until many years later, and by allowing for civil suits, it allows for the possibility that perpetrators can be exposed through public court records.

Anonymous said...

When reading this case in the Star Telegram I wanted to throw up. Pastors are "to shepherd" the flock. These means nurturing as well. I was struck at the odd desire for these people who wanted "to err on the side of the pastor???". "My people hear my voice and do not recognize another"

Anonymous said...


When we got for a checkup at the doctor's office "normal" means healthy. I have long contended that it's not normal to collude. Common, yes. In all ingroups that are incestuous, whether families or schools. When we begin to see the paradigm shifts that are needed in all incestuous groups, we'll all rejoice.

Christa Brown said...

Dee: I certainly agree with you that there's nothing healthy about it! But I also think there are many patterns of human behavior that are so predictable and so statistically prevalent that they constitute the norm even when they are not healthy. I think that's true whether it's human behavior, mob behavior, tribal behavior, institutional behavior, congregational behavior, corporate behavior, or family behavior.

Christa Brown said...

J. Davidson: In reading back over these comments, I realize my response to you seems a bit sharp...(i.e., "Of course it's not right"). My apology. For those of you who don't know, J. Davidson is someone who worked hard to bring a measure of accountability to a Christian school that confronted abuse. Kudos!

Anonymous said...


I am a member of Southwood, even though I no longer attend. Due to illness and other situations, we were not in attendance at the time the allegations surfaced, and I am so thankful we weren't. We didn't know anything until we received the letter about what happened. We were not invited to the secret meetings or the new church, so I'm pretty much feeling unwanted right now. I was shocked at everyone's behavior in this matter. Southwood does have a lot of good and sweet people. Many left; some are still there. I feel like the victim of a nasty divorce. My faith has been totally shaken to the core. I don't see the point of going to any church for any reason, ever. Had I been on the council, it would have been a very tough decision, but I would have removed him and called the attorneys for guidance, then the police. That is the right thing to do, but I can see how the council would not do the right thing, because the right thing is hard to do. I see it all the time in private companies, public companies, governments, and ISD's. Please have mercy on the good people of Southwood. They are resilient, and they are trusting God to get them through this. You have such a sweet spirit, God bless you in all you do.

Christa Brown said...

Anon 12:20 - Thanks for your comment, and welcome to this blog. I do not doubt but that Southwood has some good people. Someone once said that "the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing." I think that sums up the difficulty of confronting clergy sex abuse. It is GOOD people who do nothing.

The problem of clergy abuse would be so much easier if it were simply about a few bad apples. But it's really about so much more. It's about the bushels of GOOD people who, by their actions and non-actions, allow this evil to persist.

I have seen it in churches all across the country. Good people respond inappropriately out of ignorance and also because they are completely incapable of taking an objective view toward a much-loved and trusted pastor. It's why outside intervention is so desperately needed.

Because of these basic human characteristics - the tendency to recoil from truly ugly deeds and not fully see them (i.e., denial) and the inability to be objective about people we already think we know - most other sorts of organizations have outside oversight mechanisms... but not autonomous Baptist churches. For example, if a police officer is accused of abuse or of using excessive force, it's not his partner or any of his buddies at the station-house who look into the matter. There's an independent investigatory board that looks into it.

I am truly sorry for the pain you're experiencing from having seen this ugly thing in your church. I often think that many people greatly underestimate how wide the ripple effect of clergy abuse can be. It can have a devastating effect, not only the direct victims of abuse, but also on their parents, their siblings, their future spouses, the congregations, and the faith community at large.