But when there’s a Baptist clergy predator, people hunker down and try not to think about how many kids were harmed. They don’t want to know the extent of the damage.
I think that’s what’s happening at First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas. Now that their longtime music minister has been convicted on child sex crimes, the church wants to close the door on all the ugliness and get back to their comfortable feel-good status-quo.
But something awful happened at First Baptist of Benton, and it’s a mistake to try to put it in the past too fast.
At this place -- First Baptist of Benton -- at least two decades of church boys were sexually abused. And it was more likely closer to three decades’ worth because David Pierce had been the music minister at that church for 29 years.
First Baptist of Benton wasn’t a sanctuary for those boys. It was a snare.
How many boys were abused during Pierce’s 29 year tenure?
Published news reports told of at least seven. Investigators said they had talked with “many.” And one of the victims said there were likely “dozens – maybe triple digits.”
So how many boys were wounded at First Baptist of Benton?
Any why doesn’t anyone seem to think it’s worth trying to find out?
Those boys -- most of them now grown -- are undoubtedly scattered all across the country. Shouldn’t church leaders try to reach out to them and help them?
Shouldn’t church leaders be trying to bring in the lost sheep? Or at least trying to bind their wounds?
Where are the good shepherds of First Baptist of Benton?
Why isn’t pastor Rick Grant making public entreaties to try to reach out to the many who were wounded in his church? And why isn’t this powerful church making public offers of independent counseling for all who were wounded by their former minister?
The consensus of psychological experts, experience, and common sense will tell you that there are likely many, many more Pierce victims who remain silent, mired in undue shame and self-blame. Where is the outreach to try to help them?
And what about the prior pastors of First Baptist of Benton? Men like Greg Kirksey and Randel Everett -- men who have become very prominent in the denomination? Where are their pastoral voices of outreach and care for the boys of Benton?
Pierce served under these other pastors as well. And his crimes likely happened on their watch also.
When so many have been so dreadfully wounded, church and denominational leaders owe it to those people to try to learn from what happened. Not only should they engage in public outreach to the wounded, but they should also engage a serious inquiry into how a tragedy of such magnitude may have been prevented.
There are lessons that can be learned from Benton, and leaders will lose those lessons if they put it in the past too fast.
David Pierce was a minister at First Baptist of Benton for 29 years. For at least 2 decades, and probably more, he sexually abused boys in the church. No background check would have shown anything.
But imagine these scenarios:
- You’re a 40 year old man and you’ve got a son who turns 15. This reality sets in motion a cascade of thoughts and feelings about what the Benton music minister did to you when you were 15. You have the thought of telling someone about it, but who would you tell? You live several states away, but you know from Thanksgiving visits that the town still loves the man, and you figure out pretty fast that it wouldn’t do any good to try to make a police report. Too much time has passed. Besides, the police chief is a church deacon. So you call the state denominational offices, thinking they might have someone who can help you. They don’t. So you hunker back into your pain, and you worry every day about what that music minister might still be doing to other boys all these years later. You worry so much you make yourself sick. Literally. But who can you tell? Who can you tell that might do anything?
- You’re a 30 year old man and your marriage is on the rocks. Actually, it seems to have crashed against the cliffs. Somehow, in the midst of the rubble, you keep thinking about the Benton music minister and what he did to you when you were 15. You think about how much you loved the church, and how much it meant to you, and how much you used to believe all that. You decide to talk to the church’s senior pastor about it. You muster all your faith to go sit in his office, but to your surprise, the pastor doesn’t do much of anything. He asks you to come back the next week when he brings the music minister in to apologize to you. He talks about forgiveness and about letting go and about not hurting the church family. He wants the three of you to pray together, and so you bow your head, just like you always did as a kid. You walk out thinking about all your relatives who go to the church, and you know for sure that you don’t want to hurt them or anyone else. Besides, maybe the pastor is right, you think -- maybe you’re the one who needs to learn to let go of things. And anyway, who else can you tell? Who can you tell that might do anything?
Though both scenarios may have been outside the period for criminal prosecution, a denominational review board could have provided objective information to people in the pews and could have given parents some warning. Congregants could have then chosen to remove the mantle of ministerial trust from Pierce’s shoulders so that other kids could be better safeguarded.
Even if these scenarios would not have put Pierce in prison, they may have at least prevented him from using the blasphemous guise of “God’s will” and “discipleship” as weapons against the boys of Benton.
Remember the boys of Benton.
Remember them now, and remember them in the future every time you read about a Baptist clergy abuse case.
The best way to make church kids safer against clergy abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about clergy abuse in the past. An independent denominational review board could assure that someone will at least listen.
Read Descent from Darkness, the blog of one of the many who were abused at First Baptist Church of Benton.