Monday, December 14, 2009

Get him off the radio!

In Lansford, Pennsylvania, people have put together a petition to get a Baptist pastor off the radio.

It’s pastor Jeremy Benack of the First Baptist Church of Lansford, and he’s on the local WLSH-1410 radio station. According to the online petition, pastor Jeremy Benack is also known locally as “The Bad Shepherd,” apparently based on the title of the article that was previously published in the Nashville Scene.

A lawsuit contends that, for several years, pastor Jeremy Benack groomed the young Shayna Werley for sexual abuse, and then, when she turned 18, put a ring on her finger and gave her that line about being married “in the eyes of the church.”

Reportedly, it was not long after that when Shayna’s parents found explicit photos of the pastor on Shayna’s cell phone.

They turned to the Southern Baptist Convention for help, but as the Nashville Scene explained, they found themselves facing “Goliath.”

According to the Werleys, officials at the Southern Baptist Convention created a treatment plan for . . . guess who?


That’s right. Rather than doing something about the pastor, they created a “treatment plan” that was designed “to shame and punish” Shayna.

Meanwhile, pastor Jeremy Benack still stands in the pulpit, and he even gets radio time on the local station.

Nothing unusual about that -- a whole lot of Baptist pastors are still standing in their pulpits despite reports of sexual abuse.

What makes this story unusual is that, when Shayna finally came to her senses and filed a lawsuit, she sued, not only the church, but also the Southern Baptist Convention itself. The suit is pending. There’s a hearing later this month. Focus your thoughts and prayers on that Pennsylvania judge, in the earnest hope that he may find wisdom and see the truth.

It’s not easy for a trial lawyer to decide to invest time and money in going after the Southern Baptist Convention. After all, in the nearly 50 years that attorney Jim Guenther has represented the denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention “has never lost a lawsuit of any kind.” That’s not just sexual abuse lawsuits. That’s “any kind” of lawsuit.

Attorney Guenther offered this prediction on the Werley case: “It is most likely that the plaintiff will voluntarily dismiss her law suit as to the SBC.... That is what routinely occurs when the SBC is sued in these kinds of cases. If she does not dismiss her suit, I expect the judge will dismiss the SBC on its motion for summary judgment….”

Guenther is right. This is what routinely occurs. Clergy abuse survivors don’t even get to go before a jury to let them consider the evidence. A judge simply dismisses the case.

Of course, most Baptist clergy abuse cases arise in the South. And in the South, a whole lot of judges are Baptist men. So, it’s understandable that they routinely buy the argument of Baptist officials. This does NOT mean that the judges deliberately favor Baptist officials. It simply means that the judges are human.

When a man who was raised in the South, who grew up in a Baptist church, and who likely played basketball with Royal Ambassadors, hears an attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention making an argument about how “all Baptist churches are autonomous,” the argument carries a ring of truth that resonates with the profound familiarity of a well-worn song.

That “ring of truth” may be false, but it is what “sounds right” because it sounds so familiar.

And that “sounds right” hurdle is a hard one to leap.

Augie Boto, the attorney for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, spelled out the odds even more clearly. Here is what he said:

“Though the SBC is named as a party in legal proceedings about twice per year on has not ever had a judgment rendered against it throughout its entire existence (i.e. since 1845). SBC polity is the major reason for its frequent dismissal out of lawsuits on motions for summary judgment.”

Make sure you pay attention to precisely what Boto said there. The dismissal of Baptist clergy abuse lawsuits has nothing to do with the truth of whether Baptist ministers sexually abuse kids, and it has nothing to do with the truth of whether others in Baptist life cover up for clergy abuse. It has to do with “SBC polity.”

It’s that same-old song of “all Baptist churches are autonomous,” and judges just keep buying it.

They have been ever since 1845. No matter the case. . . no matter the facts . . . no matter the egregiousness of it . . . “SBC polity” always wins the day.

But some day, that will change.

In this case, there is not only evidence that Southern Baptist officials could have intervened, there is evidence that Southern Baptist officials actually did undertake to intervene. Indeed, on this very blog, a person who identified herself as “Victoria, the wife in this matter” launched into a little rant about my “Bad Shepherd” posting and then proceeded to confirm exactly what the Werleys have said -- i.e., that a Southern Baptist Convention “representative” had been informed of the situation at First Baptist of Lansford. Victoria also asserted that “the care plan the SBC created” was never voted upon by the church itself.

Now admittedly, “the wife” called it a “care plan” and the Werleys called it a “treatment plan.” But the significance lies in the fact that both parties confirm that Southern Baptist officials created a “plan” to deal with the matter.

They had the power. They used the power. They created a “plan.”

Let’s hope that a judge in Pennsylvania will have the courage to see this sort of evidence for the reality of what it shows about the actual power of Southern Baptist officials.

Let’s hope that a judge in Pennsylvania will have the courage to listen for the truth that lies beyond the familiar refrain of “all Baptist churches are autonomous.”

Let’s hope that a judge in Pennsylvania will have the courage to let all the evidence go before a jury rather than continuing the pattern of routine judicial dismissals.

And meanwhile, as our hearts fill with hope, let’s do what we can to get Baptist pastor Jeremy Benack off the airwaves. Here’s the petition. It requires only your name and email address. And for those of you who prefer a measure of anonymity, you can uncheck a box at the bottom so that your name will NOT appear in the online signature list.

Please add your name to the petition.

You can see a picture of pastor Jeremy Benack and wife Victoria here. And if you scan down the page, you’ll see Jeremy’s father, Dr. Wayne Benack, who went to Southern Baptist seminaries and who is also a pastor at the church. On the church's home page, there is a statement saying they are now a “non-denominational independent church.”


Jim said...

Let's hope the plaintiff's attorney will argue that the SBC does not enable, encourage nor support local church autonomy. He can cite the "disfellowship" of allegedly autonomous SBC churches for the "sins" of calling a woman pastor or of failing to establish a "policy" regarding gay members. No group that exercises that level of control can legitimately claim autonomy in order to gain a pass in dealing with clergy child sexual abuse.

gmommy said...

Please forgive the "shade of snobbery" I may be showing with this statement.
What the heck web site uses the term "Schooling"??? Don't they know the word Education???
The Baptists have got to get away from these self anointed yahoos.
This is embarrassing.
As long as you aren't a woman...anybody can claim "the callin"... scary.

heffalump said...

From what I understand of the story, he pretended to marry Shayna while his first wife was pregnant...the church should have fired him, never mind waiting on the SBC. And violating his marriage should be the least of that churches reasons. I suppose no one wants to believe anything against "God's anointed." Uggh.

Lydia said...

Why hasn't this man's church been disfellowshipped from the SBC?

This man is sicko. I mean whatever are they thinking at the SBC?

Jim said...

Gmommy, "schooling" is the appropriate expression to use regarding the theological training of an entire generation of SBC pastors. They sure as heck are not getting "educated" at Southern, Southeastern, or Southwestern. These once strong institutions of theological education have been truned into little more than "preacher factories." One does not graduate with an education...he is "schooled" to be a loyal follower of the SBC.

Ramesh said...

Off Topic:

An excellent post and troublesome details at this church ...

FBC Jax Watchdog > "Rage at the Spring" - Another Blogger/Church Scandal.

Michelle said...


Merry Christmas (Kwanzaa, Chanukah, etc) to you and everyone on this site. I'm taking a much needed vacation from thinking too deeply about this, but I'll come back. You are ALWAYS in my heart.

Thank you all for what you do.