Sunday, March 7, 2010

Unholy news from Palestine

Palestine: It’s a name that conjures holy ground.

But what’s been happening in Palestine, Texas, isn’t holy at all. It’s unholy.

On February 26, long-time Southern Baptist pastor, Hezekiah Stallworth, was arrested for sexual indecency with a 7-year-old child.

Since Stallworth’s arrest, a 9-year-old has also come forward. And two adults have brought forward allegations that, in the 1980s, they too were sexually abused as children by Stallworth.

Sheriff Greg Taylor said they expected to conduct a lengthy and far-reaching investigation. “Unfortunately, he preached in this area for more than 30 years, so chances are good there are additional victims out there,” Taylor added.

So . . . in just one week’s time, we have learned about 4 alleged victims, and the Sheriff says more victims are likely. It’s sad, isn’t it? What if Stallworth could have been stopped sooner?

Two women have said they were abused as far back as the 1980s. When news hit the paper about the criminal charges against Stallworth, they didn’t waste any time telling the Sheriff about their own accusations.

They were obviously more-than-ready to talk.

How many kids might have been spared if only there had been some place where those two women might have been heard sooner?

Their claims were likely too old for criminal prosecution by the time they were capable of talking about it. That’s the most common scenario. But what if Baptists had a denominational review board to which these women could have reported their accusations against Stallworth?

What if there had been some responsible Baptist office that could have looked into the women’s allegations? And what if Baptist officials had concluded the allegations were credible and then informed the people in Palestine?

How many kids could have been spared the trauma of being sexually abused by a religious authority figure if only Stallworth had been removed from his ministerial position of high trust?

How many kids could have been spared if only people in Palestine had been warned?

But even though other major faith groups now have review boards to assess accusations against clergy, Southern Baptists don’t. They just sit back and wait for the law to take action.

And if that never happens . . . well . . . too bad for the kids.

We’ve seen this tragic pattern too many times before.

Remember the case of music minister David Pierce at the prominent First Baptist Church in Benton, Arkansas? When Pierce was finally brought up on criminal charges involving one boy, it came to light that church leaders also knew about three adult men who had said that Pierce abused them as kids. And by the time Pierce was led off to jail, we learned that he had sexually victimized scores of boys over a period of 20 years.

And how about the horror of the recent Matt Baker case? It took a murder for people in the pews to finally learn about the numerous sexual abuse and assault allegations against this Baptist pastor. For 18 years, he moved through churches and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and even though some Baptist leaders knew about abuse and assault accusations, no one did anything. Baker was even allowed to work as a chaplain for emotionally disturbed kids. Since he hadn’t yet been criminally convicted of anything, Baptist leaders acted as though it wasn’t their problem. . . and to heck with those vulnerable kids.

None of this is anything new. Back in 2007, after ABC 20/20 aired its exposé on “Preacher Predators,” Baptist high-honcho Augie Boto acknowledged that, in some instances, “abuse had occurred earlier at churches where those men had been previously employed.”

Nevertheless, Boto also told us the reality of how things work in Baptistland -- leaders wait for the law. “The proper investigatory panel for Baptists should be law enforcement officials,” he said. (Baptist Press, 2/22/07)

In other words, if the law doesn’t throw a Baptist pastor in prison, he can still stand in a Baptist pulpit. That’s how low the standard is in Baptistland.

Baptist pastors carry the Baptist “brand” out into the world, but Baptists refuse any responsibility for oversight of the “brand.” Baptists simply leave it up to secular law enforcement. Yet, virtually all experts recognize that most active child molesters have never been criminally convicted of anything.

In fact, in the Catholic Church, over 700 priests have now been removed from ministry, but only about 3 percent of those have ever been criminally convicted. This means that, if Catholic leaders in the U.S. still followed the same tragically low standard as Southern Baptists, about 679 of those priests could still be in ministry and working with kids.

But despite the many scandals and the rising numbers of wounded people, Baptists still haven’t learned anything.

Imagine that you’re someone who was sexually abused as a kid by some other Baptist pastor connected to a church in Palestine. You’ve gotten older, and you’ve talked to some of your childhood friends who experienced similar horrors, and now you’d like to try to protect other kids from the hell of what you went through. But it’s too late for criminal prosecution. So who in Baptistland can you safely tell?

You told some people once before, but they only heaped on more hurt. Why should you now believe that anything in Baptistland has changed?

Who will now treat your allegations seriously? Who will give a hoot?

One thing for sure . . . it won’t be Augie Boto. And it won’t be anyone else at Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville. And it won’t be anyone at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. And it won’t be anyone at that other statewide Texas Baptist convention either.

Unlike other major faith groups, Baptists haven’t taken the first baby-steps toward setting up a system for the responsible assessment of clergy abuse reports or even for keeping denominational data on how many abuse reports a minister might have.

If Baptists hope to prevent clergy sex abuse in the future, they must find a way to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past. Let’s pray they do it soon.

With so many Baptist churches, and so little of any system of clergy accountability, things are unholy indeed in Palestine, Texas.

Photo by Dominic Greyer.


Anonymous said...

Please explain to your readers what an indictment is Crista, I am reading about 2nd Baptist Church of Odessa which I have been in due to an invitation of a wedding many moons ago. They are still supporting him even under an indictment??? Does not an indictment suggest sexual misconduct at least???

Christa Brown said...

This is the Odessa case that Anon 2:59 is talking about. The youth pastor of this Texas Southern Baptist church has been indicted on multiple counts of sexual assault of a child and one count of continous sexual abuse of a child. According to news reports, the church has not even so much as placed him on administrative leave; they simply assigned him to a different ministry within the church. News reports also reflect that church members are pledged to support him and are standing behind him "100 percent." Can you imagine how that 15-year-old kid must feel as she watches the entirety of her faith community take a public stand in support of the pastor? And if there were any other kids in the church who might have even half-way been thinking of speaking up, I bet they'll hesitate a lot more now, won't they?

An indictment does indeed suggest something pretty serious. It's more than a single individual's accusation. Typically, the handing down of an indictment means that a grand jury has reviewed some significant part of the evidence so as to determine that there is indeed sufficient cause to bring the criminal charges. (Sometimes it might be a judge who hands down the indictment - or something akin to an indictment - but usually it means a grand jury.)

gmommy said...

This story is on Nancy Grace right now. They are discussing "men of the cloth" who are frauds and preying on children.

Christa Brown said...

Gmommy: Thanks for the video link to the Nancy Grace story about the Florida minister charged with 66 counts of possessing child pornography and 2 counts of intent to distribute child porn.

Ironically, I imagine there will be some Southern Baptists who will see this news piece and will shake their heads at the thought of ministers who get their credentials by purchasing them online. But of course, Southern Baptist ministers don't even have to buy anything online. Anyone who can convince a few people that he's been "called by God" can become a Southern Baptist minister. So any Baptists out there who want to try to explain away the problem by saying "Well... he wasn't a real minister" need to take a good look at some of the ministers in their own ranks.

John said...


Jim said...

Don't hold your breath waiting for SBC laity or clergy to "shake their heads at the thought of ministers who get their credentials by purchasing them online." THEY DO NOT CARE! My Lord, the President of the SBC goes around the country passing himself off as "Doctor...." However, he has never earned a Doctor Degree. Not a Ph.D., not a TH.D, not even a D.Min. He was "awarded" his Doctor Degrees from unaccredited institutions that are little more than diploma mills. Seems more and more pompous, arrogant clergy covet that title but don't have the discipline to pursue the academic rigor of doctoral study. They take the short-cut because the churches do not care. They just want to be able to claim their pastor is Dr. Fillin The Blank. If they will not bother to confirm the credentials of their clergy, we are deluding ourselves to believe they will be concerned with illicit conduct with women and children. They just do not care!

Christa Brown said...

"They just do not care!"

Thanks for the reminder, Jim. I think that's one of my most consistent mistakes . . . always imagining that there will be people in the denomination who care. Duhhhhhh...

And as you point out, when even the SBC president is a person who carries baloney credentials . . . well... it's sad. And now, as a mom, I'm sitting here pondering the sort of lesson that Southern Baptists teach by example to high school and college students who are going out into the job market. It doesn't seem to me that it gives them a very good example to follow for integrity in their resume preparations and job searches.