Thursday, April 8, 2010

One week -- three op-eds

In one week’s time, three prominent Baptist scholars and journalists wrote op-ed columns decrying the problem of clergy child molestation and cover-ups in Baptist churches.

I’m grateful for all three of them.

It may not seem like much, but this is what the slow process of institutional change looks like.

We’re still far from the point of any actual action in Baptistland -- of anything even resembling what other major faith groups are already doing -- but at least we now have a few people who are openly acknowledging the extent of the problem in Baptistland and who are publicly seeking to open the eyes of others.

David Gushee got the ball rolling when, on March 31st, he revised an op-ed that was primarily addressed to the Catholic crisis so as to include this statement:

“The Baptist situation may be no better than the Catholic, only shielded more deeply from view. This situation demands reform, immediately, for the sake of the vulnerable and abused children among us -- not to mention for the sake of the gospel witness, so desecrated by the abuse behind our stained-glass windows.”

Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. His publicly-stated recognition of the Baptist problem, and of the fact that it is “shielded more deeply from view” is significant.

Next up came Robert Parham’s column on Easter Sunday. Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. (That’s Parham in the photo.)

From beginning to end, Robert Parham’s words were strong. His piece was titled, “Catholics and Baptists have different sacraments but similar child abuse scandals.”

Parham pointed out that, if media people are not yet informed about the Baptist child-abuse scandal, it is not because of the absence of scandal, but because “Baptist denominational leaders have successfully kept the shameful, systemic problem off the national media’s radar.”

Parham explained: “Protecting the Baptist denomination and churches from public humiliation and discrediting has been a higher priority for many Baptist leaders than protecting children from the predatory ministers – ministers who move from church to church, state to state, without punishment, only to harm again.”

In continuing, Parham quoted from a commentator on the Catholic Church who called for accountability and said “a formal investigation should be conducted which exempts no one.”

“The same recommendation should be applied in Baptist life,” emphasized Parham . . . to which I say “Amen.”

“While Baptist church polity is messier and more confusing that Catholic polity,” explained Parham, “Catholic and Baptist leaders have more similarities than differences on the child-abuse front. . . . Both have covered up predatory behavior until those outside the male-dominated system of preachers/priests rang the alarm bell.”

Finally, in his comparison of Baptists and Catholics, Parham’s conclusion doesn’t mince words: “The systems, secrecy and spin are similar -- and shameful.”

Norman Jameson chimed in on April 4th. Jameson is the editor of the Biblical Recorder, the newspaper of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Here are his words, comparing the Catholic handling of clergy sex abuse to what’s going on in Baptistland.

“American Catholics have instituted rules that immediately and forever remove a man from the priesthood who is shown to be guilty of abuse. The pope apologized for the sexual abuse of minors . . . . “

“Sex abuse cases also rock Baptist churches. Individually they are just as bad, and collectively we are doing a lot less than the Catholics about resolution.”

(Again, I say “Amen.”)

“Southern Baptists as a national entity have nothing in place to prevent abusers from carrying their satchels of pain to another church or to yank credentials from an abusive clergyman.”

Jameson concluded by stating, “Catholics in America took specific steps. We can do the same.”

Jameson doesn’t say what those “specific steps” should be, but let’s just ponder a few possibilities.

For starters, what if Baptists cared enough to denominationally commission a million-dollar study on the extent of the clergy-sex-abuse problem, similar to what U.S. Catholic bishops did with the study that was done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice?

What if Baptists instituted a denominational review board to responsibly assess credible accusations against their clergy -- similar to what most U.S. Catholic dioceses have been doing since 2002?

And what if Baptists started providing independent counseling for clergy abuse survivors in the way that some U.S. Catholic dioceses now do? Indeed, what if state-wide Baptist bodies set aside merely the same amount of funding to provide counseling for clergy abuse survivors as what some of them have been funding for a couple decades to provide counseling for clergy-perpetrators? Why shouldn’t Baptist bodies provide at least matching funds for the abuse victims as for the clergy-perpetrators?

And what if the national Southern Baptist Convention set up a hotline for clergy sex abuse victims like the Catholic Church in Germany has done?

And what if Baptist leaders began keeping denominational records on allegations of clergy sex abuse in the way that Catholic leaders have done for decades upon decades? Those records have certainly come back to haunt many Catholic leaders. But make no mistake about it . . . While Baptists’ lack of record-keeping may help to keep the media at bay, it doesn’t mean Baptist leaders are any better at addressing clergy sex abuse. To the contrary, it means they’re worse.

As Norman Jameson said, Baptists “are doing a lot less than the Catholics.”


John said...

Congrats on the progress. For someone who does not understand the bigness and the power structure of the SBC this may seem very slow almost no progress at all. This is a meaningful step as most members of the SBC churches receive their state Baptist papers. Given time and a ontinued exposure the rank and file member will start asking questions and demanding answers especialy when it hits close to home.
You deserve a lot of gratitude and appreciation. I would urge everyone on this blog to recoginize this tremendous accomplishment.

Anna said...

Where can I find out similar information on the Baptist churches/ministers in the US NorthWest, e.g., New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington... a "Baptist minister" moved into our neighborhood, and certain behaviors mark him as a possible sexual predator. He doesn't come up in any RSO database, but I would bet all sorts of money he is a pedophile. They've moved a lot in their lives. His wife is 20 years younger, and a substance abuser who has streaks of violence. You wouldn't know it from their projected public "front" (could not be more righteous!) - but cracks are showing as their next door neighbors have discovered. (I know nothing about the Baptist faith, but as an ex-Catholic, seems this is the way it was for us too 20 years ago and a lot of us were on the lookout until we could leave the church). Your book couldn't be more timely, as I just started googling where I could find out more info about this.