Saturday, August 29, 2009
“David started showing an interest in me and a couple of my friends. He always had a group of three guys he was pretty close to. He told us Jesus had the 12 disciples, but there were three he was closest to ... that was his justification for choosing three.”
This was how Pierce “sold it,” the victim said. “It was a cool deal to have this person you looked up to spiritually and musically showing special interest in you. We started going to lunch and going on drives. It was all innocent at first.
“Then we started having what he called accountability time together,” he said. “David called it ‘the four S’s.’ He would check us spiritually, scholastically, socially and sexually.
“The longer this went on, the more attention he paid to us sexually,” he said. “The questions became more pointed and much more detailed as things progressed. This led to pretty detailed conversations about masturbation, which evolved into some of the more inappropriate things. ...
“This was a very systematic process and was basically brainwashing. ...
It was probably ninth grade when it started to really get inappropriate, such as the ‘charting’ thing. This started innocently — he would measure our height and weight, just to see how we had grown and matured — and he would record it just to compare us as we got older and against each other. This developed into measuring our private parts, which led to a kind of mutual masturbation.
“He would say things like ‘We’ve already done this. I can measure you, and we might as well finish. He would watch us and then he would do his thing.”
While this activity was taking place, pornography was displayed on the church computer, the man said.
“Once this started, this went on for years. Even after I was out of high school, it continued to occur. We would take fishing trips on the river — sometimes just David and me or sometimes him with two of us or sometimes with all three of us.
“I knew at the time there were both younger and older guys involved, too, because of the charting and things he would say.
“We’ll never know how many guys were affected — dozens, maybe triple digits — some who either don’t want to talk about it or can’t.”
Ironically, the man said, Pierce never told any of the boys not to tell anybody. “He never had to. He was so good at what he did. I honestly believe the guy is a sociopath.
At the time [the man] married . . . he hadn’t dealt with the problem. “I don’t think I was allowing myself to deal with it. ... When I was older, it finally hit me, but then it took me a couple of years of internally realizing that something wasn’t right before I could come forward.”
By that time, the incidents had passed the prosecutorial statute of limitations.
“It’s affected every facet of my life, especially the last two or thee years, and more especially the last nine months have been really difficult.
“I was always very involved in church. Everybody that David chose was involved in church. He chose leaders in youth group, young people involved in the spiritual community of Saline County and at school, which was a pretty devious plan on his part. He knew that we wouldn’t say anything about what happened to us. ...
“My wife and I went to First Baptist for several years. She didn’t know why I didn’t want to go ... or why I was miserable when I did go. She didn’t know that I was having to look at this guy up on the stage leading the music and knowing what he did to me. ... It had a big negative effect on my spiritual life.” …
Though he’s currently taking a break from counseling, he says it will resume. “I think it will probably continue for the rest of my life.”
He said there’s no way to accurately describe the effects of his abusive relationship with Pierce.
“Every single relationship you have is affected: relationships with your family, with co-workers, the ability to do your job . . . . You relive it every time something new happens. ... Different people deal with this kind of thing in different ways — some choose substance abuse; some have failed marriages; some will move away.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “There’s been no substance abuse, no failed marriage . . . but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been other issues. It’s like putting it away in a filing cabinet. ... I didn’t want to allow anyone to get close to me. . . . and it’s hard to have good relationships when you can’t be a caring person.
“My wife and I are working through it and probably will be for the rest of our lives. Everyone has issues. ... Unfortunately, some of us, because of David Pierce, have bigger issues to deal with.”
He acknowledged that there are people outside the local community who don’t understand how Pierce could have victimized so many boys for so long.
“They don’t realize that David was not only a pillar of the church but also a pillar of Saline County. He was probably among the top 10 of the most-respected people here.”
People also wonder how the abuse went on so long without anyone finding out, he said. “They ask why the parents didn’t tell their children this behavior was wrong. ... Well, yes, they did. People would be very surprised at some of the families we come from. They’re some of the most educated, well-respected people around, and some are well off. They’re all good parents who taught their children that things like this were wrong, but when you’re dealing with someone of David Pierce’s stature, all bets are off. There’s no way to raise a child to deal with someone like that. ...
As far as the man knows, most of the boys chosen by Pierce were abused for years.
“There may have been some guys stronger, who were able to put a stop to it sooner, but most couldn’t. For me, it’s been a long, drawn-out process.”
He said he doesn’t blame people who have defended Pierce. “It’s easy to be on the outside looking in. Some of them say the punishment is harsh, it’s too much, it’s going overboard, that we should forgive and forget and move on. ... But I would urge those people to consider that there are those of us that don’t have the luxury of being on the outside looking in.
“What they don’t realize is that for the rest of our lives when we hear of a case involving a minister or priest who has sexually abused children, these memories will come flooding back. Ideally, we’ll get better at it with time. ...
He said he doesn’t know how this tragedy could have been prevented.
“I don’t think it could have other than somebody coming forward sooner. Sometimes you hear that there were incidents reported and a congregation didn’t do anything about it for years. ... For me, I can’t allow myself to believe somebody in authority knew something before now and said nothing.
“Background checks are important, but that wouldn’t have stopped David Pierce,” the victim said. “David’s background check wouldn’t have shown anything.”
I sympathize greatly with this survivor’s statement that “I can’t allow myself to believe somebody in authority knew something before now and said nothing.” That is a reality that no one ever wants to believe, not even the victims themselves. Why? Because it feels far safer to believe in the reality of a single individual who did terrible things than to believe in the reality of other trusted people who turned a blind eye. Unfortunately, in this case, I have information that the uglier reality is indeed the true one -- i.e., that church leaders had been informed in person of allegations against Pierce for many months prior to Pierce’s arrest.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Pierce was first arrested based on the allegations of a single teenager. But at the time of the arrest, church leaders “provided investigators with the names of the three adult church members who also said they were abused by Pierce when they were younger.” This information was reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as being shown in court records.
We also know from the Beacon Courier that, the day before Pierce was arrested on the single charge, the church’s senior deacon, Paul White, provided a detective with “the names of three men who allegedly told the church pastor, Dr. Rick Grant, that as teenagers they had been victimized by Pierce.”
Thus, it is apparent that church leaders knew about other allegations against Pierce even before Pierce was arrested. It is apparent that church leaders knew about allegations brought by adult men whose claims were “too old to prosecute.”
These news reports substantiate information that I received from still another source -- church leaders knew about other allegations.
But what did they do about those allegations?
What did church leaders do about the allegations of adult men who claimed they were abused as kids by Pierce? What did they do about allegations that were presented even before the allegation of a teenager whose claim was recent enough for criminal prosecution?
What did church leaders know and when did they know it?
These are questions that senior pastor Rick Grant should have to answer.
It's not much to brag about if the only thing a pastor does is to cooperate with police after claims are asserted that are within the period for prosecution and after an arrest is made. But what did pastor Grant do to protect his congregation before that -- when he learned of allegations that were outside the period for criminal prosecution? These are questions that Grant should be held to account for.
Why was David Pierce still in ministry if there were already multiple allegations against him?
Even if the allegations of the adult men were too old for criminal prosecution, why wasn’t Pierce removed from ministry pending at least an investigative inquiry brought by the church?
Those brave men deserve to have the truth known. They mustered their courage to speak up about what Pierce did to them as kids. And what courage did pastor Rick Grant muster in response?
Though the men may carry a burden of undue shame, and though they may prefer anonymity, those brave men nevertheless deserve to have the congregation know that there were some who spoke up and who sought to warn others.
Pastor Rick Grant owes to those men -- and to his whole congregation -- a full, complete and transparent accounting of what he knew and when he knew it.
Eventually, after Pierce was arrested on a single charge, three more teens came forward with allegations. Pierce’s criminal conviction on four counts rested on the facts about his abuse of those teens whose claims were within limitations. But it should not be forgotten that there were others -- others whose claims were “too old to prosecute” -- others who had already told church leaders about what Pierce did to them as kids.
The prosecuting attorney said that "many persons claimed to have been victimized by Pierce during the past two decades."
How tragic that so many were so wounded over such a long period before Pierce was finally stopped. This tragedy speaks to the need for Baptists to create a place where people may safely report clergy abuse with the expectation that their reports will be responsibly assessed and acted on.
Finally, let me point out that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen troubling child-sex charges among Southern Baptist leaders in Benton, Arkansas.
In December 2000, the former director of missions for the Central Baptist Association in Benton (the same association in which FBC-Benton is affiliated) was sentenced on child porn charges. A co-worker was cleaning out the office of Timothy Lee Reddin at the Arkansas Rice Depot and found child porn images on his computer. But, in the criminal prosecution process on that discovery, Reddin admitted that, just 2 years earlier, in 1998, he had resigned his job as Director of Missions at the Central Baptist Association because 2 people found child porn on his computer there, and confronted him. But apparently, those 2 people didn't turn Reddin in . . . or at least I can’t find any report that they did. It appears that the Central Baptist Association simply allowed Reddin to resign and move on. Reddin worked as a pastor for 16 years.
Update 10:30 pm 8/28/09: See the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, “Choir leader admits child-sex abuse,” pointing out that Pierce will be eligible for parole in 18 months and that Greg Kirksey, former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, asked the court for leniency on behalf of Pierce.
See also 1) the Associated Baptist Press article, “Former music minister sentenced for sexual abuse;” 2) my June 17, 2009 posting, "What's wrong with this picture?" (with additional news links embedded); and 3) "Sentenced after confessing more than a decade of sexual abuse" on BaptistPlanet 8/31/09.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
As an adolescent boy, Ben was sexually abused by pastor George O.A. Lowe at Mt. Hope Baptist Church in Stafford County, Virginia. About a year ago, Lowe was convicted on this crime, and last week Lowe was denied parole.
Since Lowe’s conviction, Ben has been trying to get help from the church for his psychological and spiritual healing. In January 2009 he met with church leaders and asked for help. He also asked for the chance to speak before the full congregation.
After waiting over six months to even respond, church leaders finally wrote back and rebuffed Ben’s requests. Although they expressly said that “the governing body of the church is the whole congregation,” they refused Ben the chance to speak to the congregation and to ask the congregation for help.
Here’s what the church did instead.
For “spiritual support,” the church made a “gift” to Ben of a CD entitled “When we are abused” by Rev. Charles Stanley. And the church proudly pointed out that it was gifting the CD to Ben “free of charge.”
It’s a CD that typically sells for about $7.00.
Then they asked that Ben “refrain from contacting” any member of the church.
So . . . because this looks so appallingly cold and callous, let me just make sure I didn’t miss anything.
- As a kid, Ben was sexually abused by the pastor that Mt. Hope chose and hired.
- As a kid, Ben was abused by that pastor on the church premises.
- Now, church leaders won’t allow Ben to speak to the congregation.
- Church leaders don’t want him to even talk with any church members.
- Church leaders are gifting to Ben a $7.00 CD “free of charge.”
- This is what church leaders call "spiritual support" for a clergy molestation survivor.
What did I miss?
Oh… here it is. Church leaders say they “prayed long and hard” and that they made this decision “centered on prayer.”
It almost makes a blasphemy of the whole notion of “prayer,” doesn’t it? Do they imagine that, if they purport to “pray” about it, they can pass the blame to God for such hard-heartedness? Do they imagine that, if they purport to “pray” about it, then they themselves are freed from moral responsibility?
If these are “Christians,” then my own prayer will be “Christ, please keep us safe from the Christians.”
And if the sick reality of Mt. Hope’s “spiritual support” isn’t chilling enough for you all on its own, consider this additional pathetic twist. The church’s gifted “free of charge” CD is by Rev. Charles Stanley, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor of the prominent First Baptist Church of Atlanta. That’s the church where my own perp was children's minister for 19 years.
When SNAP tried to leaflet at First Baptist of Atlanta -- to inform people that their prior children's minister was known to have sexually abused a kid in Texas -- church leaders called the police on us and tried to run us off. Afterwards, SNAP wrote to Rev. Charles Stanley to make sure he knew how rudely we were treated, and we asked for the opportunity to address the congregation.
We were rebuffed. Apparently Charles Stanley didn’t care to have his congregation hear any talk from a clergy abuse survivor either.
So . . . given that Charles Stanley didn't give any indication of thinking a minister's molestation of a kid mattered enough to even be worth informing people in the pews, and given that Charles Stanley didn't offer even the tiniest bit of care to a person abused by one of his own long-time staff ministers, the notion that a Charles Stanley CD would give a clergy abuse survivor “spiritual support” seems a sad joke.
That CD is a coaster -- nothing more.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Those were the words of Christopher Scott Decaire, a Southern Baptist youth minister in Arizona, caught on tape as he talked to the teen girl whom he sexually abused almost every week for a year. His semen was also caught on her jacket.
Decaire met the girl through his position as youth minister at East Tucson Baptist Church.
The girl talked.
She not only talked, but she also testified publicly.
Can you imagine the extraordinary courage of that girl?
At one point during the trial, “she needed more than a minute to regain her composure after breaking down into tears.”
But she did it. That girl did it. She put that predator away.
Yesterday, a Tucson jury found Southern Baptist youth minister Christopher Scott Decaire guilty on child molestation charges. He faces the possibility of 50 or more years in prison.
The girl was just 13 when Decaire repeatedly abused her. She was just 15 when she testified publicly.
But that young girl moved past all the horror in her head and did what needed to be done. She stood on moral ground and, at great pain to herself, she protected others.
If even a small fraction of Southern Baptist leaders would muster even a small fraction of the courage shown by that girl, then kids in Baptist churches could be made a great deal safer.
More news links:
Former minister found guilty of molesting girl, Arizona Daily Star, 8/20/09
Youth minister found guilty of molestation, Associated Baptist Press, 8/20/09
Girl, 15, tells jury of alleged molestation by youth minister, Arizona Daily Star, 8/13/09
Teenager claims youth minister molested her, KVOA News 4, 8/12/09
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Baptists should also extend thanks to the courageous girl and her family who persevered to bring a serial predator to justice. In the process, they also exposed the cowardly complicity of church leaders. As reflected in the archived news accounts from the 2002 trial, it’s not a pretty picture.
First Baptist of Columbia is the church of senior pastor Wendell Estep, the 2001 president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. (That's Estep in the photo, taken from Facebook.) It's one of South Carolina’s largest and oldest churches. And it’s a church that did a miserably poor job of handling clergy sex abuse allegations.
For starters, if First Baptist of Columbia had done what it should have done, Hubner never would have been placed in a position of trust at all. Hubner had a prior 1983 molestation conviction in Maine, where he pled guilty to unlawful sexual contact with a 12-year-old. As part of his plea bargain, “four other charges of rape or sexual contact with the 12-year-old and another 11-year-old girl were dismissed.”
Nevertheless, after Hubner moved to South Carolina, he was ordained as a deacon at First Baptist of Columbia, and he was allowed to work in the church youth programs.
In 1996 and 1997, church leaders reportedly “received written and verbal complaints from parents about Hubner’s ‘unnatural interest in their young sons and daughters,’ including that he had inappropriately touched them.” These complaints were described in lawsuit allegations and in the statement of former FBC-Columbia staff minister Tad Wilson.
According to Wilson, when he told senior pastor Wendell Estep of complaints about Hubner’s conduct, Estep simply told Wilson to tell Hubner “to leave [the children] alone.” As one columnist appropriately said, Estep’s advice “was flippant, at best.”
“It was a ‘Hey, no big deal,’” to Hubner, said minister Tad Wilson.
Despite the parents’ complaints, minister Wilson claimed he had “no suspicion of molestation or assault.” Yet in July 1998, he asked a girl to write down what Hubner was doing and how she felt about what was happening. When the girl wrote that she was “very frightened” of Hubner and that he was “always hugging all over me,” Wilson said he took the girl’s letter to FBC-Columbia’s minister of education, Phil Myers.
But minister Wilson didn’t share his concerns with anyone else. And minister Myers later claimed that he never saw the girl’s letter.
About a year later, a psychologist for the girl told minister Wilson that “she was concerned Hubner might be a child molester.”
Minister Wilson went back to minister Myers, but again, Wilson didn’t share the psychologist's concern with anyone else. “I knew he needed to be removed from all leadership with kids . . . but that wasn’t my call,” said Wilson. He explained that he felt he had to “trust in the chain of command.”
In October 2000, a father reportedly told First Baptist church officials that Hubner, who was also a Boy Scout leader, had “inappropriate contact” with his son. And according to the prosecutor, Hubner was accused of fondling still another boy at a Boy Scout camp.
But according to the publicly reported allegations, First Baptist officials didn’t remove Hubner from his deacon’s position until after his January 2001 arrest, despite parents’ complaints at least four years earlier and even though they were “aware of the allegations.”
As stated by senior pastor Wendell Estep himself, it was only after Hubner’s arrest -- four days afterwards -- when Estep told other church deacons about the charges against Hubner.
A full month after the arrest, the church sent a letter to parents of kids in the youth programs, saying that a person had been arrested and charged with “inappropriate behavior,” but the letter didn’t name deacon Hubner.
Three months after the arrest, the church finally sent a letter to the entire congregation, telling them that deacon Hubner had been arrested. The mother of the girl whose allegations formed the basis for the criminal case said that the church sent this letter only after she engaged in long negotiations with the church’s lawyers and threatened a lawsuit. Senior pastor Wendell Estep said the belated letter was simply part of the church’s “evolving response.”
Has this story already sickened you enough as you contemplate the number of kids whom these cowardly church leaders left at risk? The number of kids molested and sexually assaulted? I hope so.
But here’s something even more frightening.
Even as all these dreadful facts came to light during the trial, senior pastor Wendell Estep bragged to the press that he was “proud of the way his church, whose members include prominent state and local leaders, has handled the situation.”
He said, “Since I have been here, I don’t think the church has faced anything more maturely.”
So . . . this past-president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and senior pastor of the largest Baptist church in the state, Dr. Wendell Estep, still had not learned much of any lesson from the horror of what he allowed to happen on his watch. Instead of expressing grave and genuine remorse, he boasted.
It was more than one columnist could stand. She wrote: “Maturity means taking responsibility . . . being able to admit when you are wrong and asking forgiveness . . . None of this happened at First Baptist . . . . All I read is how proud they are . . . when what appears to be happening is a cover-up. They are protecting the institution at all costs.”
The columnist got it right. Church officials at FBC-Columbia were “protecting the institution at all costs” -- even at the cost of kids.
When John Hubner filled out the church’s questionnaire to become a deacon, he didn’t list his prior molestation conviction in Maine. Hubner said this wasn’t a lie and explained it in this way: “As a Christian, when you have repented and confessed everything in your life . . . [God] holds you accountable to nothing.”
Clearly, that “accountable to nothing” attitude was reinforced by church officials at FBC-Columbia. With tragic results, they handled child molestation allegations as a “Hey, no big deal.”
Additional note: According to articles in the Georgetown Times and The State, First Baptist Church of Columbia currently has a staff minister who was charged in 2005 in another location with the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl. The minister’s arrest drew public “outrage from his supporters,” and the father of the girl said that his family had received threats. Ultimately, the criminal charges were dropped in 2006 because, as the prosecutor explained, it was hard to get corroborating evidence. Question: Even though prosecutors decided they didn't have enough evidence to meet the extraordinary burden that the criminal law requires before throwing a man in jail, shouldn't there be a denominational process to objectively and responsibly assess such allegations by an administrative standard before allowing the man to continue in ministry?
Update 2017: "Lawsuit accuses Columbia's First Baptist Church of history of covering up child sex abuse," The State, 10/13/2017. Yet again, this prominent SBC church appears to have learned absolutely nothing about prioritizing the safety of children.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Consider just this one example.
Since about 1990, the Baptist General Convention of Texas has offered counseling services for clergy to help them "put their lives back together after sexual misconduct.” And the BGCT has repeatedly defined “sexual misconduct” as “including child molestation.”
They used to call it “restoration” counseling -- apparently based on Galations 6:1. But in mid-2007, when so many stories of Baptist clergy child molesters began to make headlines, the BGCT quit calling their service a “restoration” program. However, this was little more than a public relations maneuver and also a tricky deal to try to insulate the BGCT by making the counselors independent contractors instead of BGCT staff.
But the reality is that the BGCT still provides ministers with a referral network of counselors and financial assistance to pay for the counseling.
In fact, according to this current page on the Baptist General Convention of Texas website, they provide ministers with a counseling referral network of 100 professionals who have gone through “a lengthy approval process.” If, for any reason, the minister does not feel comfortable with the counselor provided, he is encouraged to ask for placement with a different counselor.
Gee whiz. Must be nice. The ministers get a choice of counselors. They get counselors who have been screened. And they get their counseling paid for by the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Furthermore, according to the BGCT, the privacy and confidentiality of the minister is fully protected. The counselor invoices the BGCT directly “without any identifying information of the minister or family member on the statement, and the payment is made by the BGCT Subsidy Fund directly to the counselor without knowledge of the identity of the client.”
So the Baptist General Convention of Texas provides readily available counseling for clergy perpetrators but not for the victims of clergy perpetrators. Instead, it insists that clergy abuse victims should ask for help from the church where the abuse took place, even though it knows full well that most churches “just try to keep it secret” and don’t help the victims.
Knowing the enormous struggle that most clergy abuse survivors have in getting adequate counseling, I specifically asked the Baptist General Convention of Texas to provide victims with a referral list of counselors who have experience in helping clergy sex abuse survivors. It was a very small request, but the answer was a very big “nada.”
“Baptist churches are autonomous.”
Clergy abuse survivors are relegated to finding counselors through the yellow pages, and they often have to go deep in debt to get help for healing themselves.
So here’s my question: If each church is so completely independent, how come it isn’t up to each church to provide counseling for its own minister?
Why doesn’t the Baptist General Convention of Texas tell the ministers the same thing it tells their victims? “If you want help, go to the church.”
If the doctrine of local church autonomy doesn’t preclude the statewide organization from using the pooled funds of local churches -- i.e., Cooperative Program dollars -- to provide counseling for ministers, why does the doctrine preclude the statewide organization from providing counseling for the ministers’ victims?
Why is it “autonomy schmonomy” only when a minister wants counseling? But when the ministers’ victims want counseling, it’s “Baptist churches are autonomous.”
And here’s something else I don’t understand. A Baptist clergy molestation victim wrote to the Baptist General Convention of Texas when she heard that they were no longer sponsoring a “restoration program” of counseling for ministers. She mistakenly thought this meant that the BGCT was no longer providing counseling for abusive ministers.
“So BGCT is no longer doing this,” she said. “Thank God. But why did they do this in the first place?”
Emily Prevost at the Baptist General Convention of Texas wrote back to her and said this: “You are right. This program is no longer in place.”
So . . . why didn’t Emily Prevost tell the abuse survivor the rest of the story? Why didn’t Prevost tell her that the Baptist General Convention of Texas was STILL providing ministers with a referral network of counselors and was STILL providing them with financial subsidies for counseling?
Why didn’t Prevost tell the victim that it was still “autonomy schmonomy” when it comes to providing paid counseling for ministers?
Thursday, August 13, 2009
What's the difference in how "moderate" Baptist leaders treat clergy abuse survivors and how "fundamentalist" Baptist leaders treat them?
The "moderates' sing Kumbaya before they barbecue the survivor. The "fundamentalists" don't bother with the Kumbaya.
Pearls Before Swine is the brilliant work of Stephan Pastis.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
You’ve seen this in Catholic cases. You could sue priests from now to kingdom-come, but if a lawyer sues only the priest in very many cases, then he’s probably gonna go out of business. That’s one of the reasons for why they sue the dioceses. They sue the structure.
That’s something Catholics have that Baptists don’t. Catholics have structure. But for Baptists, it’s practically one of the core principles of their religion that they disclaim structure -- or so they say.
“We have no bishops.” No heirarchy. No central authority. No lines of responsibility.
They would say that’s the biblical way. But more and more, what I see is that they themselves have radicalized this doctrine to make it into the nanny-nanny-boo-boo way.
It’s the “you can’t touch us because it’s our religion” way.
For them, as long as no one is in charge, then no one is at risk of being held responsible.
And as long as they think they’re protected against legal responsibility, most of them don’t really give a hoot about moral responsibility. You know that. You know it in your bones. We’ve all seen that pattern. It’s the risk of legal liability, and the media exposure that lawsuits bring, that finally forces religious leaders to take action.
But the problem in Baptist-land is that they don’t see that they have much risk of legal liability. There’s no structure to sue, and so there’s less lawsuits. And with less lawsuits, there’s less media pressure. And with less media, it’s hard to expose the perpetrators and bring the problem into the light of day.
For a Baptist minister, as long as he can keep from being criminally convicted – as long as he isn’t actually sitting in prison – then he can probably stand in a Baptist pulpit. Who’s gonna say he can’t? “We have no bishops.”
There are lots of exceptions to the things I’m saying, and someday, those exceptional cases will, brick by brick, bring down the wall in Baptist-land.
But for now, let me tell you what it’s like most of the time.
The average Baptist church has about 75 to 100 people in the pews on a Sunday morning. They’re small. The mega-churches get lots of attention, but most Baptist churches are actually quite small.
“But they have insurance, don’t they?” That’s what people ask.
Sure. Some do. Some don’t. But even if they do, most insurance policies exclude coverage for intentional acts. . . which is what child molestation typically is. So usually, you need to show that others – other church leaders – knew or should have known. That they made negligent, reckless mistakes.
That’s a hard thing to do in Baptist-land – and it comes back once again to that “no structure” thing. “We’ve got no bishops.”
Imagine, if you will, that you have a couple big games of connect-the-dots. One game has 194 dots – those are the dioceses. You can connect the dots in that game. You know where the lines go. You can put together the picture.
Now imagine that your connect-the-dots game has 45,000 dots – and if you count all the Baptist churches in the country – then you’ve got even more. With that many dots, it’s hard to figure out which dots connect. There are no lines of responsibility.
Not only are the perpetrators roaming all around in this mass of dots, but the preachers who knew about them – the ones who heard those snakes rattle – all those men who knew – they’re also moving all around.
It’s like you’re out in West Texas. Around the Davis Mountains, it’s one of the least populated areas in the whole country. People go out there to study the stars because all the cities and towns are so far that there’s no extraneous light to interfere. So... if you’re used to looking at the stars in the city, you only see a few, comparatively. You’re probably able to map a few constellations because those are the big bright stars. But you go out there and stretch out on the ground in the Davis Mountains. There are so many stars above you that the whole sky becomes a great wash of white twinkling dots. It has so many more white dots in it that it’s not so easy to map the constellations anymore. You’re seeing thousands and thousands of more stars, and when you’re seeing so many more, it becomes a lot harder to figure out where the lines are. Where are the connections. Where are the constellations? How do you figure out what the picture is?
If the connections aren’t obvious, then every case just winds up looking like an isolated incident. It’s just one dot. And people don’t see the pattern.
Because civil lawsuits are so difficult in Baptist-land – without a heirarchy and without lines of authority – most of what we wind up seeing in the news are the criminal cases. Of course, we all know that those are the tiniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg. But even seeing only that tiny tip – and thanks also to some data that was gathered by the Associated Press – we know that the problem in Baptist-land is huge. Probably as big as the Catholic problem. But it stays better hidden.
And because Baptist leaders know their iceberg is so well hidden – and because they’ve got this rock-solid “We’ve got no bishops” wall that protects them, Baptist leaders have made it clear that they won’t do diddly-squat to change the status quo. The status quo works just fine – for them.
At state and national headquarters, the $500 million they take in every year – it’s all extremely well-protected with this status-quo.
And until Baptist leaders start worrying that this money is vulnerable. . . I believe they will never do things differently. They won’t even make a pretense of doing things differently.
Now let me tell you just a little bit about how this feeling of invincibility makes them behave.
Lots of Baptist leaders are pretty arrogant and over-confident. So much so that the highest leader of this denomination – the largest Protestant denomination in the land – said this when asked about SNAP’s efforts:
They’re “nothing more than opportunistic persons.”
Now I imagine you’ve got a lot of Catholic bishops who might think those kind of things. But by now, they’ve got enough savvy that they don’t say those kind of things publicly. This is what I mean about Baptists being behind the curve.
You know... when I first saw that the president of the whole Southern Baptist Convention had said that... said it to the press... it pretty much stunned me. At the time, what I latched onto was the fact that he called us “opportunists.” What a hateful thing to say about child molestation victims.
But even as hateful as that was… the thing that caught up to me and punched me in the gut a few months later... was how he said that we’re “nothing more” than that. “Nothing more than opportunistic persons.”
I mean think about it. Here we are. Human beings. Children of God. Wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters... not to mention all the other things... teachers and nurses and lawyers and accountants and electricians and realtors and oil field workers and musicians... and on and on… and this guy... the highest leader of this whole huge faith group says we’re “nothing more.” And he says it publicly.
That sort of thing, when it’s said by a high religious leader, has a trickle-down effect. It implicitly tells other Baptists that it’s okay to say mean things to abuse survivors. It fosters a culture of mean-spiritedness. So... we’ve seen a lot of that.
I guess it’s obvious -- that remark still haunts me. But hey . . . another recent past president of Southern Baptists called us “evil-doers” and said we were “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.”
Somehow that one didn’t bother me quite so much. But I hope this sort of name-calling gives you a feeling for just how over-confident these guys are. They haven’t yet seen the need to squelch their own arrogance... even simply for appearances’ sake.
Just 2 years ago, a high Southern Baptist official told the press that the way Baptists do things “worked” because there had only been 40 “incidents” of clergy sex abuse in 15 years.
40 incidents in 15 years.
That was one of those crystallizing moments for me. I wondered exactly which molestations and rapes he decided not to count. Exactly which kids didn’t even matter enough to be worth counting? It was obviously a whole heckuva lot of them. At that point, I had only been following cases for a little while, but I knew that, even if you counted only the publicly reported cases – which were mostly criminal cases – and even if you only counted them over 1 year – you would still have a whole lot more than 40 incidents.
But he said 40 in 15 years. He said it with a smile. He said it with that sickening voice of authority – as though he knew.
As recently as 2 years ago, that’s what high Baptist leaders thought they could get away with telling the press.
NEVER AGAIN. That’s part of the progress we’ve made. Never again can they be as over-confident as THAT.
And just a few days ago, the Southern Baptist Convention made a press release about how 450 churches had conducted background checks through the discounted program that national headquarters started offering its nearly 45,000 churches just a year ago. They reported that, in those 450 churches, there were 80 serious felony offenses that showed up on the background checks, and many more other criminal offenses that would ordinarily be considered serious enough to disqualify someone from church work.
450 of 45,000 is only 1 percent. So that’s just 1 percent of the churches that they’re essentially bragging about for doing the bare-bones minimum of background checks. But imagine this – it was just one year ago that Southern Baptist officials took even this tiny, tiny step. And this happened only after lots and lots of media coverage – media coverage that, in significant part, was instituted by SNAP.
That, too, is progress that we have made.
For Baptist abuse survivors, Baptist-land is a big mess of quicksand. Always, always... the Baptist leaders sit there, holding their ace card up their sleeve. “We have no bishops.”
Obviously, I don’t buy into any part of that excuse. Baptist churches may indeed be independent, but they work cooperatively on all sorts of things. In fact, cooperative programs are just as much a defining characteristic of their religion as church independence is.
For example, at the national level, they provide retirement plans for the ministers in those independent churches. You’d think that if they could have a national structure for the financial security of Baptist ministers that they could also have a national structure for the safety of Baptist church kids.
That’s just one example, but there are many of them.
Someday . . . I figure these sorts of exceptions – ways in which the churches are NOT so independent – and are in fact interconnected both in faith and in practice -- are going to catch up to them. At least I hope so. Sooner or later, it’s going to be obvious that they actually DO have some structure.
And sooner or later, the civilizing force of accountability will be brought even to the farthest corners of the Wild West of Baptist-land.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
450 churches did background checks on prospective employees and volunteers through the discounted program that the SBC began offering about a year ago, and 80 of those checks revealed "serious felony offenses."
This is information that comes straight from the Southern Baptist Convention itself. My sense of it is that the SBC is pointing out how these 450 churches cared about children and wanted to protect them, and is urging other churches to do likewise.
Okay. That's fine so far as it goes, but it's not much to brag about. Background checks are important but they're really nothing more than the bare-bones of good business practice. Wouldn't you think that churches might manage to do a bit more than the bare-bones?
And consider this: 450 amounts to only 1 percent of the nearly 45,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Do the math. "Projected onto the other 99 percent of Southern Baptist churches," 80 "serious felony offenses" in 450 churches adds up to a likely 8,000 "serious felony offenses" in the rest of the churches.
And what kind of numbers might show up if Baptists did what other major faith groups do and kept track of "credible allegations"? What kind of numbers might show up if there were a denominational database to search in addition to the database of those who have been criminally convicted?
Those numbers would likely be huge. Experts consistently recognize that most active child molesters have no criminal record. Probably at least 90 percent don't. This means that, when churches conduct criminal background checks, if that's all they do, they could easily be missing 90 percent of the child molesters.
In fact, when the study done by the the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was released in 2004, it found that 4,392 Catholic priests were found to have "credible allegations" of having abused kids. But only 2 percent of those had ever received any prison sentence, and so only 2 percent would show up on a sex offender registry.
But Baptists don't even bother to assess or keep track of "credible allegations." For most of those 4,392 priests, if they had been Baptist clergy instead of Catholic clergy, they could easily still be standing in a Baptist pulpit.
In the Southern Baptist press release, pastor Wayne Rogers says, "Children are our precious commodity. They've been entrusted to us, and we have to protect them at any cost."
Baptist leaders often say things like this -- "children are precious" -- but if you look at their deeds, there is little reason to think that Baptist leaders really believe this. If they really believed it, they would provide a system by which people might safely report abuse within the denomination. If they really believed it, they would keep track of credible abuse reports so that people might know how many allegations have been made against various ministers. If they really believed it, they would tell people in the pews about credibly-accused clergy.
If Baptist leaders don't even bother to do anything about reported child-molesting-ministers they're specifically told about, why should anyone imagine that they're going to be able to effectively prevent child-molesting-ministers they don't yet know about?
And let's not forget that it was only after enormous media pressure that the Southern Baptist Convention started its program of helping churches do background checks -- after dozens upon dozens upon dozens of news articles about Baptist clergy sex abuse. Many of those news articles were instituted by the very people that former Southern Baptist president Frank Page called "nothing more than opportunistic persons" and that former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson called "evil-doers."
Even this tiny, tiny step of offering discounted background checks is a step that was belated and begrudging.
But hey . . . let's look on the positive side. During the past year, 450 Southern Baptist churches did background checks. As a result, there are now 80 less people with "serious felony offenses" who are working in Southern Baptist churches.
That may be small progress, but it's at least progress.
Oops. My mistake. I was trying to think on the positive side, and as a result, I wound up making an assumption that may or may not be true. I was just assuming that those churches didn't hire the 80 people with "serious felony offenses."
But maybe some of those churches hired the people anyway. Maybe some of those churches had leaders who recited the "We believe in forgiveness" line and put the people to work anyway.
Read more about this in the Associated Baptist Press: “LifeWay says 1 in 8 church background checks finds record.” Be sure to notice the comment from LifeWay, stating "it's possible that the 450 churches" may have been "located in areas with a higher than normal prevalence of criminal activity and/or criminal background." Uhhhh... I think the LifeWay guy is missing the point and is also trying to explain away the moon. Besides, reporter Bob Allen expressly stated in the article that 450 churches was "not a statistically representative sample."
See also The Birmingham News, 8/16/09: “Church background checks find many with felonies.”
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
With Everett, it’s particularly tragic because he has so much opportunity and power. He’s executive director of the largest statewide Baptist organization in the country, the Baptist General Convention of Texas. If Everett actually cared about clergy molestation victims, he could have a huge influence and he could be part of making kids in Baptist churches a lot safer.
But therein lies the problem: When it comes to clergy sex abuse, there are too many good men who do nothing.
It’s frustrating because men like Randel Everett are often quick to take action on other matters, which only makes their blindness toward clergy sex abuse all the more apparent.
For example, Everett recently launched the Texas Hope 2010 project, which aims to put a bi-lingual multimedia Scripture CD into “all of the state’s 8.8 million homes” by Easter 2010. Everett acknowledged that the task seemed daunting, but he noted that there are 2.3 million members in churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and said that, with this resource, the key is “for all Texas Baptists…to cooperate with the other Texas Baptists….”
Then Everett said the thing that really hit me. He talked about how the Texas Hope project could have “a transformational impact.” “I hope crime will go down,” he said. “I hope legislation is passed to help the children…in our state.”
If Randel Everett wants to lessen crime and “to help the children,” he could start by cleaning up Texas Baptists’ own backyard. He could start by working to rid the ranks of clergy predators. Why can't "all Texas Baptists... cooperate with other Texas Baptists" for THAT task? Randel Everett could start to work on it by transforming himself from a good man who does nothing into a good man who takes action.
Consider these three real and practical things that Randel Everett could do, if only he would choose to.
1. Warn people about the ministers in the secret file
By its own admission, the Baptist General Convention of Texas “keeps a confidential list of individuals who are reported by a church for sexual misconduct, including child molestation….”
The fact that a minister must be reported by a church, instead of by a mere victim, is a huge hurdle. There would undoubtedly be a great many more names in that file if the Baptist General Convention of Texas would consider reports from the victims of Baptist ministers. But even in the rare case when a minister’s name gets in the file because a church reported him, the Baptist General Convention of Texas still keeps quiet about it.
Officials at the Baptist General Convention of Texas have publicly stated that their file includes ministers who have confessed to sexual abuse or for whom there was “substantial evidence that the abuse took place.” They have described the list as containing “confirmed cases,” and in at least one brochure, described it as the file of “known offenders.”
Yet, despite possessing such extraordinary information -- information that could lessen crime and help children -- the names of those ministers remain hidden in a file cabinet in the Baptist Building in Dallas. People in the pews are not told about them.
As leader of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, this is something Randel Everett could do something about. But instead, he does nothing.
2. Disaffiliate Bolivar Baptist for retaining a pastor who admitted sexual abuse
Randel Everett could do something about pastor Dickie Amyx at Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger, Texas.
Dickie Amyx is the pastor whose best defense against molestation allegations was to claim in sworn testimony that “I didn’t have sex with her when she was 16 or under.”
As with most clergy abuse cases, it was too late for criminal prosecution, but that was his defense in the civil lawsuit. Essentially, Amyx claimed that the girl was 17. She said the abuse began when she was 14 and that he raped her when she was 15. I believe the victim. But even if Baptist leaders believe Amyx, is this the sort of man who belongs in a Baptist pulpit?
Did I mention that Amyx got the girl pregnant? When the child was 8, the now-grown-girl finally went to court to get a paternity judgment against Amyx so that she could have some financial support for the child.
To this day, on the website of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Dickie Amyx is listed as a pastor in a church affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
As leader of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, this is something Randel Everett could do something about. But he doesn’t.
For starters, Everett could speak up. And I don't mean speaking up with the pablum platitude of "children are precious." I mean speaking up with the directness of "Dickie Amyx has no business in a Baptist pulpit." Everett could publicly denounce the church’s continued retention of Amyx as pastor. He could publicly voice his outrage in the newspaper of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the Baptist Standard. He could take steps toward disaffiliating the church from the Baptist General Convention of Texas so as to make plain that such conduct is not tolerated.
But Randel Everett hasn’t chosen to do any of this. He does nothing.
3. Reach out to those wounded in prior church in Arkansas
Randel Everett could do something in the pending Arkansas case involving music minister David Pierce, who is charged on 54 counts of sexual indecency with children. So far, the charges stem from allegations involving 4 boys who are still teenagers. There are also 3 adult men who say they were abused by Pierce when they were younger, but their allegations are apparently beyond the period for prosecution.
Investigators say that some of the allegations date “back a number of years.” Pierce was music minister at the church -- First Baptist of Benton, Arkansas -- for 29 years. It’s frightening to imagine how many kids he could have abused during that long tenure.
Given the number of men and boys who have already made allegations, it seems likely that “there will be more.” This is what even the investigators have said.
Randel Everett was the pastor of First Baptist of Benton from 1984 to 1988. Thus, Everett was one of the church’s pastors during the time that Pierce was music minister.
If any were abused by minister Pierce during Everett’s tenure as pastor, can you imagine how much it might mean to them if their former pastor would now publicly reach out to try to help them? It could have a “transformational impact” if Everett would go to Benton, do a press conference in front of his former church, and publicly plead with people to speak up and take information to the police. And he could also offer to work at pulling together the funding to provide independent counseling for any who may have been wounded during the time he was pastor.
This would be groundbreaking. Genuine public outreach to those wounded by clergy abuse is something we haven’t seen among Baptist officials.
As a prior pastor at First Baptist of Benton, this is something Randel Everett could do. But instead, he does nothing.
When I see so much do-nothingness, I feel only sadness at Randel Everett’s claim that there are 2.3 million members in churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Everett is talking only about some Baptists in Texas, but that’s more than all the people in Episcopal churches nationwide. That’s more than all the people in Churches of Christ nationwide.
That’s a whole lot of Baptist people whose kids are being left at risk by good men who do nothing -- men like Randel Everett.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
But when allegations hit close to home, most people do NOT do the right thing. Even good people.
Baptist pastor Gene Scarborough and Biblical Recorder editor Norman Jameson recently illustrated this reality. I’ve talked about this case before, but I’m going to talk about it again, from a different angle.
In North Carolina, Southern Baptist camp director and former missionary Stephen Carter was indicted on child sex charges. It was reported on WITN-TV and in the Perquimans Weekly. The Associated Baptist Press also reported it, and that article was reprinted in the Biblical Recorder, which is the North Carolina Baptist publication.
I applaud Norman Jameson, editor of the Biblical Recorder, for printing the article. After all, it was only a few years ago that the Illinois Baptist State Association set an ugly precedent by firing its newspaper editor when he decided to publish a story about a pastor charged with child molestation. Though it had already been reported in the secular press, it was apparently news that the high-honchos didn’t think those reading the Baptist newspaper needed to see.
My point is this: I don’t know about the Biblical Recorder, but with at least some Baptist publications, editors may have reason to fear for their jobs when they print news about pastors charged with child molestation. That’s why I’m applauding Jameson.
On the other hand, I think Jameson made a mistake with his personal comments underneath the Biblical Recorder article. They were comments that praised Stephen Carter and that could easily be interpreted as “being supportive” of Carter and as “anticipating a positive outcome.” In fact, that’s exactly how another Biblical Recorder reader interpreted Jameson’s comments, when he wrote to publicly thank Jameson for his words.
Baptist pastor Gene Scarborough is the person who first brought Jameson’s comments to my attention. In essence, Scarborough tried to use Jameson’s comments to convince me that I should remove from the website and blog the news about Stephen Carter’s indictment. Scarborough directed me to the Biblical Recorder. “As you can see," he said, "people who know him are being supportive and this includes our editor who knows him personally.”
I guess Scarborough thought this would sway me. But it didn’t. And I wasn’t swayed by Scarborough’s subsequent emails or by his comments under two of my recent blog postings either. Of course, it didn’t help that Scarborough (1) told me that he had one of North Carolina’s best criminal defense lawyers living right next door to him, (2) talked about lawsuits for “defamation of character” and said he didn’t want me “to run that risk,” and (3) said “It is possible [Carter’s] legal defense could come after you over false accusations which could quickly bankrupt you.”
Suffice it to say that I NEVER appreciate it when someone tries to convince me to remove something from the website or blog by suggesting that I might be sued if I don’t. Brandishing that sort of talk is NOT friendly . . . and it's not the right thing to do.
But here’s how the real damage is done -- the damage done by the words of Jameson, Scarborough, and many others.
When someone like Norman Jameson speaks publicly in a way that seems supportive of an accused perpetrator, it helps to silence any other possible victims. And the very fact that Jameson made such public comments helped to encourage others, such as Scarborough, in their own public support of the accused. And still more people made public comments. Take a look at all the comments under the WITN article.
Can you imagine how all of this looks to the kid who reported Carter to the police?
And what if there were other kids who may have had a fleeting thought about saying something? If it was unlikely they would speak up before, it’s probably a “no way” situation by now.
And can you imagine what the kid’s parents might be thinking? I bet they’re wondering whether they should have just moved away instead of encouraging their kid to talk to the police. I bet they’re wondering how much more wounded their kid will be before it’s all over. I bet they’re wondering how painful it will be if their kid has to testify in a courtroom filled with so many supporters for the accused.
Anticipating the community’s support for the minister is one reason many adolescent abuse victims don’t speak up. For those who do speak up, the community almost invariably proves them right.
It would be different if people wanted to privately express their concern for the accused. Calls, visits, letters and prayers would all be appropriate ways to quietly show care for an accused minister.
But public displays of support for the accused are terribly hurtful for child molestation victims. They’re hurtful not only for any victims in the particular case, but for other victims as well.
Even if this particular Baptist minister is innocent, you can be certain that, somewhere in the same community, there is another kid who is being sexually abused. Perhaps it is a girl being abused by an adult relative. Or perhaps it is a boy being abused by a coach. Or perhaps it's a boy who was abused at 14 and, now that he's 18, he's pondering whether he should say something.
One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. It’s usually by someone they know and trust. The weight of shame, self-blame, confusion and fear is so enormous and enduring that over 30 percent of them NEVER disclose the experience to ANYONE. Experts say that, of those who do disclose, more than 20 percent eventually recant even though the abuse actually occurred. Why? Often, part of the reason is community pressure. Kids just want things to go back to how they were. After all, once upon a time, it was their community too.
All those other kids are watching. If they see that adults they respect will publicly support an accused perpetrator, they will be less likely to ever report their own victimization. They will be even more scared and even more likely to remain silent, with the result that they will receive no help for the dreadful psychological wounds they have suffered.
It’s easy for people to be blinded by the pain they can see -- the pain of the accused minister and his family. But though it is less visible, the pain of the accuser is every bit as real -- sometimes more so -- and that pain often belongs to a scared and traumatized kid.
See also my prior postings on the Stephen Carter case, “Knowing him doesn’t yield knowledge” and “Baptist camp director charged with sex crimes.”