Sunday, September 13, 2009

Remember the boys of Benton

When there’s an oil spill, people try to figure out how many barrels of oil went down. They want to know the extent of the damage.

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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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?
In both of these scenarios, if there had been a safe and welcoming place to which the victims could have readily turned, Pierce may have been stopped sooner. If there had been a professionally-trained denominational panel to objectively assess clergy abuse reports, then other kids may have been protected.

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.


BaptistPlanet said...

It seems to me that the boys of Benton have been victimized by the brutal, cross-cultural prejudice against sex crime victims -- whether they are victimized in wartime abroad ( ) or in peacetime at church -- a prejudice so widespread that Marriott recently tried a blame-the-victim strategy in a rape liability case ( ).
You've described that brutal prejudice at work in your recent columns detailing how other clergy speak up for the abuser/rapist while the victims are variously offered dismissive gestures, ignored or shunned.

SNAPnetwork said...

This is the crux of the clergy sex abuse and cover up crisis - the continuing and inexcusable and callous refusal, by church officials, to seek out others who are wounded.

It's as if a drunk driver forced a school bus full of kids off the road. The bus tumbles down into a ravine. Ambulance workers help the one or two kids who are strong enough, despite their bleeding and broken bones, to climb back up onto the highway. But the adults are too timid, and worried about sullying their clothes, to walk down to the bus and look for other survivors.

More than ordaining sick individuals, more than letting predators move around, more than any other aspect of this crisis, this self-serving refusal to find and help others who are in pain is, ultimately, what church officials will have to answer for. . . .

David Clohessy, National Director, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), 7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143 (314 566 9790 cell),

Jim said...

I am a 65 year old, retired Baptist minister (Theology degrees from Southeastern and Duke).  The lack of Christian charity and integrity displayed by the leadership of my "mother church," the Southern Baptist Convention, disgusts me.  Bottom line: this isn't about integrity, or protecting children or even doing the right thing; it is about economics.  Paul's admonition to the young preacher Timothy (I Timothy 6:10-11) is appropriate here. 

No one in leadership in the SBC, or in any of the churches where pastors or ministerial staff members have sexually violated children, is willing to publiclly admit their is a problem for fear of incurring significant financial liability for their institutions.  These guys are not listening to the voice of God, or responding to the "leadership of the Spirit," they are bending to the advice of counsel.  Until and unless a victim or group of victims muster the courage to mount a court challenge to the "hear no evil, see no evil," mantra of SBC leadership, this vile corruption within that body will not be removed. 

As with any psychological or behaviorial issue, admission that one has a problem is a first step to healing.  SBC leadership cannot, will not make that admission for fear of being sued.  Protecting themselves, they defend or minimize the behavior of offenders and blame or dismiss the victims.  My response: sue the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, anyway.  Sue for a court ordered sex offender database and sue for huge damages to be distributed among victims.  If the only thing they understand is advice of counsel, let counsel earn that nice annual retainer. 

If every victim, victims family, disgusted minister and lay person contributed just $100. to a legal fund for that purpose, I believe a strong challenge could be made and a victorious outcome would be achieved.  Like most retired clergy, I now live on a somewhat modest "fixed" income.  However, I will be most pleased to send my $100. check as soon as court documents are filed.

George Frink said...

They pay heads of very small divisions more five figure salaries plus benefits but elect not to afford to track clerical sexual predators.
They track homosexual-tolerant congregations for the sake of booting them out of the BSC, but not sexual predators.
The negligence seems palpable in an abstract sense, even considering only those things, but where is standing for action?

Christa Brown said...

Class action for injunctive relief to compel largest Protestant denomination to create review board and denominational database??

The "hear no evil see no evil" mantra of SBC leadership perfectly describes it. However, there are lots of reasons why lawsuits against SBC leadership (or state convention leadership) are MUCH more difficult than suits against Catholic leadership. Because of those increased difficulties, many Baptist abuse victims can't even find lawyers to represent them, which in turn, means that they can't usually get media attention to expose their perpetrators. (Public allegations and/or documents in a lawsuit make it much more likely that the press will be able to report on it.)

Lawyers can often be creative people, and the law is an organic process. So I believe it is inevitable -- INEVITABLE -- that the SBC will eventually be hit big-time because of their failure to institute the sorts of clergy accountability safeguards that other major faith groups have instituted. (As much as they complain about SNAP, the truth is that we have asked them to do LESS than what other major faith groups do.) But it may take a long time.

Personally, I would prefer 10,000 times over that they would take action based on human decency and caring, and not to mention based on the very Christian principles that they purport to profess. But they've been given that chance to become aware of the extent of the problem and to take action ... to no avail ... and I now believe that they will never do right on this for the mere sake of doing right . . . or for the sake of protecting kids . . . or for the sake of ministering to the wounded.

Since I used to like Star Trek, I think of the SBC as being sort of like a Romulan spaceship with its cloaking device. They're enormously powerful, but when they don't want to exist, they disappear. That's how the SBC is -- it's a denomination when it wants to be, and it pounds its chest for all the world to see, but when it wants to avoid the risk of legal accountability, the denomination simply disappears. For purposes of legal accountability, the SBC is a very tricky bird. And I can't see any sign that they actually give a hoot about moral responsibility.

Christa Brown said...

"It's as if a drunk driver forced a school bus full of kids off the road. The bus tumbles down into a ravine. Ambulance workers help the one or two kids who are strong enough, despite their bleeding and broken bones, to climb back up onto the highway. But the adults are too timid, and worried about sullying their clothes, to walk down to the bus and look for other survivors."

I really like this analogy. Even though everyone knows that there are surely many, many more Pierce victims who were wounded -- who are bleeding out in a ditch -- Benton pastors (present and past)and other Arkansas Baptist officials are too timid and too worried about "sullying" THEMSELVES to bother with going out to search for those wounded people in the ditches.

George Frink said...

Identification of individual church and denominational leadership with the abuser, rather than the abused, may cut across denominational lines.
Consider the capacity of the Catholic hierarchy to somehow overlook the abusive behavior of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado.
Then consider the capacity SBC leaders to somehow overlook the behavior of pastor Daryl Gilyard.
There also appear to me to be parallels in the tendency at times of congregations to defend the abusers, and those defenses may extend to outside-church-forums.

For example, when BaptistPlanet first suggested that Marcial Maciel's subordinates could not have been unaware of what he was doing, and should be removed from power, a member of Regnum Christi rather artfully suggested that the author of that blog had a "calumny" problem ( ).

Christa Brown said...

"Identification of individual church and denominational leadership with the abuser, rather than the abused . . . [and] "the tendency at times of congregations to defend the abusers..."

Judy Herman, psychiatrist and author of the book "Trauma & Recovery" explained this phenomenon this way:

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.”

Unknown said...

I was just thinking today - I have told, really several Baptist ministers how that one Baptist minister abused me. Only a couple have told me that what he did was wrong. Most were more concerned with either making sure I forgave him, or were not comfortable about talking about sex with me. I'm not too sure many Baptist pastors believe what that guy did was wrong, really, truly wrong.

Jim said...

I did not intend to imply that victims of clergy sexual abuse should sue the Southern Baptist Convention. That is an ill-defined body that exists for only a few days, at an annual meting, during a week in June. However, the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention works five days per week, fifty-two weeks every year from offices in Nashville. It is the fiduciary agent of the SBC, and its president was directly responsible for the convention's refusal to ratify a motion that would have required a database to report, track and inform churches of the predatory practices of clergy and church staff members. I wonder how many victims, expecially children, have been sexually abused by pastors and church staff since June?

Christa Brown said...

Thanks for the reminder, Jim. The SBC Executive Committee is actually much more than a mere "committee." They run the show. And though they sometimes like to pretend that they act only upon instruction from the messengers of the churches - i.e., from the convention - the reality is the Exec. Committee has the power to act whenever they want. And besides, even when a near-unanimous vote of the messengers instruct the Exec. Committee to conduct a study, we've all seen that the Exec. Committee still does exactly what it wants - and exactly what it doesn't want. The Exec. Committee (and especially the Exec. Committee president Morris Chapman) didn't want to create a database of credibly accused clergy child molestors, and so a database didn't happen. They like to pretend that it's all about the autonomous churches, but it's really all about THEM and their money and their power and their fiefdom. One thing for sure -- it's NOT about protecting kids or ministering to the wounded.

Christa Brown said...

Jim: Now that you've got me thinking about this, let me share a few more thoughts. I'm thinking that people other than Baptist abuse survivors could conceivably attempt to sue the SBC Exec Committee for an affirmative injunction compelling the creation of a database of credibly accused clergy and for a system of assessing abuse reports. Conceivably, every person who sits in a Baptist pew (and particularly every parent) has an interest (standing???) in knowing that ministers who carry the "Baptist" brand are people who are subject to accountability measures similar to what other faith groups have. And every Baptist parent has an interest in knowing that men who have been credibly accused of abuse are not standing in a Baptist pulpit, with a position of respect and trust that their kids look up to.

And what about the fact that 8000 Baptist messengers directed the Exec. Committee to study the creation of a database? Did anyone ever see any evidence that anything normal people would call a study was actually ever done? There wasn't even a budget for any such a study. I think it shows how little respect the high honchos actually have for the churches and their delegates. Maybe some churches should sue to effectively say, "Hey... where's that study??" After all, as you point out, the SBC Exec Committee is supposed to function in a fiduciary capacity. Even by their own bylaws, that ought to compel some serious obligations on their part.

I would LOVE to see people other than abuse survivors take the lead on trying to force the SBC Exec Committee to actually do something! What a message of caring THAT would send to the many, many Baptist abuse survivors! Even if such an effort failed (and I expect there would indeed be some failures before the right legal argument/angle is hit on), it would still send a Baptist message of "we take this seriously" to survivors ... and it would also let the SBC Exec Committee know that the status quo isn't safe for them anymore.

Obviously, I'm just talking off the top of my head here. This is NOT any sort of legal opinion -- not even close. But I DO believe that, in order to effect change, the problem will need to be approached differently in Baptist-land than it was in Catholic-land, and it will take exploring creative possibilities to make something happen.

Jim said...

A non-victim action against SBC sounds interesting. Would it take the form of a "class action" suit? Wonder how it might proceed? Could citizens of a community, non Baptists, sue to require a database in order to insure the reasonable safety of children who may participate in broader community outreach programs such as VBS, Youth Group, etc. Often, neither these kids nor their parents are members of the church sponsoring the child/youth oriented activity. Those are great hunting grounds for predators. Shouldn't the community be assured everything has been done to insure the safety of their children while "inside" the church. Just thinking....

Christa Brown said...

All good questions, Jim. And they're sort of cutting edge questions. It will take people bringing suits against Baptist denominational entities, and bringing them in different jurisdictions, to find out some of those answers. And the answers will probably come centimeter by centimeter, inch by inch.

What I definitely believe, though, as I think you probably do also, is that Southern Baptist leaders are not going to do the right thing on this for the sake of doing the right thing... they aren't even going to seriously try. Sadly, they will take this seriously only when they are forced into it by the law. And right now, I believe they think they're invincible... untouchable and unreachable by the law... they and their organization. Sooner or later, the law will prove them wrong. But I believe it will take different strategies and approaches than with the Catholics and other more obviously hierarchical groups.

Gordon said...

Here is a link to an article in the Benton Arkansas newspaper where one of the Pierce victims speaks out.