Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Denominational Double-talk

The church of scandal-enmeshed pastor Eddie Long is called New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. So it clearly carries the "Baptist" name.

Of course, there are lots of different kinds of "Baptist" churches, including independent Baptist churches. Long's church is an independent church. But it still carries the "Baptist" name as do many other independent Baptist churches around the country.

Because Long's church carries the "Baptist" name, some Baptist leaders seem to want to distance themselves. They point out that he's not a "typical" Baptist. Maybe not, but his 25,000 member megachurch is called a "Baptist" church, and until the scandal came along, I didn't hear other Baptists complaining about it.

That's how it is in Baptistland. Almost anyone can be a "Baptist" minister. All he needs is a good preaching voice and the ability to persuade a handful of others that he's been "called by God." There are no entry hurdles into the profession. There is no set credentialing process and not even the requirement of a seminary degree.

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provided an example of how some Southern Baptists are now trying to distance themselves from Eddie Long's kind of "Baptist." On Mohler's blog, he wrote about the Long scandal and said this:

"Many of these independent mega-church pastors are defacto dictators, totally without accountability structures. The congregations lack the discipline of a denomination and the pastor or leaders often lack any accountability at all."

Do you see what Mohler is saying? He's suggesting that, because Southern Baptists have "the discipline of a denomination," their churches are less likely to have the sort of scandal that Eddie Long's church has.

But exactly what "discipline" is Mohler talking about?

What denominational disciplinary process does the Southern Baptist Convention have for dealing with allegations of clergy sex abuse?

If you're a Baptist clergy abuse survivor, you know that the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't have any denominational disciplinary process at all for its clergy. The denominational structure is disclaimed for purposes of any clergy discipline or accountability.

Not only do Southern Baptist officials disclaim any possibility of the sort of denominational discipline processes that other major faith groups now have for "defrocking" clergy, but Southern Baptist officials reject even the possibility of providing churches with the resource of a trained review board for assessing clergy abuse reports and for relaying information to congregants. Even this less intrusive form of clergy accountability is too much for the Southern Baptist Convention. In essence, the denomination won't do diddly-squat.

In fact, if you're a Baptist clergy abuse survivor and you tried to report your perpetrator to Southern Baptist officials in Nashville, you may have heard this standard line: "The SBC really only exists for 3 days a year."

That line always makes me smile. I find myself imagining a sci-fi scenario in which the SBC's huge block-long building complex is visible on its Nashville site for only 3 days a year, and the rest of the year, it disappears.

Like some Romulan spaceship, the Southern Baptist Convention cloaks and uncloaks its denominational status as it suits them. Now you see the denomination -- and now you don't. (The photo is an uncloaked Romulan spaceship from the Star Trek series.)

You see the denomination when someone like Al Mohler wants to distance Southern Baptists from Eddie Long's kind of "Baptist."

But you don't see the denomination if you're a person trying to report the sexual abuse of a Southern Baptist minister. Then, it's all up to the local church, and it's as though the denomination doesn't even exist.

"All Baptist churches are autonomous." That's the other line you'll hear. It's the denomination's cloaking device.

From the megas to the storefronts, from the independents to those that are part of the largest Protestant denomination in the land, most Baptist churches fail miserably at effectively addressing clergy sex abuse. In large part, it is because they have allowed their autonomous polity to be distorted into a false wall for avoiding outside scrutiny -- even scrutiny that is merely outside the accused pastor's circle of influence but still within his denomination. (Note: The "American Baptist Churches-USA" present a rare and small exception on this in Baptistland.)

Jeri Massi has written extensively on abuse and cover-ups in independent Baptist churches, and long ago, Jeri saw right through the SBC's denominational double-talk. (Jeri Massi is the author of Schizophrenic Christianity.) When it comes to clergy sex abuse, the difference in how churches in the SBC handle it and how independent Baptist churches handle it is typically slim to none.

In clergy abuse situations, the Southern Baptist Convention's denominational structure becomes like a Romulan spaceship. It cloaks itself in "local church autonomy" and simply disappears.
  • Note: In the shadow of the Eddie Long scandal, another "Baptist" church in Georgia recently chose a registered sex offender as its pastor. It's the Rosenvick Missionary Baptist Church of Blakely, Georgia, and the news was reported in the Albany Herald. The man who opposed the pastor was tossed out of the congregation.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Eddie Long: The Real Scandal Is Even Bigger

The case of Baptist pastor Eddie Long isn't about gay sex; it's not about black churches; and it's not about megachurches. The case is about allegations of clergy sex abuse and the systemic lack of accountability for Baptist clergy.

As most of the country knows by now, four young men filed lawsuits last week in which they accused Baptist pastor Eddie Long of having repeatedly coerced them into sexual acts when they were 17 and 18 years old.

The four young men belonged to the church when they were teens. The lawsuits assert that Long hand-picked the boys for spiritual mentoring and referred to them as his "spiritual sons." According to court documents... the boys went through a bonding ritual, called a "covenant ceremony," in which Long quoted Bible verses "to discuss and justify the intimate relationship between himself" and the teen boys.

Because Long has preached in opposition to gay rights, many seem to view the case as being about hypocrisy and homosexuality. But this view misses the mark.

The allegations, if proven, involve conduct that is far more troubling that mere hypocrisy. And they involve conduct that is something far different from consensual gay sex. They involve conduct in which faith itself -- the faith of trusting teens -- is twisted into a weapon so as to serve the sexual ends of a powerful religious leader. . . .

Read the rest of my column in Religion Dispatches Magazine.

Related posts: "Denominational Double-talk," 9/29/10; and "Independent Baptist Eddie Long," 10/2/10.

See also: 1) "Words still unspoken by Independent Baptist Eddie Long", on Baptist Planet, 10/1/10; 2) "Another sex scandal dominates Godbeat," on GetReligion, 9/27/10 (and note that GetReligion identifies Long as a Baptist . . . i.e.,"being that he is a Baptist"); and 3) "How do you get to be a Baptist bishop?" on Slate, 9/29/10 (discussing Eddie Long's church as a type of "Baptist" church and recognizing that some "Baptist" churches do indeed have "bishops," with Baptist historians Doug Weaver of Baylor U. and Bill Leonard of Wake Forest U. named as sources for the information).

Related column in EthicsDaily: "Two Kinds of Baptists, Same Kind of Problem," 12/30/10

Monday, September 27, 2010

Power in partnerships

Frank Page, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, addressed the Committee last week and emphasized the importance of “partnerships” in Baptist life.

“Partners work alongside one another. They take care of one another,” said Page. “Without partnerships, it is a lost cause.”

These are nice-sounding words, but what about actually applying the "partnership" principle to the problem of clergy sex abuse in Baptist churches?

Will the Southern Baptist Convention “partner” with local churches to provide them with the resource of a professionally-trained review board for objectively assessing clergy abuse allegations?

Will the Southern Baptist Convention “partner” with local churches to provide them with information about ministers who have been credibly-accused of abuse?

We already know the answer to these questions, don’t we?

Southern Baptist leaders have rejected these possibilities for “partnering” with churches to help prevent predatory pastors from church-hopping.

Indeed, even when the churches’ “messengers” directed the Executive Committee to conduct a study on the creation of a denominational database of credibly-accused clergy, the Executive Committee never even set aside a budget for the study. In effect, they ignored the will of their “partners” – the local churches who send over $200 million per year to national headquarters.

Usually, having a “partnership” will mean that the “partners” share responsibility. But we already know that shared responsibility is not what Page has in mind when it comes to Baptist clergy sex abuse. Indeed, that seems to be exactly what denominational leaders don’t want.

Though Baptists are a faith group with a shared sense of identity, they remain a faith group with no shared sense of responsibility for the ministers who carry the “Baptist” name. When a person seeks to report a Baptist pastor for sexual abuse, denominational leaders close rank, wash their hands of the problem, and recite their “all churches are autonomous” line. They don’t talk about “partnering” then, do they?

Of course, I agree with Page when he says, “There is power in partnerships.” What I want is for Southern Baptist leaders to actually apply that concept within the context of clergy sex abuse.

Sadly, I doubt that we’re going to see that sort of “partnership” anytime soon in Baptist life. After all, Frank Page is the new CEO of this tentacular faith group, and Frank Page is the man who publicly castigated clergy rape and molestation survivors who speak out as being “nothing more than opportunistic persons.”

It was a shockingly hateful thing for a high religious leader to say. But Page has never uttered a word of apology.

Perhaps Page has now shown us some insight into why he would make such a hostile response to clergy abuse survivors.

In his recent talk about “partnerships,” Page explained his view of “partners” as being like two Greek soldiers paired together. “When the fighting got intense and even became hand-to-hand combat, one’s paraclete backed up to your back and you fought to the front and to the side, knowing that someone was behind you protecting that which you could not protect yourself.”

So, Page seems to take a sort of militaristic view of “partnering” . . . as though the primary purpose is to fend off attackers.

What about the more positive view of “partnering” that allows those who work together to step forward into new ventures that they couldn’t handle alone?

This is my hope for Southern Baptists – that they may find within themselves the faith and courage to step forward into a future in which denominational bodies will "partner" with churches to more effectively rid the ranks of clergy predators, to make churches into safer sanctuaries, and to minister to those who have been wounded.

I pray for the day when Baptist leaders like Frank Page will abandon their hostile perception of clergy sex abuse survivors, and will instead see that survivors bring a gift of truth. It is a difficult truth, but it is also a truth that carries the opportunity for change.

Clergy sex abuse survivors bring to Southern Baptists the opportunity to decide how they really want to live with respect to the power of their faith. Will Baptists continue to turn a denominational blind eye toward horrific abuses and cover-ups within the faith, or will they “partner” together for more effective accountability of those who carry the "Baptist" name as pastors?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ezell's failed leadership on sexual abuse

On September 14, Kentucky pastor Kevin Ezell was elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. Ezell is pastor of the 6,000 member Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

After a closed door meeting, trustees of the mission board announced Ezell’s election, and board chairperson Tim Dowdy praised Ezell as a man who “has demonstrated faithful leadership.”

So . . . let’s take a look at the sort of “leadership” Ezell demonstrated when confronted with a child molestation case.

As reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the case involved Bill Maggard Jr., who was a volunteer in the Sunday School and choir programs at Highview Baptist Church. Maggard had also worked as an employee of Highview Baptist School, which was operated by the church.

In 2004, Maggard was charged with molesting two boys while working at a Louisville elementary school prior to his work at Highview.

Prosecutors were seeking to investigate those charges and to obtain more information. For example, they wanted to find out “the circumstances under which Maggard’s employment ended” at the Highview Baptist School. The prosecutors had received reports that Maggard had been fired from Highview, but they hadn’t been able to confirm that information.

So . . . was pastor Kevin Ezell up-front and forthcoming about his knowledge concerning Highview’s former employee and Sunday School volunteer?

Did pastor Ezell beseech his congregants to take any and all information to the police so that they might conduct a thorough and complete investigation?

Did pastor Ezell preach to parents that they should talk to their children about it – including their adult children?

Did pastor Ezell use his “leadership” role to reach out to any others who may have been wounded?

No. . . not according to what was reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal.

When prosecutors subpoenaed pastor Ezell to testify before the grand jury, Ezell invoked the clergy-penitent privilege. In other words, Ezell claimed that he couldn’t be required to testify under oath (i.e., under penalty of perjury) because he claimed that, as pastor, he was entitled to keep secret whatever Bill Maggard had told him. (Do you think Ezell used offering plate dollars to pay the attorney who made that argument? I wonder.)

On that day, in Louisville, Kentucky, a judge accepted pastor Ezell’s argument, and so Ezell was able to avoid testifying about whatever he knew. (But note that Ezell's position is not universally accepted. Some other Kentucky judge might not have accepted it, and certainly, many judges in many other states would not accept an argument for secrecy about information concerning possible child molestation.)

In any event, prosecutors apparently didn’t get much help from pastor Ezell.

Furthermore, as reported in the Courier-Journal, “Ezell said he did not expect the church would announce Maggard's arrest to the congregation.”

Did you get that? Ezell didn’t even plan to inform the people of the congregation . . . the people whose children had been in the Sunday School and choir programs where Bill Maggard volunteered . . . the people whose children had gone to Highview Baptist School where Bill Maggard had worked.

No . . . pastor Kevin Ezell didn’t think any announcement to the congregation was needed.

Thank God for the press.

And thank God for a member of Ezell’s congregation who saw what was happening in her church and worried about the safety of the kids. As reported in the Courier-Journal, a member of Highview knew about prior allegations of abuse by Maggard, and she was concerned about his being in contact with children in the church. So, she contacted the victims and encouraged them to go to police. (Given that a member of the congregation knew about prior allegations against Maggard, you have to wonder why the church’s screening process was so ineffective that it didn’t find out about those allegations.)

Despite pastor Ezell’s keep-it-quiet response, prosecutors managed to get a conviction against Bill Maggard anyway. Maggard ultimately pled guilty to sexually abusing seven boys.

Of course, that’s just the ones the prosecutors found out about and that were still within the limitations period and that were included in the plea bargain.

What a difference it might have made if pastor Ezell -- the pastor of the church where Maggard worked and volunteered -- had pro-actively reached out to try to find others who may have been victimized.

According to WLKY News, “the church has said it has no claims of abuse.”

But given that the pastor refused to testify under oath, and given that the pastor said he didn’t even expect to inform the congregation of the arrest, how much credibility can this church possibly have on this?

And with “leadership” like that at the highest level, the Southern Baptist Convention itself is losing credibility because of its refusal to effectively confront sexual abuse.


See Baptist Planet's post "How did Ezell suffer the little children in 2004 case?"

At his sentencing hearing, Maggard used his proclaimed faith to make a classic plea for no prison time. After pleading guilty to sexually abusing seven boys, Maggard sought a sentence of probation only and argued that he was a changed man. He told the judge, "I faced my sin, sought forgiveness, sought help and God kept His promise."

As reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal, "more than two dozen people came to court to show their support" for Maggard, and "people from throughout the community had written the judge asking for leniency."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pastor in strip club shows Baptistland patterns

“Righteousness demands truth.”

That’s what Southern Baptist pastor Randy Robertson preached from the pulpit on Sundays. But during the week, he was spending his time at strip clubs where he spent thousands of dollars.

When Oklahoma City’s FOX 25 news brought this duality to light, it became obvious that Pastor Randy Robertson didn’t really believe what he preached. He certainly didn’t want the truth of his own conduct revealed.

You can see it all on video here:

KOKH FOX 25 :: Special Reports - Pastor strip club investigation

In this story, we can see many parallels to the stories involving Baptist clergy sex abuse. Here are just a few:

There is no effective oversight for the pastor. For months, pastor Robertson was able to spend many hours away from church duties while he frequented a strip club.

The pastor behaves as though he is two separate people. In the video, pastor Robertson even uses a phony name to chat with another man in the club. He says that his favorite strip club is the one that takes credit cards. Why? In pastor Robertson’s words: “If you’re really wild … and sometimes I’m just horny as hell and I … pay with a credit card.” (The FOX report raises the question of whether pastor Robertson may have used offering plate dollars to pay for his strip club visits. FOX doesn’t get an answer to that question, but let’s hope that the church will have the good sense to at least look closely at its past credit card statements.)

There is no one at the church who will receive an inquiry or complaint involving the pastor. At First Baptist Church of Anadarko, Oklahoma, when reporters wanted to inquire about pastor Robertson's financial dealings, no one could even identify the current financial secretary of the church even though there was an office door, clearly visible, that said “Financial Secretary.”

The only way people in the pews find out about their pastor’s conduct is by media exposure. Yet, rather than being chagrined by the church’s own failure to exercise oversight, and rather than being grateful for the information afforded by the work of the media, there are some within the church who instead blame the media for “casting a dark cloud on their church” and say that the media have “no business broadcasting a story about their pastor being in a strip club.”

When exposed, the pastor minimizes his conduct. Pastor Robertson wrote an apology letter to the congregation, but he didn’t mention that the “club” was a strip club, and he spoke as though he had only gone a couple times when, according to the FOX news report, pastor Robertson had actually "been going there for months." And get this . . . Pastor Robertson didn’t even have the gumption to stand before his congregation in person to make his apology. He sent a letter for someone else to read out loud.

State denominational leaders disclaim any oversight and claim it’s a “local church matter.” Nevertheless, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma stated that it stood ready to provide “assistance and resources” to pastor Robertson.

There is nothing surprising in any of these patterns or in pastor Robertson’s story. And the story certainly isn’t “beyond belief” as one Baptist leader asserted.

Having seen an endless stream of stories about Baptist clergy who sexually abuse kids and congregants, I felt only relief that pastor Robertson’s story was merely about strip clubs.

But the patterns in all these sorts of stories are quite similar.

The repetitive patterns demonstrate that these sorts of stories are not only believeable, but flat-out predictable. This is what you get -- and far worse -- when you have a system that grants power without also assuring effective oversight and accountability.

That’s Baptistland.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Faulty forgiveness theology

A few days ago, Southern Baptist minister Bernie Johnson wrote to ask that I delete all information about him from the StopBaptistPredators site. I’ve posted his email, in its entirety, below.

Bernie Johnson’s email provides a classic example of how some Baptist ministers twist forgiveness theology into a tool for hiding ugly deeds.

And make no mistake about it -- Bernie Johnson’s deeds were quite ugly. He was captured on videotape, and so there wasn’t much room for dispute. In a series of articles, The Examiner reported on Johnson’s deeds, and I gave a condensed version in this posting: “Convicted minister continues.” Click on it only if your stomach feels strong.

The question isn’t about forgiveness. It’s about whether those deeds should disqualify Bernie Johnson from continuing in a position of high trust as a Baptist minister.

It’s also about whether he should be allowed the possibility of moving on to still more churches without people finding out about his deeds so that they might decide for themselves whether this person should be their minister.

Bernie Johnson was already given one chance to have his deeds kept quiet. As reported in The Examiner, the leadership of Johnson’s prior church allowed him to quietly resign and even agreed to pay for his counseling on the condition that he not seek employment in ministry until his "restoration" was complete.

Johnson resigned, but then he got a similar ministry job just 10 miles down the road at the First Baptist Church of Winnie, Texas.

In other words, Bernie decided to do what Bernie wanted and to heck with the condition set by his prior church.

That’s when the woman decided to go to the police. Thank God she did. Now we have a public record along with a newspaper’s reporting on the case.

No. I will not delete the information from the website.

Nor will I give any heed to self-serving sermons on forgiveness that are made by Baptist ministers such as Bernie Johnson.

Here is his email. (Incidentally, I can’t figure out how he comes up with “4 years” since my prior blog posting was in 2008.)

"Dear Christa

For nearly 7 years my family and I have been making attempts to put my mistakes into the past and moving forward in uprightness. For the past 4 years or more your blog as kept the pain ever so fresh. Regardless of any testimony – two people know the truth of all my past events; me and God.

My wife and I, along with our son have worked intimately together to create the wholesome and honorable home God expects us to have. She has forgiven me, my son has forgiven me, my family has, and so has my church family. The only forgiveness I have not received is from you, someone who had absolutely no part in my life or its events. You do not “know” any of the truth of my life or its events. Why do you punish the forgiven? By what authority do you boast of your judgment toward others in matters that are not yours.

I have studied the Bible for the better part of 35 years, I have yet to find anytime where Jesus continued to pass any judgment on someone after they had been forgiven. Not a single instance. Once they confessed, turned from their wicked ways, and followed the course of Christ by picking up their cross and following Him daily – the angels rejoiced, and the Father reestablished the child.

I can’t make you do anything. I can only ask that you delete all the material on me so that my family and I can move on without further pain to anyone. When will enough be enough? 7 years, 14 years, 50 years? I am most grateful to the Lord God Almighty that His grace is ever present, His mercy is rich and new every morning, and that He does have a place for me in ministry now and in heaven later.

Please consider this a most sincere request of mine to you.

Your Friend in Jesus,
Bernie Johnson"


Update 9/23/10: Bernie Johnson has emailed me twice more, on 9/21 and 9/22. Basically, he sermonizes me on GRACE and MERCY (in all caps), tells me "you ought to read the Bible," and rails against me to "see more clearly your sinfulness" . . . as if he had any moral authority on any of this, right? But here's the part that really got me. He denigrates and bad-mouths his victim -- i.e., the woman who reported him to the police -- and I have no intention of repeating what he said. He expresses contempt for his victim. And his words make plain that this is a man who feels no genuine remorse whatsoever.

Another email from Bernie Johnson on 11/9/10: He just doesn't seem to get the message that I'm not impressed with his self-serving sermonizing. In this most recent email, he seems to be claiming that he has turned from "wicked ways," and that this should be "celebrated" rather than having his past posted on a blog. But here's what I think: 1) Why should I believe Bernie has "turned" (and indeed why should anyone believe him?) when, less than two months ago, he was still bad-mouthing his victim? 2) Even if it's true that Bernie has turned from "wicked ways," good for him, but I still don't think he has any entitlement to hold a position of high trust as a minister.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pastor's deeds teach silence in the presence of evil

Today, I feel angry.

I know the feeling will soon pass, but for today, I feel angry.

I saw Southern Baptist pastor Sam Underwood’s column about his visit to Dachau. It was more than I could take.

Underwood sermonizes on the “sinfulness of silence in the presence of evil.” He talks about the “commitment to stand alongside the weak, the vulnerable, the despised.”

“If we don’t stand with these,” he says, “evil will surely win.”

How in the world does this man presume to have the moral credibility to say such things?

Underwood himself has quite the track record of “silence in the presence of evil.”

He is the current pastor of my old childhood church, the First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch, Texas.

It’s the church where, as a faith-filled adolescent girl, I was sexually abused, repeatedly and severely, by the youth and education minister, Tommy Gilmore.

It’s the church that tried to intimidate me into silence, both when I was a kid and when I was an adult.

It’s the church whose music minister, Jim Moore, knew about the abuse when I was a kid and told me it would be better if I didn’t speak of it. The prior pastor also knew as did at least some of the deacons.

It’s the church that stayed silent about Gilmore’s abuse of a kid and allowed him to move on to work in children’s ministry at other Baptist churches in Texas, Georgia and Florida.

It’s the church that threatened to sue me when, as an adult, I again tried to speak of it.

It’s the church that, despite knowing the truth that the abuse took place, put me through many months of hell when, as an adult, I tried to get them to take action for the protection of others.

And guess who was at the helm of the church’s bullying attempt to silence me when I reported this evil as an adult?

Pastor Sam Underwood.

This man may have walked through Dachau, but it’s obvious he didn’t grasp the substance of the lessons there.

I’ve been to Dachau too. And I’ve talked at length with my friend, Elana, whose father was smuggled out of Germany as an 8-year-old boy and whose other ancestors were mostly all annihilated in the Holocaust. Perhaps because of her family history, Elana is an eyes-wide-open sort of person, and she doesn’t tolerate fools.

Elana would see through Sam Underwood in a millisecond. His words wouldn’t impress her even one tiny bit.

Sam Underwood had a clear opportunity “to stand alongside the weak and vulnerable,” but he chose silence instead. Not only did he choose silence for himself, but he also chose to try to silence me.

As pastor at the helm of that church, Sam Underwood tried to bully me into a silent oblivion so that the evil of what happened there would remain forever shrouded.

As my friend Elana would say, “Stop listening to their words. They have shown you what their true values are, and they have shown you over and over. Believe THAT!”

She’s right, and in more ways than one. Underwood himself was reported for sexual abuse of an adult congregant. There’s no dispute that it happened. The church acknowledged it with a letter from the deacon chair. They simply chose to minimize Underwood’s deeds as “sexual misconduct” rather than calling it “abuse.”

Given Underwood’s own history of bad deeds, it’s easy to see why he couldn’t bring himself to break silence about another minister’s sexual abuse of a kid.

Despite his deeds, the church kept Underwood as its pastor, just as it kept music minister Jim Moore, despite Moore’s longstanding silence about another minister’s sexual abuse of a kid.

That’s how it is in Baptistland. Evil deeds go without consequence.

Though Underwood might like to imagine himself as a person who would “stand alongside the weak and vulnerable,” he’s already demonstrated that he’s not. Even if evil tapped him on the shoulder and said “here I am,” Sam Underwood would still choose silence. He already has.

When I tried as an adult to report the minister’s molestation of me as a kid, the initial thing I asked of the church was that it place a small millstone sculpture on the grounds with a plaque saying that it was dedicated in prayer for victims of clergy sex abuse. I thought it was such a positive request. I thought it would be a way to focus attention on the problem and to remind people of the need for vigilance against clergy abuse.

But with Sam Underwood at the helm, First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch made very clear that they would never agree to such a “negative” thing. They didn’t want any reminder of the fact that something so ugly had happened in their church.

Sam Underwood wanted to avoid any memory of the evil that was done and covered-up at the First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch.

Nowadays, I click onto the church’s website no more than about twice per year. It’s a good thing, because look at what I encounter when I go there. It makes me angry.

Sam Underwood is a fool, and he doesn’t understand diddly-squat about Dachau.

When churches keep pastors like Sam Underwood at the helm, “evil will surely win.”

Related posts:
My childhood church
Menorahs' lights bring thoughts on denial and evil

Saturday, September 4, 2010

GRACE report vindicates missionary kids

According to a report made public last week, dozens of kids were sexually and physically abused at a boarding school in Senegal that was run by New Tribes Mission (NTM), an evangelical missionary-sending organization. The report not only documented the abuse, but also the cover-ups. NTM officials “created a mindset that ignored clear evidence of abuse, protected the perpetrators, and… shamed and even shunned the victims and their families.”

The GRACE report found “credible evidence” of countless acts of abuse that occurred beginning at least as early as the mid-1980s. The report identifies by name 12 individuals, who stand accused.

The impact of the abuse is a “catalogue of heartbreak and pain” that includes “denial, memory loss, depression, guilt, feelings of powerlessness, panic attacks, anger, fear, distrust of adults, suicidal thoughts and actions, self harming, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual experimentation, sexual confusion, sexual repression, running away, turning to the occult, criminal behavior, imprisonment, and death.”

Yet, even as the missionary kids made repeated disclosures of abuse, and even as the evidence grew, NTM officials “repeatedly failed to report abuse to the authorities, to inform parents of the allegations, or to competently investigate the allegations. Rather, NTM officials “acted to protect the perpetrators and the institution at the expense of children.”

In 2009, NTM finally did something right. The Child Protection Committee of NTM recommended “a full and complete independent review of the actions of the New Tribes Mission” concerning the school in Senegal. Ultimately, the NTM Executive Board commissioned GRACE as the independent entity to conduct such an investigation. GRACE stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. The GRACE team consisted of two former child sex-crime prosecutors (including Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham), one clinical psychologist, a professional counselor, and one teaching elder.

Of course, even NTM’s step of commissioning an investigation is a step that would never have happened without the extraordinary perseverance of some of the missionary kids who are now adults. For over a decade, and in the face of enormous resistance, they worked relentlessly to seek acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs and to prod NTM into action for the protection of others. Finally, they have been vindicated. I applaud them.

I also applaud GRACE, whose report is unflinching.

I yearn for the day when many hundreds of Baptist clergy abuse survivors may benefit from a similar process -- when their allegations will be looked into with respect and care by people who have the experience, training and objectivity to competently do so.

To have the faith community hear their stories with compassion and concern is something that almost all clergy abuse survivors long for. Tragically, it is something that most Baptist clergy abuse survivors never get . . . and that they ultimately lose all hope of getting.

If you read the 68-page GRACE report, many of you will see many familiar patterns from your own experiences in Baptistland. Let me highlight just a few of those patterns, together with the lessons of the GRACE report.

None of the NTM staff and officials who are named in the report have ever been criminally prosecuted. However, this did not in any way deter GRACE. Rather than looking to the standards of the criminal law, GRACE looked to whether there was “credible evidence” to support the allegations. This “degree of proof” was considered enough to draw conclusions that would serve the proper priority of protecting children. And as it turned out, much of the evidence was “compelling” and “unequivocal.”

GRACE was very critical of NTM officials who made excuses for their inaction by saying such things as “there was nothing definite” . . . “no details” . . . “only allegations” . . . and “only bits of inappropriate behavior.” GRACE pointed out that these excuses made “clear” that NTM leadership was trying to do little more than get themselves off “the hot seat.”

The victims’ favorable response to the GRACE investigation demonstrates why it is essential that those who review abuse allegations be independent of the place where the abuse occurred. GRACE sent initial questionnaires to 108 former students at the NTM boarding school. Fifty-six responded, yielding a return rate of 52 percent. This contrasted with the 3 percent return rate for an earlier survey that was done by NTM officials. As GRACE pointed out, the NTM officials lacked the training and experience to appropriately question people about abuse, and they took a hostile posture toward the victims. Indeed, given that many of the missionary kids had tried to tell about abuse when they were younger -- only to be rejected, silenced and further shamed -- it’s no wonder they were reluctant to again speak of their abuse with people who had failed them so miserably before.

The conduct of New Tribes officials effectively emphasized “the saving of souls at the expense of children,” says GRACE, and that is what made the abuse and nonresponsiveness predictable.

So often we have seen a similar misplaced emphasis from Baptist officials, and the consequences have been devastating.

We see it in local church officials who seek to protect the “witness of the church” by quietly letting accused ministers move on. It is children at the minister’s next church who pay the price.

We see it in denominational officials who claim that Cooperative Program dollars can be used only for missions and pursuit of the Great Commission. They refuse any resources for implementing independent assessments of clergy abuse allegations or for keeping records on credibly accused clergy. As a result, predatory preachers are able to easily church-hop, and it is children who pay the price.

When so many religious leaders use “saving souls” as a rationalization for doing nothing about ministers who molest kids, it makes abuse and cover-ups predictable. As the GRACE report explains: "In the abstract... the church is always opposed to the physical, sexual and emotional violation of a child’s body and mind. When faced with the reality of abuse, however, the church is slow to side with the victim and quick to protect the perpetrator."

I hope and pray that Southern Baptist leaders will read the GRACE report and learn from it. May they soon find within themselves the moral fiber to fully confront the reality of clergy abuse in their own ranks. The safety of children depends on it.

Update: "Missionary group admits Senegal abuse," Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee), 9/17/10 ("A Christian missionary group... said it will purge its ranks, strengthen its personnel policies and set aside $1 million to aid victims, in response to a new report that dozens of missionaries' children endured physical and sexual abuse at its boarding school in Senegal.")

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"No contest" doesn't mean no evidence

Jim is the director of a poverty relief Christian ministry in Tennessee. One of his staff members is an ordained Baptist minister who, in 2006, was charged by Georgia authorities on 16 counts of child pornography, 2 counts of child molestation, and 2 counts of enticing a child for indecent purposes. News about the minister was reported in a newspaper article, which is posted on the StopBaptistPredators website.

A few days ago, Jim wrote to me. He wants me to delete the article off the website.

Jim’s email is too long to post, but I’ll give you the highlights along with my reaction.

Jim starts off by telling me that, because their ministry is connected to a Baptist college, they have “very good guidelines in trying to screen our employees.” In fact, he says, Jim Gunther who is attorney for both the college and the Southern Baptist Convention, “helped us a lot with our procedures and policies.”

I suppose he thought that dropping Jim Gunther’s name might make a positive impression on me. He was sure wrong about that. After all, back when I was trying desperately to locate my own childhood molester, Jim Gunther is the attorney who signed off on a letter saying that the Southern Baptist Convention had no record the man was still in ministry in any church. Yet, he was actually still working in children’s ministry at a Florida Baptist church. And he had previously worked in the church of former Florida Baptist Convention president Dwayne Mercer and in the church of former SBC president Charles Stanley. Given his high-level connections, it was impossible for me to believe that Baptist officials didn’t know where he was. The fact that they would disclaim any record of him seemed like little more than a ruse.

So I’m not impressed by that sort of name-dropping.

And I sure can’t figure out why Jim thinks I would be impressed by the fact that his poverty relief ministry is connected to a Baptist college. When I think about Baptist colleges, I think about how Baylor University allowed “murdering minister” Matt Baker into its program at Truett Seminary despite the fact of multiple sexual abuse reports and despite the fact that, even at Baylor itself, Baker had been reported for sexual assault when he was a ministerial student in its undergraduate school.

So . . . connection to a Baptist college doesn’t give me any good reason to think there will be good guidelines in place.

But Jim says he has “known” the minister for years and that he is “thoroughly convinced” there was no abuse.

It’s a tired refrain, isn’t it? There are always those who think they “know” the guy.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said they “know” the guy, I’d have a pile of money big enough to buy a new bicycle. I’d get one of those spiffy cruiser kinds -- they’re pretty pricey.

Suffice it to say that I’m not impressed by Jim’s insistence that he “knows” the guy.

Besides, Jim himself points out that the minister pled “no contest” to the charges. “There was never any evidence presented against him in court,” says Jim.

These are troubling statements. Jim seems to think the minister’s “no contest” plea means he was innocent. But it doesn’t.

Generally, a defendant’s “no contest” plea is considered as constituting an acknowledgement that there is enough evidence on which a conviction could be had. Often, a defendant will plead “no contest” for the very purpose of avoiding presentation of the evidence in open court and also to avoid the risk of greater punishment if the case goes to a full trial.

So, Jim's statement that there was no evidence " court" is meaningless. Once a “no contest” plea is made, the evidence doesn’t get presented in court. That’s how it works. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any evidence. To the contrary, it means there was evidence.

In other major faith groups, evidence related to clergy child molestation may be evaluated by a denominational review board, regardless of whether the man is criminally convicted in a court. If abuse allegations are determined to be credible, the minister may be “defrocked” or have his ordination revoked.

But not so with Southern Baptists. There is no such thing as a denominational review board for the assessment of clergy sex abuse allegations.

So kids in Baptist churches don’t get the same safeguards against predatory clergy as what kids in other faith groups now get.

This Baptist minister, who is on staff at Jim’s poverty relief organization, is known to have worked in Texas, Georgia and Tennessee. (He lasted only a few months in Texas, where he also worked as director of a Boys’ and Girls’ Club.)

If this minister wanted, he could move to Florida tomorrow and could probably get a job in a Baptist church. There isn’t any denominational office that’s going to revoke his ordination. There isn’t any denominational office that will say “Whoa … this man can’t be a Baptist minister.” There isn’t any denominational office that will warn the next church that hires him. There isn’t even any denominational office that’s keeping systematic records on Baptist ministers like this.

A published news article might be one of the few possibilities by which people could find out about this minister’s prior history.

So, no, I won’t delete the article from the website.

I don’t have any desire to embarrass this poverty relief organization, and I don’t know what job duties the minister has there. Perhaps he’s doing roof repairs. But if his duties allow any sort of unsupervised access to kids, and if he is still able to hold himself out as an ordained Baptist minister (which he almost certainly is), then that’s wrong -- dangerously wrong.

Jim concludes by telling me what an “awesome ministry” their organization provides and by complaining about what a “thorn in the side” it is when people find the article about this staff-member on the internet. Nevertheless, Jim says that his “foremost” concern is for “his own ministry” -- i.e., for the ministry of the staff-member who pled “no contest” on child porn and child molestation charges.

This is where Jim got it all wrong from the get-go. His priorities aren't straight.

Jim’s “foremost” concern should be for the protection of kids, not for the minister.

Much of the above goes ditto for the guy who, last week, asked me to “help out the church -- God’s church” by deleting articles on convicted Baptist minister Kevin Ogle, also from Georgia.

9/4/10 on Baptist Planet: 'Stop Baptist Predators' isn't in the track-covering business

Update 9/8/10: Jim has written to say that he was mistaken and that it was actually a "no bill" rather than a "no contest." If Jim is correct this time around, then a "no bill" would usually mean that a grand jury decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant the pursuit of a criminal prosecution under the stringent standards and burdens of the criminal law.