Saturday, October 31, 2009

What a difference a database may have made

Former Southern Baptist pastor Ralph Lee Aaron “is now facing charges on 152 ‘atrocious acts’ stemming from allegations he sexually abused and tortured young boys” while on church camping trips. Numerous charges of possessing and disseminating child porn are also included within the 152 counts.

The case came to light because a mother “heard rumors of a previous incident” involving pastor Aaron,” and she sat down and talked with her young son. The mother determined that her son may have had inappropriate contact with pastor Aaron, and so she went to the police.

That mom’s action served to get an alleged serial predator out of the pulpit. That mom’s action will work to protect other kids in the future. That mom’s action will mean that kids who have already been wounded may get help sooner rather than later.

Thank God for that mom.

But no thanks to any Southern Baptist leaders.

The “previous incident” that the mom heard “rumors” about stemmed from a 2005 complaint when pastor Aaron was at Victory Baptist Church in Andalusia, Alabama. No criminal charges were filed in 2005 because the statute of limitations had run out by the time the complaint was filed.

But even though no criminal charges were filed, the people at Victory Baptist were apparently concerned. According to a comment under the Andalusia Star-News article, Victory Baptist fired pastor Aaron. So . . . they got him out of their own church, but what did they do to protect others?

After leaving Victory Baptist, pastor Aaron went to Grace Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational church in the same town of Andalusia, Alabama. Do you think Victory Baptist warned the people at Grace Christian Fellowship?

Or did it all become nothing more than a “rumor” in that town?

A “rumor” that apparently only one woman had the gumption to take seriously.

I don’t know exactly what Victory Baptist did or didn’t do, but I know what typically happens. Churches don’t tell. They’re afraid the pastor will sue them for ruining his career.

In describing how another Baptist pastor was able to go from church to church despite multiple abuse allegations, writer Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly magazine explained it this way: “To avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy.”

That’s Baptistland. It’s the place where preacher-predators can simply church-hop through the porous sieve of the Baptist network.

Apparently, this wasn’t the first time pastor Ralph Aaron church-hopped. A couple more comments under the Andalusia Star-News article say that, before arriving at Victory Baptist, pastor Aaron worked at still another Southern Baptist church in Samson, Alabama. One person, who says that Aaron was his pastor for 6 years at Samson, tells of how Aaron was “mysteriously fired” from that church. “One Sunday he was there and the next Sunday the deacons had ousted him,” he states.

So . . . it sounds as though the deacons at the Samson church may have also known something about pastor Aaron.

But did they warn others?

I doubt it. It was probably easier just to let him go rather than to look too closely.

And there’s nothing in Baptistland that requires anyone to look too closely.

That’s the problem.

If there were a professionally-staffed denominational review board -- people tasked with looking closely -- then maybe the deacons of the Samson church could have reported pastor Aaron and gotten some help with whatever the reasons were for their alleged “mysterious” firing of him.

And maybe if such a review board had existed, and if it kept records on clergy abuse complaints, then pastor Aaron may not have been placed in a new position of trust as pastor of Victory Baptist in Andalusia.

And even if Victory Baptist had hired Aaron anyway, if a denominational review board had existed, then maybe Victory Baptist could have reported the complaint made at its church, and perhaps Aaron would not have been able to get still another pastorate after leaving Victory.

And maybe if there had been some Southern Baptist database of clergy abuse complaints that Grace Christian Fellowship could have checked, then perhaps they would have decided not to hire pastor Aaron.

And maybe if there had been a denominational database as an authoritative source for information about pastor Aaron, instead of just local “rumors,” then maybe the people at Grace Christian Fellowship could have at least been warned.

Authorities now say that Aaron “had multiple male victims ranging in age from 8 to 10.”

There’s the tragedy of Baptist do-nothingness.

If Southern Baptist leaders had cared enough to create a denominational review board and a database of abuse reports, then maybe some of those 8 to 10 year old boys could have been spared.


Update: BaptistPlanet reports that Ralph Aaron is still listed as a dean at Covington Theological Seminary in Opp, Alabama.


Writer said...


Our church does background checks on everyone, especially new ministerial staff. It seems like background checks won't help in these cases when someone hasn't been previously charged or convicted of a crime.

How would you envision a baptist database providing any additional information? Should someone be on a database due to hearsay and rumor? It seems to me that, legally, the database could not put someone on it unless formal charges had been brought. Wouldn't a background check pick that up just as well?

Thanks for your answer.


Anonymous said...

Crista has mentioned before that no state conventional boards oversee and investigate these matters. If they did even the concern of "false claims" could be substantiated. Crista you have brought up so many recent cases forward in Protestant circles that you will get heard by rising leadership. No evil doer here exists only an evil exposer.

Anonymous said...

Correction: an exposer of evil.

Christa Brown said...

“Should someone be on a database due to hearsay and rumor?”

No. But at the same time, every allegation of clergy sex abuse should be considered seriously. A professionally-staffed denominational review board could provide the expertise and objectivity to assure that allegations are responsibly addressed.

Baptists don’t need to reinvent the wheel on this. Other major faith groups already have denominational review boards of various sorts, and Baptists could use those as a model for developing their own denominational review board. Other major faith groups use review board processes to assess whether abuse reports involve “credible allegations” or whether they have “substantial evidence.” They use these sorts of review board assessments to discipline clergy, to remove them from active ministry, and/or to remove their credentials. We haven’t asked the Southern Baptist Convention to discipline or remove credentials. Instead, we have simply asked that the national organization provide the resource of a denominational review board to responsibly assess clergy abuse reports, to keep track of the information, and to relay the information to congregations.

Almost all experts agree that over 90 percent of active child molesters have never been criminally charged or convicted. Many would say it is over 95 percent. So EVEN IF every Baptist church did background checks (and a great many don’t), those background checks will weed out only a very small percentage. The additional information that a denominational database could provide is information about ministers who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse (even when they could not be criminally charged). It could also provide information about ministers who have essentially admitted to conduct that constitutes sexual abuse.

The criminal justice system is premised on the notion that it is better to let 9 guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man. This premise manifests itself in a variety of ways from the extremely high burden of proof (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) to the sorts of evidence that get excluded. But merely because a man may be able to avoid the extraordinary penalty of being put in prison does not mean that he should automatically be able to remain in a position of high trust as a minister.

Two critical facts: (1) Most child molesters have more than one victim; (2) In most cases, by the time a victim becomes psychologically capable of speaking about it, the time period for criminal prosecution has passed. (There are obvious exceptions, such as in cases where a parent becomes suspicious, talks to the child, and then notifies police.) These two facts are why it is so important that, when a victim becomes capable of speaking, there must be a safe place with people who will listen and take action. The best way to prevent abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past. Such a safe place does not exist in Baptistland. Telling abuse survivors that they should go to the church of the accused perpetrator is like telling them to go to the den of the wolf who savaged them.

Would there be risks involved with the implementation of a denominational review board and database? Of course. But the risk of staying in the status quo boat is far greater.

For additional information, you might also want to look at this page on FAQs about the request for an independent review board, and this page on why background checks aren’t enough.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't trust a review board that listens to hearsay and accusations without proof from a criminal court.

Simple truth is that a man/woman is innocent until PROVEN guilty in a court of law.

Christa Brown said...

"Innocent until proven guilty" is a presumption that applies in the criminal law context for whether a person should be deprived of all liberty and put in prison. It's not a standard for whether a person should be allowed to remain in the pulpit.

In any event, the question is "proven" by what standards. Criminal law standards? Administrative review standards? Disciplinary review standards? Other professionals who work in positions of trust -- such as doctors and lawyers -- are subject to review processes, and they can be precluded from practicing medicine or law even if they have never been criminally convicted of anything. Yet, by the applicable standards, they have been "proven" to be unsuited for the profession. Clergy should be subject to a similar sort of review process.

I wrote more about the whole "Innocent until proven guilty" thing here. And you've just proven my point, Anon, about how so many people like to put that word "PROVEN" in all caps.

Ramesh said...

Off Topic:

Grace and Truth to You [Pastor Wade Burleson] > Dorothy Patterson's Midnight Dinner With Mohammed Abdel Rahman Abdel Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini.

I was reading Cheryl Schatz's blog and came across a comment by Lydia regarding the official biography of Dorothy Patterson, wife of Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas. Lydia pointed out that Dorothy Patterson's biographical sketch reveals she shared "a midnight banquet with Yasser Arafat in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces." Incredulous, I went and read the offical biography for myself, which further revealed, "Dr. (Dorothy) Patterson has traveled to more than 75 countries; she met with Pope John Paul in his private apartment in the Vatican; she served as Chair for President Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Bible Committee and was received in the Oval Office; she has had coffee with former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in his Knesset office; she’s been the guest of Yaser Arafat at a midnight banquet in Saddam Hussein’s palace guest house in Baghdad. "

Anonymous said...

" It's not a standard for whether a person should be allowed to remain in the pulpit."

Thank YOU! Amen! Where ARE biblical standards? My goodness, even the school system puts a teacher or principal on leave during an investigation when it is only a accusation!

Recently, a long time principal was fired for viewing some porn on his computer! He was forced the leave that day!

That is how serious the school system takes this problem. But churches? Oh no, you have to be convicted in a court room before churches will take it seriously. In the meantime, kids are being molested.

My question is this:

Could a former church be liable for not reporting molestation?

Could a victim sue a church that fired him but did not call the police or do any outside investigating and even gave him a good reference?

john said...

I would hope that ANYONE who fais to report a crime like this should be charged, arrested, covicted, and serve time. Also, a chuch should be held responsible fo a non-accountability approach towards its pastors and staff.

gmommy said...

We can continue to hope but unfortunately it's not the case.
My mega seemed quite pleased with the fact that they could get by with NOT reporting a minister who CONFESSED to molesting a child. Turns out by the time the victim was able to put pressure on the pastor and the predator, he was grown. Their "out" was that the victim was now over 18 so they weren't responsible for reporting to the authorities that one of their staff ministers had confessed to sexual abuse. Very sad that church leaders were content to just get by "under the radar". Sad that the pastor had no problem keeping the confessed sexual predator on staff...UNTIL it became public and he was forced to suspend him WHILE they did an investigation.
WHY was an investigation necessary after the minister confessed to sexual abuse, his victim confirmed the abuse, and others came forward who the minister had been inappropriate with??????
John...we can only HOPE these guys someday want to do the right thing.

Christa Brown said...

Gmommy is right. The reality is that the laws on failure to report are very rarely enforced and too easy to side-step.

"Turns out by the time the victim was able to put pressure on the pastor and the predator, he was grown."

This is what happens MOST of the time. It's normal. Yet, so many people seem inclined to blame the victims for not speaking up sooner. But the reality is that victims speak when they are capable of doing so.

What I'll never understand is why so many people are so ready to blame the victims for not speaking up sooner but seem oblivious to the problem of the many who won't listen when the victims actually do speak. Why not blame those who refuse to hear rather than those who are incapable of speaking?

Anonymous said...

And I assume you are the only one with wisdom to sit on some "review board" to determine something about a pastor or staff member. What a pathetic joke. I'll trust the legal system more than a bunch of backbiting and jealous Baptists any day.