Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Baptists must face fear and prioritize risks
But that’s not what happens in the real world, and we all know it. Southern Baptist leaders know it too.
For starters, churches are afraid.
A Texas Monthly journalist pondered this reality when he considered the question of why Southern Baptist pastor Matt Baker was able to keep church-hopping despite the many abuse and assault accusations against him. He offered this explanation:
"To avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy, which is perhaps why First Baptist officials said nothing about the allegations when other churches later called, interested in hiring Matt.”
Churches are afraid of being sued by the very ministers who cause trouble. It’s easier to just let a minister move on. It’s easier to “pass the trash.” It’s easier for church leaders to simply keep their mouths shut when other churches call for a reference.
It’s not right. But it’s reality.
The average Baptist church has less than 100 people in the pews on Sunday morning. It needs to keep money coming into the offering plate so it can pay the salaries, keep the lights on, and maybe make the mortgage payment. It doesn’t have extra cash to spend on legal fees. So when trouble with a minister rears its ugly head, it’s easier to quietly let the minister go than to worry about the lawsuit he might bring if you say something to his next employer.
“Besides,” they tell themselves, “we don’t actually KNOW anything for sure, do we?”
The excuses they come up with are cowardly. But I understand their fear.
It’s similar to the fear that many Baptist survivors deal with because the denomination doesn’t provide any safe place for reporting clergy abuse. So what happens? The ministers may accuse us of “slander.” And the churches usually stand behind the ministers . . . even when we have significant substantiation. And no one in the denomination helps us. We’re out on a limb all alone.
So I understand what that fear of a lawsuit feels like. In my own case, even though the church’s music minister knew about the other minister’s molestation of me as a kid, the church still threatened to sue me when I reported it. And they did it with help from the attorney for the largest statewide Baptist organization in the country, the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
I was intimidated. I felt afraid. I nearly went right back to keeping my mouth shut. So yeah… I understand that fear.
Accused ministers often use fear to silence church leaders. And church leaders use fear to silence victims.
It stinks. Fear usually does.
But what stinks even worse is that Southern Baptist leaders refuse to help churches deal with that fear in a responsible manner. They refuse to provide churches with the resource of an office for the objective assessment of clergy abuse reports, and they refuse to keep any denominational records on clergy who have been credibly accused.
Instead, Southern Baptist leaders wash their hands of it and say “not our problem.”
They wash their hands of it and tell all the 43,000 local churches “it’s your problem.”
The reason Southern Baptist leaders wash their hands of it is because they too are afraid. They’re afraid of the risk of liability.
That’s what “Louis,” a frequent commenter on Baptist blogs, says, and I’ve seen others say it as well. Louis is an attorney, and some say he’s on an SBC-related board. (I’m only about 90 percent sure of who Louis is and so I’ll leave off his identity.) But this is likely a man who advises high-level Southern Baptist officials, and this is what he says:
“If the SBC endeavors to take this on and begins investigating, keeping records, dossiers on people, whatever. It opens itself up to liability if it fails to perform that function correctly.”
Louis is right. There is always risk connected to responsibility. But that’s all the more reason why the Southern Baptist Convention should take on that risk. It has more resources to better deal with that risk than the average church does.
In essence, Southern Baptist leaders are telling local churches that they should do the very thing that Southern Baptist leaders themselves are afraid to do. They’re telling local churches that they should face their fear and “make that call” to a sister church. Yet, Southern Baptist leaders won’t even hear complaints about ministers, and they sure won’t face their fear and actually tell churches about credibly-accused ministers.
They want to lead by talk but not by example.
Southern Baptist leaders want to avoid any potential liability risk because they want to protect their mighty coffers. But local churches also care about their coffers even though the dollar amounts are smaller. Just because a local church has less money in the bank doesn’t mean it worries about that money any less.
Change carries risk. But the status quo also carries risk. What Southern Baptists need to consider is how they prioritize the risks. As things stand, Southern Baptists are prioritizing protection for the institution far ahead of protection for kids.
It’s apparent that attorneys such as Louis have been giving Baptist officials the same advice for a lot of years: If the SBC does nothing, it won’t open itself up to the risk of liability.
I first saw Louis’ analysis a couple years ago in comments on the Burleson blog; I saw it a few days ago on the SBC Voices blog, and I’ve seen it repeatedly on other blogs.
It’s an analysis that reflects the nature of how attorneys think. They are trained to be risk-averse on behalf of their clients.
But here’s the thing: Louis is being risk-averse on behalf of the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s not being risk-averse on behalf of the local churches, and nor is he being risk-averse on behalf of the kids who are within those churches.
Louis is looking out for the institution.
So, is that what the SBC’s do-nothingness comes down to? Institutional self-protection? Minimizing risk to the organization’s coffers? (Of course, the SBC could possibly insure against that risk, but that’s another topic….)
If indeed the fear of liability risk is the reason why Southern Baptist leaders won’t provide churches with information about credibly-accused clergy predators, then they should let people in the pews know this. Debate it openly and honestly. Quit telling people that it’s because of biblical principles. Quit telling people that Baptist do-nothingness is based on Baptist polity.
Mistakes happen in almost all human endeavors . . . and yes, mistakes open institutions to the risk of potential liability. But other major faith groups have taken on that risk of liability in order to take action that lessens the risk to kids.
Aren’t Southern Baptist kids just as worthy of protection as Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran kids?
Is it any wonder that many question whether the Baptist faith holds any true meaning?
One thing for sure: The message of Jesus wasn’t about institutional self-protection.
Related article: "SBC president questions motives of SNAP, says sex abuse everywhere," EthicsDaily, 5/27/2007
Saturday, August 21, 2010
Messy messy hornets' nest
“I worked for a church that quickly and quietly got rid of a youth pastor mired in accusations of child abuse and he went to work for at least two other churches before he finally wound up in our court systems and is currently doing a lot of time. The pastor of my old church never personally recovered from this ordeal and personally feels responsible for the children who were proven right so many years later. He also feels that the children of these other churches are his responsibility too. However, he says that you don’t want to be the person to destroy a fellow minister, but he feels he destroyed the lives of at least a dozen boys/young men in trying to protect this one pastor. . . .
I do think something should be done but I think that there are so many areas to act on in order to address this issue head on, that no one will be courageous enough to stand the intense hatred pointed in their direction should they even suggest something to the SBC . . . . It’s a messy, messy hornets’ nest that everyone’s too afraid to stir up and the predators know it.”
Bill is right: “It’s a messy, messy hornets’ nest” and everyone is afraid. But it’s time the Southern Baptist Convention started providing leadership for responsibly dealing with that fear. Any fool can see that all their pretty pamphlets are little more than a pretense of dealing with it . . . and as Bill says . . . “the predators know it.”
Bill’s story is nothing unusual. Over a long period of time, countless Baptist ministers have been allowed to move on to other churches despite allegations of abuse. And as a result, many more kids have been dreadfully wounded within the faith community.
Oh sure . . . the ministers aren’t actually “assigned” to a new church. They’re simply allowed to move on. But whether “assigned” or “allowed,” the molested kids are no less wounded.
I don’t know the specifics of Bill’s particular story, but I know the usual and frequent pattern of many similar stories.
Imagine that a kid named “Joe” was one of that youth minister’s earlier victims. The pastor of the church suspected something, but decided it was better to let sleeping dogs lie and to let the youth minister go elsewhere.
Joe spent the next decade trying to figure out how to live with the trauma of having been molested and sodomized by a minister who wielded words of God as a weapon. He tried desperately to wall off any thought of what was, in any event, unthinkable.
Finally, Joe couldn’t keep it all inside anymore. As he began to deal with the reality of what the minister had done, he worried endlessly about others. But by then, it was too late for criminal prosecution (as most cases are). So a decade later, Joe went back to the church of his childhood to try to tell people and to try to get some help for protecting others.
Given that the pastor couldn’t muster the courage to take responsible action when the molesting youth minister was right there in his own church, do you imagine that he’s going to take action to help Joe now, when Joe hasn’t set foot in the church in over 10 years and when the youth minister is long gone?
No. That’s not what typically happens. The pastor shrugs his shoulders and says something like this, “Not my problem. That minister isn’t even at our church anymore. I don’t know where he is.”
So, on his own, Joe tries to find the minister who molested him. Maybe he’ll be able to, and maybe he won’t. A lot of Southern Baptist ministers aren’t listed on the SBC’s registry of ministers. (For example, here’s a church in which not one man in their 17-member ministerial staff was listed on the SBC’s registry of ministers.)
But imagine that Joe gets lucky and finds the man. When Joe sees that he’s still a Southern Baptist minister working in a position of trust with kids, Joe feels all the more desperate.
Joe contacts the chairman of the deacons at the man’s current church. But the deacon says, “Not my problem. What you’re talking about involves some other church. We haven’t had any complaints and our ministers are men of God.”
So, Joe turns to people at the local association, at the state convention, and finally at national Southern Baptist headquarters.
Every step of the way, the response he gets is some version of “Not my problem. Local church autonomy.”
Joe gives up, and for many years more, the man continues working as a Southern Baptist minister whom kids and their parents trust almost completely.
Finally, one kid’s parents suspect something and report it to the police in time for prosecution. The man is criminally convicted and, because he’s sitting in prison, he’s no longer working as a Baptist minister.
But between the time when Joe first started trying to talk to people and the time when the minister was criminally convicted, at least a dozen more boys were molested and sodomized by that same Baptist minister who wielded words of God as a weapon.
Those are the kids whose nightmares might have been spared if Baptists would do what other major faith groups have done by creating a safe place where victims could report clergy abuse -- a place where victims’ reports would be responsibly assessed and where records of credible allegations would be kept.
Furthermore, it sure would have helped to ease Joe's mind.
But as Bill says, “everyone’s too afraid.”
“Everyone’s too afraid” to even hear people like Joe.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
"Killing the Buddha" reviews "This Little Light"
Monday, August 16, 2010
Iowa church illustrates low standards of Baptistland
But this wasn’t Terry VanHoutan’s first run-in with the law. He pled guilty to two counts of indecent exposure back in 2001.
So why did the First Baptist Church of Bettendorf make him a minister?
As reported by KWQC-TV, Terry VanHoutan had been at First Baptist of Bettendorf for “several years,” and it was the First Baptist Church of Bettendorf that “licensed” VanHoutan as a minister.
VanHoutan’s prior convictions were in 2001. Even if you push “several years” to mean five or six, this would still mean that the church ordained VanHoutan as a minister after his prior 2001 convictions.
I guess the good people at First Baptist of Bettendorf just didn’t care . . . or else they just didn’t bother.
Either way, their recklessness put at risk not only the kids of their own church, but it also put at risk Baptist church kids all over the country.
That’s the thing about Baptistland. Once a minister gets ordained by one church, he can then migrate to other churches. If VanHoutan hadn’t been arrested . . . again . . . he could have easily moved on to some other church in Baptistland.
Any Baptist church can ordain virtually anyone as a minister. But ministers don’t have to stay with the church that ordained them.
As a practical matter, this means that the church with the lowest standard can set the standard in Baptistland.
And no matter how low a church’s standard for qualifying a minister, the ordained man can then carry the mantle of ministerial trust into other churches.
A single church ordains the man, but he is ordained for much more than a single church.
Baptist churches ordain ministers, not only for their own church, but for all churches. Effectively, once a man is ordained by one church, he then has a “license” to roam.
This means that the laxity of a single church can unleash a preacher-predator within the broader denominational body.
Yet, the denomination exercises no oversight.
For Baptist ministers, there isn’t even any entrance hurdle into the profession. No initial check. No exam. No nothing. There isn’t even any requirement that a Baptist minister be someone who has attended seminary.
Any man who can convince a handful of deacons that he’s been “called by God” can get himself ordained as a Baptist minister.
It’s the perfect set-up for a good con-man.
With no entry hurdle for ministers, with a porous network of churches to migrate through, and with no denominational oversight, the Southern Baptist Convention presents a near-perfect paradise for preacher-predators.
See also this article in the Quad-City Times: “Davenport man accused of sex abuse against minors.” It makes not one mention of the fact that the “man” is a minister, and so it’s another example of what I talked about in my August 10th posting -- low-profile press coverage that we see too often in Baptist clergy sex abuse cases.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Baptist World Alliance needs common voice on clergy sex abuse
A prominent British Baptist minister is being held in a Virginia jail on charges of child molestation. Robert Dando, the senior minister of Worcester Park Baptist Church in suburban London, is charged with four counts of aggravated sexual battery of a victim younger than 13.
Dando previously served as executive assistant to the president of the Baptist World Alliance, David Coffey. Thus, Dando was closely connected to the highest levels of Baptist worldwide leadership. (That's Dando in the photo.)
“The Baptist World Alliance … is the public face of Baptists worldwide.” So says Bruce Gourley, the executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
The Baptist World Alliance is comprised of all manner of Baptists from all over the world, and it claims to represent almost 40 million people of Baptist faith. Indeed, it includes almost all Baptist groups except the largest of them, the Southern Baptist Convention.
Just as most of the non-Muslim world tends to lump all Muslims together, so too most of the non-Baptist world tends to lump all Baptists together. The rest of the world is largely oblivious to the sorts of distinctions that Baptists make among themselves.
To most of the world, a “Baptist” is a “Baptist” is a “Baptist” is a “Baptist.”
It is the name “Baptist” that carries the brand of this global faith community, and not “Southern” or “Cooperative” or “Free Will” or any of the other numerous adjectives that get put in front of “Baptist.”
When ordinary people read of a “Baptist” minister charged on child sex abuse, they don’t usually give much thought to the particulars of precisely what kind of Baptist it is. In the eyes of the world, all Baptists wind up being tainted by the endless plague of Baptist clergy abuse and cover-up cases.
Therefore, all Baptists share a common interest in ridding their ranks of clergy predators, and all Baptists need to work cooperatively to effectively address the scourge of clergy sex abuse.
They should do it, not only to preserve the goodwill of the “Baptist” brand, but because it is the right thing to do. After all, at their recent conference in Honolulu, Baptist World Alliance leaders focused on the message of Luke 4 in which Jesus proclaimed part of his mission as “release” for the “oppressed.”
In Baptistland, who are more “oppressed” than those who have been molested, raped and sodomized by Baptist clergy? We are the pariahs -- the ones whom no one wants to see.
How do Baptists imagine that they will “release” those who have been “oppressed” within their own faith group if they refuse to even listen to them? Yet, in most Baptist faith groups, there doesn’t even exist a safe place to which Baptist abuse victims may report clergy sex abuse.
Unless a Baptist minister is criminally convicted and sitting in prison, he can usually stand in a Baptist pulpit. There is typically no one in Baptistland who will even bother to look into an abuse report.
When their own faith is used as a force for oppression, and when the most vulnerable among them are wounded by the most powerful, Baptists provide nowhere to turn. Baptists are blind to the oppression in their own Baptist yard.
If indeed the Baptist World Alliance is to carry “the Baptist torch” into the 21st century, then it must forge a common voice for fighting Baptist clergy sex abuse and for ministering to those who have been wounded by Baptist clergy.
The rest of the world is watching.
- "Church minister Robert Dando faces U.S. child sex charges," BBC News, 8/19/10
- "British Baptist Church minister arrested on child sex charges in the U.S.," The Daily Mail, 8/20/10 (Robert Dando also had access to children through his work at the Boys' Brigade in Britain and a children's charity in India.)
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Man AND Minister
The headline in The Daily Home of Alabama said this: “Pell City man pleads guilty to sexual abuse.”
But here’s the thing . . . this “man” who pled guilty to sexual abuse wasn’t just any man in town. This “man” who pled guilty to sexual abuse was a Southern Baptist minister at the Eden Westside Baptist Church in Pell City. It’s a church that claims 1,702 in membership and has an average attendance of 750.
In Pell City, Alabama, that probably makes it a pretty prominent church.
And one of their ministers, Gregory Lee Bowman, just pled guilty to sexually abusing a 14-year-old kid.
And the newspaper reports it as “man pleads guilty.”
If that were a Catholic priest, do you think the headline would have been “man pleads guilty”?
I think it would have been “priest pleads guilty.”
So here in the South, why is it so often glossed over when the “man” is actually a Southern Baptist minister?
You tell me.
I’ve seen this sort of low-profile news coverage of Baptist clergy abuse cases over and over again. And frankly, it makes me angry.
At least The Daily Home mentioned in the body of the article that the “man” was a minister. I’ve seen news reports that didn’t mention it at all -- as though the “man” were just some ordinary guy off the street.
Yet, when the “man” who abuses a kid is a minister in a Baptist church, it is news that deserves to get the attention of people in the community.
It is news that deserves a headline with something more than “man.”
Friday, August 6, 2010
It's a "business decision"
“The SBC is just not going to take on the liability that a national database would expose it to … it’s the reality in the litigeous society we live in,” says Mary.
Okay. Got it. SBC leaders are afraid of being sued.
Mary continues: “A lawyer would say you couldn’t list ‘credibly accused’ because of the fear of slander/defamation suits.”
Okay. Got it. SBC leaders are specifically afraid of suits for slander and defamation.
“Can a person sue the SBC and get a lot of money for having their name put on a ‘credibly accused’ list? Uhhh yeah," she says. "If the SBC were to decide to investigate and compile databases of accused/convicted/confessed than they are not just ‘providing information’ but ‘assuming a duty’ (legal term) which opens them up to not a small amount of liability. The SBC does not have unlimited resources and so yes they have to make what seems like cold and a calculated ‘business’ decisions in the stewardship over those resources.”
Okay. Got it. The SBC is making a “business decision” to lessen their risk of liability.
So there you have it, folks. The reason the SBC won’t keep records on credibly accused clergy predators is because they’re afraid of being sued by their own credibly accused clergy predators.
Thank God that “Mary” at least had the decency to speak the truth about the fact that it’s a “business decision.” I’m so weary of the many Baptist leaders who promote the false propaganda that their do-nothingness is a religious decision.
Of course, I don’t agree for one second with “Mary’s” apparent view that this “business decision” is right. To the contrary, I think it’s an utterly immoral decision. And I definitely don’t buy the post-hoc rationalization that this “business decision” is about “stewardship.”
If Baptist leaders were genuinely concerned about “stewardship,” wouldn’t they also care about “stewardship” of the next generation?
But “Mary” (who probably isn’t really a “she” much less a “Mary”) has expressed the reality of what’s going on in Baptistland. For that, he deserves thanks.
The sooner Baptist leaders speak honestly about the real reasons for their do-nothingness, the sooner kids in Baptistland will have a better chance of being better protected.
But so long as Baptist leaders claim their do-nothingness is biblically-based, they cut off the possibility for genuine debate. Few in Baptistland will want to argue with “the Bible tells me so.”
“Mary” has spoken the truth: it’s a “business decision.” Baptist leaders are exploiting their own religious polity to use it as an excuse for what is, in reality, a “business decision” to shield the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention from the risk of liability.
But what about shielding kids against the risk of clergy predators?
That’s the thing about business decisions. They involve trade-offs. And Baptist leaders are effectively choosing to sacrifice the safety of kids on the altar of institutional self-protection.
It may be an astute “business decision” for the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, but it is a morally unconscionable decision in light of the human beings who are affected.
A lot of churches make a similar trade-off. To avoid the risk of defamation lawsuits, church leaders often don’t say anything when other churches call for a reference on a prior minister who was let go in the face of ugly allegations. Church leaders cave into their fear and protect the institution of the church rather than doing what’s right and protecting kids.
It stinks. Fear usually does.
But what stinks even worse is the do-nothing “business decision” of Southern Baptist leaders.
Churches need help. And the Southern Baptist Convention has far greater resources for handling the risk of defamation lawsuits (and for possibly insuring against them) than do most local churches.
Yet, rather than helping churches by providing the resource of objective assessments on abuse allegations, and rather than protecting kids by providing a database of credibly-accused clergy, Southern Baptist leaders opt to protect the institution against the risk of being sued.
Rather than taking onto their own shoulders the risk of defamation lawsuits, they leave the risk of clergy sex abuse on the backs of innocent kids.
Monday, August 2, 2010
Bolivar Baptist Baloney
Bolivar Baptist Church
West Hwy 455
Senior Pastor: Dickie Amyx
"Wonderful, fun, inspiring, love God, fellowship of friends, great music, great people"
"I drive 25 miles to go to this church because it is the most wonderful
place. The people are that best you could meet anywhere. You will be welcomed with open arms - literally. The preacher is very down to earth and absolutely inspired of God. You will laugh, maybe cry. The musicians are amazing. For such a small place, there is an amazing amount of talent. Come join us!"
So . . . do you remember the true story behind Baptist pastor Dickie Amyx? If you do, then you’re probably already gagging.
And “absolutely inspired of God” are not the words that come to mind.
This is the preacher who defended against clergy molestation allegations by claiming: “I didn’t have sex with her when she was 16 or under.” This is the preacher who excused his abusive conduct by saying, “I told her many times I never meant to hurt her.”
This is the preacher who admitted to having sex with Debbie Vasquez 20 to 40 times, and who impregnated Debbie when she was 18. This is the preacher against whom Debbie Vasquez had to go to court for a paternity judgment to get him to finally provide support for the child he fathered . . . who by then was 8 years old.
This is the preacher who Debbie Vasquez says began abusing her when she was 14, raped her when she was 15, and continued to abuse her for long after. Personally, I believe Debbie. But here’s the thing . . . even if you believe the preacher, you’ve still got a man who, by his own word, acknowledges the sexual abuse of a church kid and rationalizes it by claiming “I didn’t have sex with her when she was 16 or under.”
Yet, despite his own admissions, pastor Dickie Amyx remains a Southern Baptist minister. (That's Amyx in the photo.)
Apparently there was no one in his congregation who was capable of hearing the seriousness of his admissions.
No one else in Baptistland has been willing to hear those admissions either. That’s the problem.
There is no one in denominational leadership who will speak up and say that this man should not be in a position of pastoral trust.
There is no one in denominational leadership who will take a stand and say that this man should not be allowed to carry the Baptist brand as a pastor.
There is no one in denominational leadership who will assess this man’s admissions and speak the truth of the fact that they constitute admissions of sexual abuse which render him unfit for being a pastor.
There is no one in the Southern Baptist Convention nor anyone at the Baptist General Convention of Texas who will do diddly-squat.
This is the sort of pastor whom Baptist leaders quietly tolerate with their denominational do-nothingness.
This is the sort of pastor whose continued presence in the pulpit sends the message that Baptists don’t really give a hoot about clergy sex abuse.
Prior related postings:
“Start with this one” and “Okay, so start with the admitted ones”
News sources on the story of Baptist pastor Dickie Amyx:
Update 8/3/2010: The ChurchRater website has removed the review on Bolivar Baptist. Hooray!