Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Baptist-land: Mapping the terrain (part 2)

For lawyers, a big part of what you need for a lawsuit is to have a structure to sue. That’s just one of the practical realities of lawsuits.

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.

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