Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Haiti: Intervention of SBC officials shows inconsistency of "autonomy"

The highest leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to help secure the release of the 10 volunteer “missionaries” who are charged with child kidnapping in Haiti.

Most of the mission team members are from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, and one is from a Southern Baptist church in Texas. Their mission team was an independent one, connected to the churches, but not sponsored directly by the Southern Baptist Convention.

That’s how it works in Baptistland.

The local churches are supposedly totally autonomous and can do whatever they want.

“Local church autonomy.” It’s the reason denominational leaders invariably give for why they can’t do anything about reported clergy predators.

“Local church autonomy.” It’s the line that gets dished out to clergy abuse survivors whenever they seek help from denominational leaders.

So why didn’t the “local church autonomy” line get dished out this time?

Why didn’t denominational leaders tell the local churches, “It’s your mission team – you handle it.”

After all, that’s what they tell clergy abuse survivors: “Go to the local church. He’s their pastor. They have to handle it.”

And we all know what happens then, don’t we? It’s like sending wounded sheep back to the den of the wolf who savaged them.

But if a church’s “missionaries” are in trouble, as opposed to merely a church’s clergy molestation survivors, then the high-honchos step up to the plate.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have a problem with the fact that the SBC’s high-honchos decided to intervene on behalf of the local churches’ missionaries in Haiti. Baptists have a shared identity, and so they should also have a shared burden of care and responsibility.

The part I have a problem with is the fact that Southern Baptist leaders reject the notion of shared care and responsibility when it comes to dealing with Baptist clergy sex abuse.

Why the inconsistency?

An Associated Press article pointed out that Baptist leaders were concerned the Haiti arrests might hurt their image.

Is that the reason for the inconsistency on local church autonomy? Is it really all about concern for image rather than concern for kids?

I couldn’t help but see some irony in the fact that the Associated Press “image” article was picked up by the newspaper in Palestine, Texas.

Palestine: It’s one of those typical East Texas towns where Southern Baptists are so extremely dominant. The article reminded me that there are a lot of East Texas Baptist churches who, through independent efforts, support orphanages in very poor places.

Imagine that one of those orphanages is headed by a charming director whom everyone considers to be a great Christian man. He's a “Baptist.” At the East Texas church that supports him, people love it when their Sunday night service shows videos of the children at the orphanage. They get all warm and fuzzy just thinking about all the good they’re doing by supporting this man’s orphanage. And twice each year, when the director comes to town, he speaks from the church’s pulpit.

Now imagine that you’re someone who grew up in that orphanage and were sexually abused by that director. You’ve gotten a bit older, and you want to protect other kids from the hell of what you went through. So you try to figure out how you can get someone to seriously look into it. There’s no one in your homeland who’s going to look into it. He’s a powerful, wealthy man in that poor place, and in any event, it’s long past any possibility for criminal prosecution. So you decide to go to the people who fund the orphanage and whose “brand” is attached to the orphanage. After all, the director claims to be a “Baptist” and so you imagine there will be someone among “Baptists” who will exercise some oversight. Makes sense, right?

Except that there’s not anyone like that in Baptistland. There is no oversight.

But you just can’t believe it . . . and you keep thinking about the other kids who are still at the orphanage -- and so you can’t bring yourself to give up. You talk to several people, and you tell them that you know of others who can also tell of abuse by the same man if only they can be assured of some reasonable review.

But no one will pay any attention to you. After all, you’re just an outsider. You’re not one of those cute kids in the videos anymore, and nothing you have to say makes anyone feel warm and fuzzy. And the orphanage director -- he’s a great man of God. He’s someone that people have watched on Sunday night videos for years.

So . . . where exactly should this guy go? Who exactly should he talk to?

What system do Southern Baptists have in place to provide even a small measure of denominational oversight for such mission efforts?

The orphanage director carries the “Baptist” name, but who among Baptists will even bother with responsibly assessing the accusations?

The answer, of course, is no one.

So . . . here’s my point. If Southern Baptist leaders are so willing to intervene to try to help those “missionaries” from the autonomous local churches, why can’t they intervene to try to help a person who grew up in a “Baptist” orphanage sponsored by autonomous local churches?

And given that Southern Baptists don’t provide any denominational oversight for the mission efforts of Baptist churches, why should the Haitian government automatically assume that the “missionaries” have “obvious good intentions”?

Should they assume “obvious good intentions” just because high-honcho Baptist leader Richard Land says so?

How the heck would Richard Land know?

And what about the fact that 8 of the “missionaries” now say that the leader of their group, Laura Silsby, is “lying”?

When the arrests were made, Haitian authorities said there was no way to be sure that the American “missionaries” had the children's best interests at heart.

The Haitian authorities were exactly right. There was “no way to be sure.” So they detained the “missionaries” to try to figure out why 33 kids were being taken across the border without documentation.

Southern Baptist leaders could learn a lesson. When the well-being of kids is at stake, it’s not the time for easy assumptions. Nor is it the time for easy talk about “local church autonomy.”

Related posts:
“Charged missionary was from church with recent child predator”
“Child safeguards or accusations of Satan?”


john said...

Your observation on this is right on! The only reason I can see the SBC getting involved is because 1] They spend so money down there that they think they have earned the right to tell them what they should do. 2] There is no way a victim down there can cause the SBC any trouble in court. 3] It is simply a matter of arrogance!
There are so many of these intervention stories that I believe one day the SBC is going to run up aginst a judge or jury that can see the problem. It sure would be great if the SBC could simply do the right thing about these abusers in the church!

Jeri said...

I'm pretty sure that the SBC has launched its Damage Control Machine. The missionaries have made the SBC look bad to the entire world, so now the convention, which routinely ignores the victims of its numerous fornicating and pedophile preachers, is going to stage a public cleanup and create a facade of mercy mixed with accountability.

I also want at least eight of the missionaries brought home, sadder but wiser. And I've prayed for them to be kept safe.

But I see the SBC is just up to its usual game of public relations in taking a hand to bring them home.