Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Alabama CBF: the good and the bad

The pastor of a Baptist church was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. People in the community were shocked and baffled. In two separate news articles, the accolades went on and on in the small local paper. He “enlightened everyone’s life”…. “touched so many lives in so many ways”… was “very much loved and respected”… “a friend’s friend” … “dedicated to his community and church”… was “everything to everybody” … “a perfect gentleman and perfect friend.”

That’s just a small sampling. The pastor was a prominent citizen. He was on the school board, taught in the schools, was active in local politics, and worked at a mental health center. What could possibly explain his untimely death?

Well, consider this. The pastor had been reported to the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for sexual abuse of an adolescent boy, and that report was under review. Under its policy, if the Alabama CBF committee had arrived at a final determination that the abuse allegations were credible, it would have provided a written statement of its decision. The written statement of a denominational review board is the sort of thing reporters can write about. I can’t help but think that the pastor may have realized that.

I was told that a second victim had recently given a statement to the Alabama CBF committee, and that the committee had confronted the pastor. So the pastor had reason to be upset.

Right about now, I’m guessing some of you are probably thinking that it’s pretty low of me to talk this way about a suicide victim. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. Why not let the dead rest in peace?

Here’s why: A perpetrator’s death doesn’t automatically bring peace for his victims.

It was almost 2 years ago that “Bill” first contacted me and said he had been sexually abused by this prominent Alabama pastor. He filed a police report, but as is typical, too much time had passed for prosecution.

When I realized that the pastor’s church was dually affiliated with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I decided to try to nudge the Alabama CBF to adopt a policy that would allow individuals to report clergy sex abuse to an independent review board. The Alabama CBF is a relatively small organization in Baptist life, and so I hoped it might be more open to change than the big-business-as-usual SBC.

In late 2007, the Alabama CBF adopted a policy and instituted a process for reviewing abuse reports about any minister in an affiliated church. I consulted with the Alabama CBF in the development of its policy, and I applauded them on its adoption. Though the policy was far from perfect, and though it was less than what some other faith groups do, it was nevertheless a big step for a Baptist entity. After all, if the church had been solely affiliated with the SBC, the victim would have been left on his own to try to report the much-loved pastor’s abuse to the pastor’s own church. That’s what Southern Baptist leaders say clergy abuse survivors should do. It’s not realistic.

“Bill” received what I wish all Baptist clergy abuse survivors could receive -- the opportunity to report the abuse to people who will listen and do something about it. Because of the Alabama CBF policy, Bill didn’t have to bear the retraumatizing effect of trying to confront the pastor himself or of trying to present the pastor’s abuse to the pastor’s own church. And because the Alabama CBF’s policy allowed for abuse reports from individuals, and not just churches, Bill didn’t get the bullying run-around that so many other abuse survivors get when they seek help from state and national Southern Baptist leaders, who insist they can’t help individuals. So that much was good about what the Alabama CBF did.

But the Alabama CBF still guarded the secret. And secrecy is what gives perps power -- even dead perps.

When I saw the first article in the small local paper, I contacted the religion writer in the nearest big city -- a reporter with more savvy than the local guy. I admit I hesitated; a suicide is troubling. But a possible factor in a prominent citizen’s suicide would typically be newsworthy. And a Baptist body’s clergy sex abuse review should also be newsworthy. You can read about plenty of clergy review determinations in other faith groups, but for a statewide Baptist body to conduct a review is something unusual. The big-city religion writer was interested. But when he contacted the Alabama CBF, he couldn’t get any confirmation that they had been conducting a review on the pastor. The Alabama CBF wouldn’t say one way or the other. And without confirmation, it’s hard for a reporter to make a story.

By then, the second article in the small local paper had come out, heaping even more praise onto the dead pastor. That pretty much put Bill over the edge. How should he feel when he sees the pastor whom he reported for rape repeatedly lionized as a local hero?

Bill shut down. At first, he was ready to provide all his documentation to help get the “real story” out. He had a police report, letters from the Alabama CBF to him and the accused pastor, and his own lengthy statement to the Alabama CBF. But in the span of just a few hours, Bill shifted to a hunker-down, self-protective mode. Can you blame him? I can’t. I was extremely disappointed because a huge amount of time and energy has been spent on trying to get the truth about this pastor into the light of day, and because whenever one clergy abuse survivor speaks up, others are often strengthened. But I always tell abuse survivors to protect their own psychological well-being, and that’s what Bill did by hunkering down.

For those of you who are still thinking the pastor’s death should put an end to the matter, here’s the thing: It doesn’t end for the victims. Bill’s hunker-down reaction is exactly why this was an important story to try to get out. It’s why the Alabama CBF should have taken on the burden of publicly disclosing the information that two people had reported this pastor.

It’s easy to imagine the pain of the dead pastor’s family. A suicide is always a tragedy. But there’s another chasm of pain, and though it’s less obvious, it’s no less real. It’s the pain of the victims who endure the salt in the wound of seeing their pastor-perpetrator endlessly praised and glorified.

Given that there were two reported victims for this pastor, there were almost certainly many more. Not only did the man have a position of trust as a pastor, but he also had access to especially vulnerable people through his work with the mental health clinic. Others have likely lived for years in undue silent shame because of this man, and they too may double-over in pain when they see the heaped-on praise for him. But they will also see the futility of trying to speak of their horror when the consensus about the man is already set in stone: he’s a hero.

The Alabama CBF should complete its review and take a stand for the truth. After all, this pastor effectively carried a seal of credibility from the Alabama CBF. So the Alabama CBF should be the one to bear the burden of seeing to it that such important information makes it into the light of day. In addition, the Alabama CBF should publicly, proactively and immediately reach out to other possible victims with an offer of support and counseling. If the truth isn’t told, the pastor will probably be permanently lionized with a school named after him.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Christa and I will be praying that the Alabama CBF will do the right thing.

Anonymous said...

We live in a society in which a person is innocent until PROVEN guilty. That hasn't in the case of this pastor and you are jumping to conclusions that aren't yours to jump to. You should be ashamed.

Anonymous said...

I agree, too. People should know that they had been fooled into following a man like that. They need to take spiritual discernment seriously. They should know there were two complaints against him.

Christa Brown said...

Anon 5:09 - Here are my thoughts on "Innocent until proven guilty." And you've just proven what I said about how people like to put that word "PROVEN" in all caps.

Anonymous said...

The fact still exists that you are claiming to know something that you do not know. Maybe that's part of the reason that the SBC leaders run from you.

Ramesh said...

"Maybe that's part of the reason that the SBC leaders run from you."

SBC Leaders can run all they want, but they can not evade the truth.

And the enemy.

The enemy is NOT Christa. The enemy is the future/current sexual offenders.

All Christa is advocating is an early warning system to possibly identify the [current and past] offenders. And prevent them from further abusing the sheep for their lust and power.

Anonymous said...

Normally I agree with Christa and what she advocates but in this case, I think she stepped over the line.

gmommy said...

No one was present when "Bill" was raped by this minister except "Bill" and the minister who killed himself.

"Bill" told Christa what happened to him. "Bill" told the authorities and the CBF.
The CBF aren't saying how this minister responded when confronted.
All we KNOW is that the man took his own life.

Why should Christa NOT believe the victim???
Why is the burden of PROOF on the victim...but we should just ignore the response of the minister to the confrontation???

Many "lines" have been crossed to protect serial abusers in the ministry and absolutely NOTHING was done.

What do you think should be done to Christa for "crossing the line" in her consistent stand as an advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse???

Anonymous said...

I agree with Christa. I had the opportunity read the obituary of the priest who had assaulted me, years after the fact, and the glowing eulogy this man received from the diocese, in spite of the fact that they knew he had sexually assaulted many girls, did indeed rub salt into the wound.
Thank you, Christa, for shining light in these dark corners.

Anonymous said...

The victim always goes too far when they insist on their side of the story being heard.
The victim always goes too far when they refuse to bow to the pressures of the nonbeliever or the one who just thinks we need to move along.
The victim always goes too far when they want the whole truth printed even if conflicts with the half-truth that is so popular.
The victim always goes too far when instead of crying forgiveness and understanding first, from a heart of pain they cry for help, love, protection, and justice.
Yes, the victim never seems to satisfy the masses who want so much to live in a little ivory toiwer and believe that if only EVERYBODY lived their lifes right none of these bad things would happen. So, go away all of you victims and let us live in our little pretend world.

The victims have trully been hurt. The truth hurts. So as long as there is evil in the world there will be pain from the perps and the victims as the fight it out for dominance. God help us if the perps get the upper hand!!!

Anonymous said...

To 'PROVEN'...... If the SoL on sex crimes against children did not exsist ALL the light could shine on these matters! Let's get IT all out in a court of law. Then you would see that IT is much worse than you ever could dream .... Yet, we continue down the road to recovery mostly alone!

Christa Brown said...

"If the SoL on sex crimes against children did not exsist ALL the light could shine on these matters!"

For those who might wonder, "SoL" refers to Statutes of Limitation, which in most states are far, far, far too short. AlteredBoy is exactly right: Short SoLs bar the courthouse door for child molestation victims and prevent them from seeking justice or unmasking their perpetrators in a court of law. For anyone who wants to educate themselves on this reality, I suggest the plain-talk book by Princeton law professor Marci Hamilton, "Justice Denied: What America must do to protect its children."

Anonymous said...

I sure hope that none of this pastor's kids read this blog since you have made yourselves judge and jury. What you think may have happened does not entitle you to make all these judgments.

Anonymous said...

Christa -
Newspapers deal with facts, not allegations.
Instead of being frustrated with that, why not try a different approach?
Suggest a story to the reporters about the fact that the Alabama CBF does review these kinds of reports; tell them who you are, what your position is, and what your credentials are; talk about the numbers of reports that have been made and in which states; how many arrests and convictions have been made, and how many allegations turned out to be false.
There are stories there that can be published about the subject, but defaming a dead man without proof isn't one of them.

Christa Brown said...

1. I haven't defamed a dead man.
2. The Alabama CBF was in the process of conducting a review on this pastor. That's information derived from multiple sources.
3. Newspapers deal with allegations all the time. Anon 5:03 is flat-out wrong in saying they don't. Newspapers do have standards for how they report on allegations.
4. I'm very aware that there are a lot of ways and angles on how to get stories published about clergy sex abuse, and I'm proud to say that my work has been helpful in getting quite a lot of Baptist clergy abuse stories into the light of day. I intend to keep doing everything I can to help get as many stories out as I can.

Jeri said...

The truth shall set you free; if the man was molesting kids, let it be known. The Baptists should try to undo the damage he did in his life and stop living in Baptist La-la land.

Christa Brown said...

Isn't it interesting how so many are so much more concerned with the dead pastor than they are with the still living and breathing wounded ones? As you say, Jeri, they're in Baptist La-la land.

Anonymous said...

Isn't our language interesting? "Perpetrator!" vs "Victim!"

I wonder what would happen,. . how we might look at one another, . . what we might see, were we to remove the judgemental labels from our langauge?

We might see that "Bill" and his "pastor" BOTH had pain in their lives and BOTH had suffering in their lives. We might see that no-one has a greater right to their pain.

I wonder what would happen if we took all the energy being spent on "blaming, shaming, and naming "perps" vs "victims" and instead worked together to find a way to heal "accused" and "accusers" equally. Imagine the possibilities if Advocates and Lawyers took that on as a joint project!

This we know, peace comes to war-torn regions when people on both sides of the divide choose to be curious about one another rather than so certain.

Christa Brown said...

This we know... most perps have multiple victims.

This we know... clergy-perps use their position of trust as a weapon.

This we know... people who have been molested and raped by clergy need help.

And as for "when peace comes"... that's exactly why I chose to devote so much time and energy to working with the Alabama CBF to develop a policy that would allow a group of trained professionals to hear from BOTH the individual making an accusation AND the accused minister.

Anonymous said...

As long as we continue to depersonalize one another by judgemental labels, i.e. "perps" and "victims" we severly limit the possibilities of hope and healing.

Villification of others, including accused persons of abuse, simply stain our communities and world with more fear and resentment. I hope we could create a framework that helps us to understand the complexities of this illness.

Understanding - is the first step toward peace and healing. I pray for your sincere endeavor with the CBF, and hope that the "trained professionals" that have been brought together are equally competent in mediation processes (i.e. are deaf to "victim" "perp" language bias.)

Christa Brown said...

Rob said: "BOTH had suffering in their lives... no-one has a greater right to their pain."

Rob's comment suggests a notion of equality in the suffering of those who have been sexually abused by clergy and the clergy who commit the abuse. I believe this is a wrong-headed notion.

However, the irony is that if Baptist leaders would take seriously Rob's notion of equality in suffering, and would treat clergy abuse survivors with even an equal measure of care to what they have historically shown for clergy who commit abuse, then clergy abuse survivors would be a great deal better off.

For at least a couple decades, some state-wide Baptist organizations have provided readily-available counseling for clergy who commit sexual abuse - free counseling, reduced fee counseling, and counseling networks. They have called these counseling programs "restoration" programs - intended to "restore" the clergy to ministry. Meanwhile, there has been no readily available counseling for those who have been sexually abused by Baptist clergy. They are left to fend for themselves, beg for help, and find counseling all on their own... if they can afford it. Some go bankrupt in their efforts to try to find healing. But no one in Baptist circles has shown much interest in providing financial assistance to "restore" those who have been wounded by Baptist clergy. If Baptist leaders would provide even one-tenth of the care for those wounded by clergy abuse as what they have already provided for clergy who commit abuse, then Baptist abuse survivors would be better off.

So, although I definitely disagree with Rob's notion of equality in suffering, I would nevertheless consider it an improvement if Baptist leaders would even rise to the bare level of treating abuse survivors with an equal measure of care to how they have treated accused clergy and clergy who admit to abuse.

darkness2light said...

Hopefully this group will agree to a stronger policy to police its own pastors. Otherwise victims of sexual abuse from clergy members should report it directly to law enforcement. THEN report it to church boards/staff. Take the high road to make EVERYONE in the situation accountable. If the accused is innocent, they can and will be vindicated. Otherwise if they are guilty they should serve the stiffest penalty under the law and be placed in a national database of sex offenders for clergy so that everyone can access it.

Christa Brown said...

"...if they are guilty they should serve the stiffest penalty under the law..."

The problem is that most child molesters CANNOT be criminally prosecuted. There's no possibility of proving them guilty in a court of law because statutes of limitation have run by the time the child-victim grows up and is capable of speaking about it and reporting it.

More than 700 Catholic priests have been removed from active ministry based on determinations within the faith group that they were "credibly accused" of sexual abuse. However, only 3 percent of those were ever criminally prosecuted and only 2 percent ever served time. For Southern Baptist leaders to persist in imagining that criminal prosecutions will solve the problem is very dangerous. It means that they are essentially willing to allow 97 percent of clergy child molesters to remain under the radar and to continue in positions of trust where they can use faith as a weapon against the innocent.