Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Risk: Another lesson from the Matt Baker story

“Matt has been losing jobs for many years. If Mr. Baker… had such a great relationship at the church where he was a pastor in Dallas, why did his first (in a long line) attorneys threaten to sue that church (and I am betting this letter went to other churches too) if they gave out any information about him? … This information isn't known by many but it can be confirmed. I was a member at that church.”

This comment was recently left on a blog that follows the Matt Baker case and advocates “Justice for Kari,” the deceased wife. (See my posting yesterday for more on Matt Baker.)

The comment illustrates another part of the problem in why Baptists are failing to rout out clergy predators. As explained in the Texas Monthly article, among Baptist churches, “there are no rules” 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.”

So, according to Texas Monthly, First Baptist in Waco kept quiet about the sexual abuse allegations against Matt Baker there. And now it appears that one of Matt’s Dallas churches may have also been intimidated into keeping quiet.

This sort of thing is common. Local church leaders are afraid.

You can be angry at the local churches all you want, and rightfully so, because their cowardice puts others at risk -- possibly grave risk. But the reality is that the local churches desperately need some leadership and help from state and national Baptist bodies. That’s where there are the resources to deal with this pervasive problem in a cooperative and effective manner.

The average Baptist church in Texas has 75 members in the pews on a Sunday morning. Imagine you’re the pastor of a typical church and you receive a troubling report about one of your part-time staff ministers. It’s far easier just to let that minister move on than it is to actually look into the matter.

There’s no excusing it, but that’s the reality. One road is easy; one road is hard. People take the easy road.

Particularly if the departing minister gets an attorney who threatens suit if you say anything, it then becomes even more easy to simply keep mum rather than to grow a sturdy backbone.

Besides, you don’t actually KNOW anything for sure, do you? That’s what church leaders tell themselves in this situation.

And then they run the possible dollar-cost through their heads. If they actually stand up to the departing minister, they realize they’ll be putting the church’s finances at risk. What about the mortgage on the building? What about the church’s ministry programs?

Church leaders find ways to rationalize their silence about reported clergy abuse under the guise of “good stewardship.”

So, the accused minister is allowed to move on to one of the other 43,000 Southern Baptist churches in the country. And then the pattern will probably repeat itself….

The porous structure of Baptist churches makes them a perfect paradise for predators.

Baptist leaders know this. Yet they persist in doing nothing to plug the holes.

The Associated Baptist Press explained the problem this way:

“Experts warn the lack of…a hierarchy in Baptist life gives abusers free rein -- and makes Baptist churches unwitting accomplices to predator pastors who are recycled from one unsuspecting congregation to another.”

State and national Baptist leaders must step up to the plate if this recycling of predators is to be effectively addressed. It is a pervasive problem and it requires a systematic cooperative effort.

Much harm might have been prevented, for example, if the pastor at Matt Baker’s first church – First Baptist of Waco – could have related his concerns to a trained review board at national headquarters. Such a board could have taken on the burden of looking into the abuse allegations in a professional manner, and it then could have taken on the responsibility for relaying information to subsequent churches.

Taking on that responsibility would necessarily mean taking on some risk -- the risk of being sued by ministers who don’t like having information about their deeds relayed to others. But the national organization can better bear that risk than local churches, and it could insure against it.

After all, it’s not a matter of avoiding all risk. That’s not possible. It’s a matter of choosing which risks we care about the most and of choosing who should bear the risk. As things stand, Baptist leaders are choosing to protect themselves and to leave the burden of a far worse risk on the backs of kids and vulnerable congregants. They’re the ones who wind up falling prey to sexual predators.

But so long as Baptists have a system in which their leaders can so easily pass the buck, Baptists will also continue to pass their predators on from one church to another.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Baptists at their best?

Matt Baker is a Baptist preacher who is accused of having killed his wife in order to pursue a relationship with a young woman in his church. Just before Christmas, the trial in the civil suit was postponed, and the criminal case is still under investigation.

I don't know whether he killed his wife or not. But here’s what I do know: Whatever else this murder investigation may eventually uncover, it has already revealed the dangerous reality of Baptists’ blind-eyed approach toward clergy sex abuse.

As reported in an earlier Texas Monthly article, investigators say Matt Baker “spent years in Waco leading… a secret life as a sexual predator.”

At every stage of that alleged “secret life,” he was in schools, churches and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Also known as the BGCT, it’s the largest state-wide Baptist organization in the country, and rather amazingly, it claims to do more than any other Baptist body toward preventing clergy sex abuse.

So, taking Texas Baptists’ brag at face value, let’s look at the best of what Baptists have to offer on this. (Quotes below are taken from the Texas Monthly article.)

Matt started out as a ministerial student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. It’s affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Matt was also a trainer for the football team. A freshman girl, who had a part-time job cleaning locker rooms, reported that “inside the locker room, he pinned her arms behind her back…spread her legs…forced her onto a bench….”

According to the girl’s account, Baylor officials “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 school and moved away, but Matt continued to move up the Baptist ladder. He 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.

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.”

But the church didn’t fire Matt, and apparently, didn't even say much. So Matt was able to continue his upward climb.

He got a job at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, one of the most prestigious churches in Waco. It’s affiliated with – guess who? – the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Then he got a job at First Baptist Church of Robinson. It’s affiliated with – guess again – the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

To supplement his income, Matt ran an after-school youth program at the YMCA. The director 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.” The YMCA fired Matt.

After that, Matt was accepted into Baylor’s renowned Truett seminary. I guess even the Baylor seminary wasn’t able to find out about the sexual assault report that sat in its own file at the Baylor undergraduate school. Just like the university, Truett seminary is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Next, Matt got a job as pastor at Pecan Grove Baptist Church, also affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

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

Matt then 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 affiliated with – guess who -- the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In 2006, still more stories from teenage girls surfaced: “…a hand on a leg”… “his hand against her breast”… asking “if she was wearing panties.”

After his wife’s death, and as talk began to circulate in Waco, Matt moved to Kerrville to work as a director for the Baptist Student Union at Schreiner, a small West Texas college.

Guess who funded his position there? The Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Even with so many allegations of abuse and assault on teens and young women, Matt Baker was able to get still another job working with students. And the Baptist General Convention of Texas even paid for it.

After his arrest on murder charges, he was suspended from his BGCT-funded position “with pay.”

An ordinary person might look at this trail and ask, “How could he keep getting new jobs?” But with Baptists, it’s easy. Baptists have no effective system for even keeping records on abuse allegations against Baptist ministers, much less for doing anything about them.

And the Baptist leaders who claim to be doing the most – those at the Baptist General Convention of Texas – are no less blind than other Baptist leaders.

If the hiring personnel for a BGCT-funded position can't manage to find out about the string of prior sexual abuse allegations in the BGCT's own affiliated churches or in its own affiliated university (or about the fact that he was fired from the YMCA), why should anyone imagine that local churches will be able to find out?

And if this is the best of what Baptists have to offer on clergy sex abuse prevention, what would be the worst? I’d hate to guess.

Incidentally, Matt Baker denies all charges.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Southern Babtoys Corporation

Imagine a company called Southern Babtoys Corporation. They market a game-toy that has a pervasive problem. At least 3 out of every 100 will blow up in a kid’s hands, hurling tiny fragments far and wide.

Typically, it injures the kid quite seriously, though the pieces are so tiny that the kid often doesn’t realize his injury at the time. He may see only a scratch on his forehead and doesn’t know that some of the tiny pieces have actually penetrated his skull.

To make matters worse, the tiny pieces contain a radioactive compound that releases slowly and ripples destruction outward. So, over time, the damage in the kid’s brain grows worse. But though the damage is very real, it manifests slowly. So people don’t usually trace it back to the toy.

It’s the sort of toy that kids play with in groups. So a single toy will often hurt many kids.

Southern Babtoys knows this is happening. But they don’t do anything about it.

They don’t institute any sort of quality control measures to prevent it.

When reports about the problem crop up, they issue public statements that minimize it. And they never acknowledge the seriousness of their quality control problem or how widespread it really is.

Instead, they talk about a few “isolated cases” and chalk them up to all sorts of other things. The kid didn’t follow instructions. The parents didn’t supervise. The toy had been altered. The kid is a whiner. They’re just opportunists who are trying to get money.

Southern Babtoys has a whole list of these kinds of statements, and their public-relations people rotate through them when they talk with the press.

The flawed toys are actually made by a whole slew of small companies spread all over the country. But to better market them, the companies stick a Southern Babtoys label on the toys. Then Southern Babtoys takes a percentage of the revenue from the sale of the toys.

It’s a sweet deal. The local company sells more toys because people trust the Southern Babtoys name. And Southern Babtoys takes in multi-millions with its percentage. Its executives get super-high salaries, and the company gets the prestige of promoting itself as the largest toy-maker in the country.

But what about the kids who get hurt? It’s not such a sweet deal for them. Or for their families. Or even for their future families. They wind up dealing with the brain damage for a very long time.

The few who try to call the monolithic Southern Babtoys Corporation to account get met with a stone wall. If they persist, they get run into the ground by the mega-monied media arm of the SBC. Because its resources are so enormous, Southern Babtoys can spin things however it wants, and to a large degree, the public sees only what the SBC wants.

If push comes to shove, Southern Babtoys pulls forth its most golden “not our problem” excuse of all.

“The toys aren’t even made by us,” it says. “It’s all those small local companies who make the toys, not us. And the fact that the Southern Babtoys brand is on them is irrelevant. Those local companies are all autonomous, and we don’t have any control over them.”

Most people in America wouldn’t accept such a ridiculous story-line from a secular for-profit corporation. So why do they accept it from a religious organization?

Most people in America would expect the brand-holder, Southern Babtoys Corporation, to bear some accountability for those who make use of the brand.

Why do people let religious organizations off the hook at a LESSER standard of accountability than secular organizations?

Friday, December 19, 2008


TIME magazine named Southern Baptists’ rejection of a sex-offender database as one of the top underreported stories of 2008.

It’s right there on the same “top 10” list with stories about the deadly conflict in Sri Lanka where 300,000 people were forced from their homes and about the civil war in the Congo where a million people were displaced.

So, this story about clergy sex abuse in Baptist-land keeps dreadful company. But though the story was underreported at the time, I am so grateful that a national news publication has now seen the significance of the story and included it on its end-of-year list.

Because, make no mistake about it, when leaders of the largest Protestant denomination in the land plant their feet and refuse to even attempt to implement the sorts of proactive kid-protective measures that other faith groups do, it’s a big story.

Southern Baptists claim 16.2 million members, and they have 101,000 clergy in this country. Without an effective oversight system, these numbers mean that a lot of kids and families are being left at risk. Without even any record-keeping on credibly accused clergy, there’s nothing to prevent Baptist clergy-predators from moving church to church.

Folks, take pride in this end-of-year victory. A major national news publication saw the importance of this story, and also saw that it was previously “underreported.”

We are small Davids in this battle. We have only the pebbles that we lift out of the dirt. By comparison, Baptist officials have tanks and artillery.

At national headquarters and in state conventions across the country, Baptist officials have dozens upon dozens of highly-paid, full-time, professional, public-relations people. They have their own press-arms. They have the money, the time, the resources and the staff to endlessly put forth their self-serving spin of trying to minimize the Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-up problem.

Yet, despite all that, this story about their failure made national news.

It’s just one publication, and it’s just one story. But someday, the weight of so many of these stories in the public eye is what will tip the balance and compel them to action.

I don’t know when that will happen. I don’t know whether it will be in 2 years or 20. But I believe it is inevitable. It will happen… someday.

As Martin Luther King said, “No lie can live forever.”

I also believe in the mechanism of how it will happen. WE are the ones who will bring about this change through the gift of truth that we carry in our own voices.

So keep on healing, and raise heck when you can.

Shine on, Survivors!

See also:
"Time ranks SBC rejection of sex-offender database as 'under-reported' story," ABP 12/17/08
"Southern Baptists decide against pedophilia database," BaptistPlanet, 12/22/08

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Letter to SBC president Johnny Hunt

Dr. Johnny M. Hunt
President, Southern Baptist Convention
First Baptist Church of Woodstock
11905 Hwy 92
Woodstock , GA 30188

Dear Dr. Hunt:

With a change in leadership comes a new opportunity.

As president of the Southern Baptist Convention, you now have the opportunity to show genuine leadership on the issue of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups. This may be one of the greatest leadership challenges in the history of Southern Baptists.

Please use your tenure to prod the Executive Committee toward taking real and meaningful action to rid the ranks of Baptist clergy predators and to minister to those who have been wounded by Baptist clergy.

We have heard the oft-repeated explanation that denominational leaders are powerless because Baptist churches are autonomous. However, if indeed denominational leaders lack the power to actually remove credibly accused clergy child molesters from ministry (as other faith groups do), then this would be all the more reason why denominational leaders must at least provide information to those who do carry the power. Denominational leaders must assure that Southern Baptist congregants are provided with objective, professional, trustworthy information so that they can make responsible decisions about their ministers.

As a July 10 Tennessean editorial stated: "The very fact that Baptist churches are autonomous signals that they need the information that the convention could provide."

The only way people in the pews will find out about clergy child molesters is if victims feel safe in reporting them. And victims are never going to feel safe if they have to report abuse by going to the church of the accused minister. Telling clergy victims to "go to the church" is like telling them to go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is cruel to the victim and unproductive toward the end of protecting others.

This denomination needs to provide (1) a safe and welcoming place for victims to report clergy sex abuse, (2) an objective, professionally-trained panel for responsibly assessing victims' abuse reports, and (3) an efficient means of assuring that the assessment information reaches people in the pews -- i.e., a database.

If there is to be an end to the scourge of Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, it will require a strong cooperative effort with leadership at the highest levels. Please make this your top priority. Will you schedule a meeting with us to discuss this urgent need in Southern Baptist life?


David Clohessy
SNAP National Director

Christa Brown
SNAP Baptist Outreach Director

This letter from SNAP to Southern Baptist president Johnny Hunt was reported yesterday in the Associated Baptist Press.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Innocent until proven guilty?

I get email after email with these words: “Innocent until proven guilty.”

Sometimes, they put “proven” in all caps: “Innocent until PROVEN guilty.”

The thing that gets me is the way they toss out those words as though “enough said.”

It’s a catchy slogan and they seem to think slinging the slogan will automatically solve something.

It doesn’t.

In fact, the slogan doesn’t even apply in the context where they’re slinging it.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard for whether a person should go to prison, not a standard for whether he should be in the pulpit.

Our criminal justice system operates with an underlying presumption that it is better to let nine guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man. This fundamental choice lies at the very foundation of our American justice system. So everything is weighted toward a presumption of innocence for the accused.

After all, if a man is found guilty in a court of law, he may lose virtually everything. He may lose his freedom; he may be locked up; he may even lose his life. The consequences of criminal conviction can be extraordinary and severe.

This is why, in a criminal trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proof and must convince a jury that the accused is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It’s an extremely high standard of proof. It’s a standard that inherently accepts that some guilty men will nevertheless go free under the law.

Religious institutions that review clergy sex abuse reports do not operate with the same presumption as the criminal justice system. And for good reason: The risk of mistake does not carry the same consequence for the accused.

A religious institution doesn’t have the power to throw a pastor in prison. It does, however, have the power to inform people in the pews about credible accusations and to safeguard the well-being of kids. It's a power that religious institutions ought to exercise.

Being a pastor is a privilege and a sacred trust. It’s a profession, not a right.

When there is substantial evidence that a pastor molested a kid, the privilege of that profession should be forfeited, regardless of whether the pastor has ever been criminally convicted in a court of law.

This is a reality that other major faith groups have recognized.

In effect, leaders in other faith groups take on the burden of policing the sacred trust that their pastors carry. They realize the power of that sacred trust, and the horror of what can happen when the trust is twisted into a weapon for sexual abuse.

So they honor the power of that trust by safeguarding the boundaries of it. They do so by implementing systems for responsibly assessing clergy abuse reports.

But of course, Southern Baptists are the exception. They’ve rejected the sorts of accountability systems that other faith groups -- and other professional groups -- implement. Instead, Southern Baptist pastors can effectively say, “If you can’t put me in prison, then you can’t put me out of a Baptist pulpit either.”

Wouldn’t you think that Baptist clergy should be held to a higher standard than THAT?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Spending God's Money

The secrecy of Southern Baptist officials about their financial scandal at the International Mission Board wasn’t anything unusual. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen over and over again.

Southern Baptists need to begin seeing the pattern rather than merely viewing these things as isolated cases.

It’s a very common pattern: Without accountability, power corrupts.

Religious organizations are no exception.

The corruption manifests itself, not only in the cover-up of financial wrongdoing but also in the cover-up of clergy sex abuse. For both types of corruption, the root of the problem is a systemic lack of accountability.

That’s the root that Southern Baptists desperately need to remedy.

This blog has posted scores of examples showing the lack of accountability in connection with clergy sex abuse, but let me give you a few more illustrations showing the lack of accountability in the financial context.

North American Mission Board

The president of the North American Mission Board, Bob Reccord, resigned after a state-convention newspaper published an extensive investigative piece about financial mismanagement.

At the time, Mary Kinney Branson was a marketing director for the North American Mission Board, and she’s written a book that provides an insider’s account of the extravagance and financial mismanagement there. Spending God’s Money shows how a powerful religious organization goes wrong when it is unaccountable to the people who fund it and when its leaders lose touch with the higher purpose they purport to serve.

Branson provides details that implicate high Southern Baptist officials and those details are not flattering. For example, Bob Reccord “had a $1 million fund he could use at his discretion, no questions asked and no receipts required.” (Branson at p. 61)

Can you imagine any other organization that would allow an official to spend such sums with so little oversight? According to Branson, that $1 million fund was replenished each year, and in Reccord’s last two years, the fund was reduced to $350,000. In other words, the money didn’t just sit there. He spent it. “No receipts required.”

When Reccord resigned, 41 Southern Baptist leaders signed a letter, praising Reccord and essentially whitewashing his “undisputed misuse of funds.” (Branson at p. 18) One of those signers was Johnny Hunt, who is now the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Another was evangelist Jay Strack.

According to Branson, after Bob Reccord left the North American Mission Board, “auditors discovered that payments were being made to evangelist Jay Strack ($300,000) and Bob’s mega-pastor Johnny Hunt at Woodstock Baptist Church ($92,000). Final payments were sent after Bob resigned but before he left the building…. There were no written contracts. So nearly half a million dollars was paid to Strack and Hunt through verbal agreements with Bob.” (Branson at p. 113)

A copy of the letter signed by those 41 Southern Baptist men is included in the appendix to Branson’s book. Some of the other prominent Southern Baptist leaders who signed off on it were Jerry Vines, Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham, David Clippard, Anthony Jordan, Michael Lewis, Jerry Sutton, and Edwin Young.

As Branson explains, Southern Baptist officials effectively concealed this sort of financial mismanagement and wrongdoing by silencing employees. With financial incentives, they induced most departing employees to sign a secrecy pact.

A copy of the standard agreement is included in the book’s appendix; here is the secrecy clause that they persuaded people to sign: “I further agree to make no public or private statements or disclosures concerning my employment or treatment by NAMB or any of its officers, directors, or employees, and not to portray them in a negative or poor light to anyone.” The contract further specifies that, if they break the secrecy pact, then all the “enhanced separation benefits” they received (i.e., the “hush money”) will “become immediately due and payable to the NAMB.”

Baptist Foundation of Arizona

The Baptist Foundation of Arizona was established with the pretense of serving Southern Baptist causes. During its history, it did indeed return about $1.3 million to Baptist causes. But it also “loaned” nearly $140 million to companies owned by three of the Foundation’s directors. In doing so, the Baptist Foundation of Arizona cost thousands of investors their life-savings to the tune of $570 million dollars. It was called “the largest affinity fraud in history.”

Also called “affinity scams,” such frauds target investors who have a similar interest -- in this case, advancing "the Lord's work" through Southern Baptist churches.

Consider just one example: A Baptist Foundation of Arizona subsidiary called Arizona Southern Baptist New Church Ventures "had a stated purpose of financing new Southern Baptist churches in Arizona. Yet it raised most of its money by selling investment products to individuals and invested most of those funds in… an allegedly phony company owned by one-time BFA director Jalma Hunsinger.”

Many of the investors were elderly, and they learned of the investment “opportunity” through their church. They were promised high returns and that some of their money would be used to advance the Gospel. Brochures, distributed in Arizona churches, assured investors that their money “would be as safe as if kept in a bank.”

“We were deceived,” said a woman who invested $35,000 from her son’s Navy death benefit with the Foundation. She described the Foundation’s presentation in her church as being like “the moneychangers in the Temple,” and she complained that Baptist officials were reluctant to discuss the scandal for fear that it “gives God a bad name.”

Sound familiar?

Baptist General Convention of Texas

The “Valleygate” scandal showed the ugly side of the largest state-wide Baptist convention in the country. It involved $1.3 million in lost and mismanaged church-starting funds. “The investigative team faulted the BGCT Executive Board staff for poor oversight, uneven management, failure to abide by internal guidelines and misplaced trust.”

Because the investigators’ report indicated that some BGCT staff had “allowed the misuse to occur,” it was determined that recovery of the funds would be difficult.

This was a scandal that probably would have never seen the light of day if not for a courageous Southern Baptist pastor named David Montoya, who blogged about it relentlessly as “Spiritual Samurai.” It was a name that suited him because he had the heart of a warrior. But like many whistle-blowers, he was made to pay a heavy price.

Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville

Remember when church members at Two Rivers tried to get access to church financial records? They were accused of “causing division” within the church body.

Sound familiar?

Executive pastor Scott Hutchings gave this Borgian justification for the harshness in how church leaders treated the “renegades”: “There has to be submission and authority.”

Meanwhile, thousands of pages of church financial records were found in a dumpster behind the church. It certainly appeared as though church officials didn’t want people to see those records.

Two Rivers is the home-church for many of the Southern Baptist officials and bureaucrats who do the day-to-day decision-making of the Southern Baptist Convention. Is it any wonder that there are so many Southern Baptist cover-ups when this is the example that is set by the leaders of the leaders’ own church?

These are the sorts of disasters you get when an organization gives its leaders power without also insisting on accountability.

Without accountability, power corrupts.

6/11/09: Appeals court upholds convictions of Arizona Baptist Foundation officials
11/11/10: Libel suit by South Texas church starter dismissed

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

He could have been stopped

Gray Harvey was a Baptist missionary who allegedly stole about $360,000 from the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some say the amount of the theft was actually much greater, but $360,000 was the amount the Southern Baptist Convention settled for in a civil lawsuit in 2005.

As part of the settlement, Southern Baptist officials also entered into a “secrecy pact” and pledged not to talk about it. They terminated Harvey’s employment, but beyond that, Harvey didn’t face many consequences.

Southern Baptist officials let the guy go free without pressing any criminal charges.

And it appears they didn’t even collect on the $360,000. The Mobile Press-Register reports that, with interest, Harvey’s debt to the Southern Baptist Convention has now grown to about $500,000.

That’s a lot of moolah.

Think about that tired waitress who got up on her swollen feet the next morning, went to church, and put her tips in the plate for the Lottie Moon offering.

Think about that single mom working at Wal-Mart who bought a chicken for Thanksgiving dinner instead of a turkey because she wanted to have some money left over so she could give to her church for mission work.

Think about that man who’s up to his knees in muck, working overtime to fix the city sewer line, and he goes home filthy, but before he even cleans up, he tells his wife to write a check to the church for the overtime portion of his pay.

Think about that older factory worker who’s exhausted from a double-shift and wonders whether he’ll ever be able to retire, but though his arm aches, he still reaches for his wallet and puts money in the offering plate because he wants to support the missionaries.

Think about that frail widow who needs her prescription refilled but she prays about it and decides to give some of her Social Security check to the Lottie Moon offering instead.

Now think about this: Southern Baptist officials, sitting in their fine offices in Nashville, had so little respect for the hard-earned dollars that people gave to God that they didn’t even press charges. They didn’t want negative publicity. They “didn’t want people to know.”

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Southern Baptist officials handled this embezzlement scam in much the same way that church officials typically handle clergy sex abuse allegations. It’s the same keep-it-quiet pattern.

And they sure as heck can’t hide behind their “all churches are autonomous” wall on this one. Gray Harvey was an employee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He was unmistakably one of their own.

Given this lack of transparency about financial wrongdoing in their ranks, is it any wonder that so many local churches do such a poor job of handling clergy sex abuse allegations? Look at the example set by the highest of Southern Baptist leaders. It’s an example that says “protecting the image is all-important.”

I wish I could say this story ended here. But it gets worse.

A whole lot more people got hurt.

Gray Harvey is now accused of selling fake insurance policies to residents on the Gulf Coast. Police say he may have swindled coastal residents out of as much as $750,000 -- and the fake insurance scam also left their homes unprotected during hurricane season.

This part didn’t have to happen. Gray Harvey could have been stopped sooner.

But rather than doing the right thing, Southern Baptist officials did virtually nothing. And their do-nothingness allowed for many more people to get hurt.

Sound familiar?

It’s the same dreadful pattern that we see with their do-nothing response to clergy sex abuse. The perpetrators are allowed to move on and more people get hurt.

Police believe Gray Harvey has left the country by now. So he’ll probably never be held accountable.

Sound familiar?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Jonestown anniversary

Thanksgiving marked the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Over 900 people lost their lives when Rev. Jim Jones exhorted his followers to “die with dignity.”

By faith and by force, hundreds swallowed the cyanide-laced Kool-aid that was served up by the leaders of Jones’ church.

It was an event that left a permanent mark in our lexicon with the expression “drink the Kool-aid.”

Nowadays, people almost uniformly describe Rev. Jones’ church as a “cult.” Yet, what is often overlooked is that, for years, Rev. Jones was actually a very politically-connected preacher. It’s not as if he wore a sign saying “wacko.”

To the contrary, he carried the credibility of being a minister in good-standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It’s an “absolutely normal,” mainline Protestant denomination. And, similar to Southern Baptists, Disciples of Christ have a congregational polity.

And the people in Jim Jones’ congregation weren’t fools. Many were highly-educated. They almost certainly didn’t see themselves as being part of a “cult.” Yet, when things turned terribly wrong, the sheep couldn't rein in the shepherd.

After the Jonestown tragedy, the Disciples of Christ saw how their lack of clergy oversight made them vulnerable to horrific abuse perpetrated in the name of faith. So they created a process by which a regional body can consider the “standing” of ministers who carry the Disciples of Christ name.

One ordained Disciple recently explained the change this way: “In the dark light of Jonestown, it’s hard to argue that you can go back to an entirely decentralized structure with a general identity. That’s how you get a Jim Jones.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this story about the Disciples of Christ and Jim Jones. About 18 months ago, another ordained Disciple shared this same bit of history with me in explaining why he so strongly supported our efforts to create a clergy accountability system for Southern Baptists. He understood the danger.

After all, Southern Baptists have over 101,000 ministers in this country, and they’re spread out in more than 43,000 churches. It’s a faith group whose members share a strong “general identity” but have “an entirely decentralized structure.”

With 101,000 ministers, you can be certain that there are many who are seriously messed up. Some of those messed-up ministers will be child molesters. With the authority of a minister and with faith as a weapon, they persuade trusting kids to serve their sexual ends. Then, they often convince their own colleagues to disregard their worst fears about what they suspect or to even participate in a knowing cover-up. Such is the power of faith and trust.

There is no denominational system of oversight for those 101,000 ministers nor anyone who is systematically keeping records on them. In fact, Southern Baptists don’t even have some minimal oversight at the start of a minister’s career. They don’t even require that their ministers go to seminary.

Of the major faith groups in this country, Southern Baptists are perhaps the most loosey-goosey of all when it comes to clergy accountability. In essence, there simply isn’t any system of accountability.

Most people in the pews don’t realize that.

I will never forget the phone call I once got from a deacon in a church facing a substantiated allegation that, 20 years earlier, their much-loved pastor had repeatedly molested and sexually assaulted a 14 year old. Only after it became headline news, and when the church’s leaders could no longer keep a lid on it, did the pastor finally resign. The deacon told me that he had heard about the allegations earlier but assumed there was nothing to them.

“If there was anything to them,” he said, “then I figured someone at the Southern Baptist Convention would tell us.”

When I explained to him that there wasn’t anyone at the Southern Baptist Convention who would tell them or who would do anything at all, he was genuinely surprised.

“They wouldn’t really allow someone who molested a kid to stay in ministry, would they?” he asked.

“Yes, they would. And they wouldn’t even tell you about it.” That answer shocked him, but the shocking nature of it didn’t make it any less true.

Even a church deacon -- someone who probably knows more about Baptist polity than ordinary people -- still made the very reasonable assumption that Southern Baptist leaders would intervene if a minister did something dreadfully wrong.

People make that assumption because they share a “general identity” as Southern Baptists, and they think the shared identity means something. But with “an entirely decentralized structure,” there’s no accountability for those who abuse the trust of the shared identity. So the assumption winds up being erroneous.

Thirty years ago, the Disciples of Christ put in place a safeguard to try to plug the safety hole in their decentralized system. When over 900 people lost their lives, leaders saw the power of faith as a weapon, and they realized that the denomination itself carried a moral responsibility to intercede.

It’s a moral responsibility that Southern Baptist leaders still haven’t recognized.

For another account of what happened at Jonestown, read “Town without Pity,” by Charles A. Krause, a journalist who was shot while trying to cover the story there.