Saturday, October 30, 2010

A victim's voice is heard

Earlier this month, North Carolina authorities charged an assistant pastor at New Manna Baptist Church with child sex abuse. Now, a prior victim of abuse within the same church has chosen to speak out.

Kudos to Casie Rumfelt!

Here are excerpts from Casie’s story, as written by reporter Richelle Bailey and reported in The McDowell News on October 29.

“Casie Rumfelt wanted someone to love her. One of her church officials honed in on that, she stated, preyed on her vulnerability and was eventually convicted of molesting her. . . . She was 14 and 15 at the time of the offenses, and he was 25 and 26, was married and had a little girl.

The suspect was charged in March 2004 and pleaded guilty in February 2005 to taking indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to 1 ½ years behind bars and is still registered as a sex offender today. . . .

Rumfelt is choosing to speak out, tell her story and hopefully keep this from happening again.

‘I just want to help somebody,’ she stated. ‘It’s OK to come forward. It will be rough, but you will get through it.’ . . . .

She admits that she wanted someone to love her. That’s where this man came in.

One day, after a church function, Rumfelt had no ride home, so he volunteered to take her. He said he had to make a quick stop by his house first, and he invited her inside.

‘He told me how pretty I was,’ she stated. ‘I had never had anybody pay that much attention to me. He told me he knew I was going through some hard times and that he was here for me.’
The same routine continued over and over and over. . . . but what started as telling her she was pretty advanced to kissing then to fondling then to sexual intercourse, according to Rumfelt.

‘I was 14 and I was naïve,’ she said. ‘Yes, I had a choice of saying yes or no to that man, but no 13-, 14- or 15-year-old should have to make that choice. He was supposed to be a leader in the church, a mentor and someone to look out for me, but, in his eyes, I was just a young, vulnerable girl that could be part of his sick, twisted life. He took something from me that I could never get back.’ . . . .

He became ever more obsessive and possessive. She was required to call him at certain hours, wasn’t allowed to spend time with her friends and was forced to be everywhere he was.

‘The people at New Manna had to know something was going on,’ she stated.

He became verbally abusive, said Rumfelt, and would berate her over the smallest things. She had had enough and wanted it to stop.

Rumfelt gathered enough nerve to go to Tony Shirley, the church’s pastor and the school’s principal . . . but she never expected his response.

‘I told Mr. Shirley that I was in a sexual relationship with a married man,’ she said. ‘He asked me a lot of questions, but he told me he didn’t want to know who it was. He told me I really needed to think before I identified him because I would ruin his life.’

Shirley, Rumfelt contends, forced her to go home and tell her grandparents what she had done.

‘More or less, I was punished for coming forward,’ she stated. . . .

Rumfelt spent much of her time at her best friend’s house. . . . During one of Rumfelt’s mandated calls… her best friend’s mom picked up the phone and heard him scolding the teen. That raised enough red flags that the woman questioned Rumfelt and she came clean about the relationship.

She took the teen to the Sheriff’s Office and an investigation ensued.

‘If she hadn’t taken me to the Sheriff’s Office, I would never have told because I tried to tell someone earlier and I was told not to ruin his life,’ Rumfelt stated. . . .

Next came the suspect’s arrest. But that meant a lot of the teen’s problems were just beginning. . . .

‘As if my world wasn’t turned upside down enough, by me coming forward, I was kicked out of the Christian school I had attended since the third grade and banned from all church activities,’ she said. . . .

‘You would think that after the leaders and members of that congregation found out the things that happened, they would find (the perpetrator in her abuse) at fault, but that was not the case,’ said Rumfelt. ‘The blame was placed on me. I was the bad guy instead of the victim.’

She was shunned by many of the church-goers.

‘Not one of the leaders in that church asked me if I was OK or bothered to come and visit,’ she said. ‘I was born and raised in that church, but because I wasn’t ‘a man of God’ my well being didn’t matter. The whole time it was ‘We need to pray for that man and his family. They are really going through it right now.’ Well, what about me? What was I going through?’ . . . .

Rumfelt no longer attends New Manna Baptist Church but did visit on one occasion in October on an invite from a friend.

It just happened to be the evening that [pastor] Shirley stood up in front of the congregation and announced that police had arrested Michael Eugene Pearson, 30, of Marion on charges related to a sexual relationship with an underage female relative. Pearson was the bus director at New Manna and also an assistant pastor. . . .

‘Mr. Shirley kept asking everyone to pray for Michael and his family, but he never once mentioned the victim,’ she stated. ‘It infuriated me, so I decided I wasn’t going to let it happen again. It’s not her fault.’

For Rumfelt, it was déjà vu. She said she left the church that night and made the decision that she would no longer keep quiet.

‘They are cowards and hypocrites,’ she added. ‘They preach that you are not to sin then they do it. You can’t be godly and a pedophile at the same time.’

New Manna’s problems will continue, Rumfelt contends, until the leaders take a stand.

‘The leadership needs to step up and say ‘Something’s not right,’ instead of ‘This is the devil’s work,’’ she stated. ‘If the proper precautions had been taken with my situation then it would have been stopped earlier and Michael’s situation wouldn’t have happened.’

Rumfelt knows the victim in Pearson’s case and has talked to her via e-mail.

‘Don’t back down, don’t let anyone talk you into giving up and don’t ever think this is your fault,’ she advises the teen. ‘I didn’t ask for this and neither did you. The members of this community don’t need to let this get swept under the rug like it’s not a big deal because it is.'"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


“Ask reporters on the religion beat and they’ll tell you the most vicious e-mails they ever receive as journalists are from people of faith who feel their beliefs have been slighted. The passion behind religion magnifies any perceived mistakes, slights or bias.”

-- William Lobdell, former longtime religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, in Losing My Religion at p. 265

In my experience, Lobdell's words go ditto and double for people who speak out about clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

I never imagined a world of so much meanness until I stepped onto the terrain of Baptistland with pleas for clergy accountability and for care of abuse survivors.

Worst of all . . . it’s a malignant meanness that masks itself as religion.

Most people seem to want to believe that clergy sex abuse is about the perpetrators. You know . . . the “bad guys.”

But really . . . it’s mostly about all the rest.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Where's the Discipline?

When I got Sheila’s email yesterday, I found myself thinking once again about Al Mohler’s statement about the “discipline of a denomination.” Remember? Al Mohler, shown in the photo, is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he engaged this denominational double-talk in an apparent attempt to distance Southern Baptists from the sort of sex scandal that has enveloped Independent Baptist pastor Eddie Long.

Independent congregations “lack the discipline of a denomination,” said Mohler.

But where’s the discipline? What exactly was Al Mohler talking about?

Where is the Southern Baptist disciplinary process for denominationally dealing with allegations of clergy sex abuse?

Maybe Al Mohler would like to answer that question for Sheila.

Here is what she wrote to me:


I won't recount my story here, but I am now 50 years old – reported my abuser, a youth pastor in Alabama, when I was 21.

The board of deacons told me it was my fault, told me not to come back to church, and he did it because of the clothing I wore. I wasn't the only girl.

I am in such pain.


In a subsequent email, I learned that the abuse began when Sheila was in her mid-teens. Sheila was 21 when she reported it, but she says the senior pastor already knew about it because a deacon had previously told him.

That youth pastor whom Sheila reported 29 years ago is still working at a large Southern Baptist church in Alabama. While Sheila has struggled greatly over the years, the youth pastor was able to continue with a long career. He has worked as a minister of education and a minister of music at other churches in Louisiana and Alabama.

So where exactly is this “discipline of a denomination” that Al Mohler talked about?

Where is there any denominational office that will even look into allegations like those of Sheila? What denominational process exists for responsibly assessing allegations like those of Sheila? What denominational office will even receive Sheila’s report, much less “discipline” the minister or warn people in the pews?

When someone like Al Mohler talks about the “discipline of a denomination,” why in the world should someone like Sheila believe that what he says holds any real meaning?

And while we’re on the subject, what about some denominational process for providing compassionate care to those who have been wounded by Southern Baptist clergy? In addition to denominational disciplinary processes, other major faith groups now have processes that can provide counseling assistance for clergy abuse survivors. Where is that denominational process for Southern Baptists? Sheila could sure use some help. And doesn’t the faith group have a moral obligation?

Al Mohler was recently described as “the most prominent public intellectual” in the Southern Baptist Convention. I sure wish he would use some of that intellectual prowess to realistically address the problem of clergy sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe if Mohler would apply himself to the task, he could tell us how Southern Baptists can cooperate together to assure effective clergy accountability mechanisms, to minimize the likelihood of church-hopping preacher-predators, and to help people like Sheila.

But I guess Mohler is too busy telling Christians they shouldn’t do yoga.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Our selective curiosity on sex scandals

In today’s Denver Post, columnist Vincent Carroll ponders the question of why Baptist sex abuse scandals don’t get the same type of scrutiny over their wider patterns as do Catholic sex abuse scandals. It’s a good question. And while I disagree with some of what Mr. Carroll says, he nailed it on this point: There is no data to suggest that Baptists have any less of a problem with clergy sex abuse than Catholics.

Vincent Carroll also got it right in noting that the recent case of Eddie Long is a case involving a “Baptist megachurch leader.” It seems that many others in the media have dodged and minimized the story's “Baptist” connection.

But the most important question should be the question of what various faith groups are now doing to systematically address clergy sex abuse and to lessen the likelihood of church-hopping predators. On that question, Baptists are way behind as compared to Catholics and other major Protestant groups. They are behind not only for prevention purposes but also for compassionate care of the wounded. It’s because even denominationally-affiliated Baptists have leaders who use congregationalist polity as an excuse for do-nothingness and unaccountability.

And while the Catholic Church keeps administrative records on priests, the largest Protestant denomination in the land -- the Southern Baptist Convention -- doesn’t bother with any record-keeping on its clergy. For Baptists, it’s “no records, no trace, no trouble.” That makes cover-ups and concealment a lot harder to track.

Below is the start of Vincent Carroll’s column. You can read the rest of it in the Denver Post.

“Is the Baptist ministry prone to sexual abuse against minors? Just wondering.

After all, four young men have accused Baptist megachurch leader Bishop Eddie Long in suburban Atlanta of luring them into sex when they were teens, and it's hardly the first time a well-known Baptist preacher has been linked to such scandal. Yet the case has been framed in news accounts mostly as an example of possible hypocrisy: Prominent anti-gay pastor accused of having sex with male teens.

No one, meanwhile, is suggesting the Baptist ministry is a refuge for pedophiles, as is commonly said of the Catholic Church.

Is that because Baptist ministers are less likely than Catholic priests to have sex with minors? That may be the popular impression, but no one actually knows. Hard data on sexual abuse by ministers simply don't exist, any more than they do for scoutmasters, school teachers, guidance counselors, staff at juvenile detention facilities, and other professions dealing with youth.

'Sexual misconduct appears to be spread fairly evenly across the denominations, though I stress the word appears,' maintains Philip Jenkins, Penn State professor of history and religious studies. 'Astonishingly, Catholic priests are literally the only profession in the country for whom we have relatively good figures for the incidence of child abuse and molestation.'

Jenkins wrote those words in 2003. I asked him recently if they remained true. 'Definitely,' he replied."


Related post: "Twenty years behind," 10/1/10, with Valerie Tarico of the Huffington Post pondering similar questions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Background checks show 600 felony offenses in 900 churches

During the past two years, about 900 churches and organizations conducted background checks using the discounted service offered through LifeWay, which is the publishing and research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Those background checks turned up "more than 600" felony offenses. This data was reported by the Associated Press yesterday.

Let me give you those numbers again. When LifeWay-sponsored background checks were run on staff and volunteers in about 900 churches and organizations, they showed more than 600 felony offenses.

Now do the math.

The Southern Baptist Convention has about 45,000 churches. If you extrapolate the numbers, they would project to about 30,000 felony offenses in the 45,000 churches.

Are you horrified yet? I sure am.

The fact that the 900 churches aren’t a statistically representative sample doesn’t comfort me any. Sampling errors in data can cut both ways. This means that, if we could compile the data from each and every one of the SBC’s 45,000 churches, the actual number of felonies could be either less or more than the projected 30,000.

LifeWay markets its services primarily to Southern Baptist churches, but the reported data doesn’t indicate whether the 900 churches were exclusively Southern Baptist churches. Conceivably, there could have been some other types of churches who also used LifeWay’s discounted background check service. But this caveat doesn’t comfort me any, either.

I just can’t find any way to look at the numbers without being horrified.

And, of course, the danger is actually far worse than what these background checks reflect. As the Associated Press article reports, “only about 3 percent of sex offenders have criminal backgrounds.” This means that about 97 percent of sex offenders won’t be discovered when churches conduct criminal background checks.

This is one of the reasons why other major faith groups make use of denominational accountability systems for assessing and tracking clergy sex abuse reports. They make this effort to try to assure that those who carry the highest level of trust in their churches -- ministers -- will not be able to slip through the cracks so easily if they have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.

But the Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t bother with such safety systems for its churches. In 2008, the SBC decided that “it should not create its own database to help churches identify predators or establish an office to field abuse claims.”

That’s right. The largest Protestant denomination in the land decided that it wouldn’t institute basic safety precautions similar to what other major faith groups do. It would leave churches to handle things on their own without any denominational assistance in assessing or tracking credibly-accused Baptist clergy. It would simply encourage churches to conduct background checks.

Why aren’t Southern Baptist leaders more worried about the 97 percent of sex offenders who won’t show up in background checks?

And why aren’t Southern Baptist leaders expressing a great deal more concern about the high number of felony convictions that showed up in even the small number of churches that they can point to as having actually done background checks?

The news of 600 felony convictions in 900 churches should be news of grave concern for Baptist leaders. But I’m sure not seeing much sign of any concern. To the contrary, it seems like just another day in Baptistland.

Related post: "450 churches had 80 serious felony offenses," 8/8/09.

Update: "LifeWay background-check service finds hundreds of felonies," ABP, 10/7/10.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Independent Baptist Eddie Long

Kudos to BaptistPlanet for putting “Baptist” together with “Eddie Long” in the same headline: "Words still unspoken by Independent Baptist Eddie Long."

The name of Eddie Long’s 25,000 member Atlanta megachurch is New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. So it clearly carries the “Baptist” name.

Yet, most media stories on the Eddie Long scandal have minimized the “Baptist” connection.

If Eddie Long’s 25,000 member megachurch were called St. Mary’s Catholic Church, don’t you imagine that news articles would make mention of the “Catholic” connection?

True enough, Baptists may be a bit harder to get a handle on than Catholics because there are so many different kinds of Baptists, including independent Baptists. And Baptists argue even among themselves about which Baptists are the right Baptists.

But here’s the reality, almost anyone can call himself a “Baptist” preacher and build a “Baptist” church. And almost no one in Baptistland will say diddly-squat about it . . . until there’s a scandal. It’s only after there’s a scandal that other Baptists will say things like, “Oh, he’s not really part of us – he’s not a real Baptist.”

That loosey-goosey reality, in and of itself, is part of the problem in Baptistland.

Rather than dodging the “Baptist” part of the church’s identity, the media ought to be asking why it is so easy for a preacher to make use of the “Baptist” name. And when people see other Baptists trying to suddenly disclaim a scandal-plagued “Baptist” preacher as being “not a typical Baptist,” they should realize the weakness of the “Baptist” brand. It’s a name that can be attached to almost any preacher and any church.

And when something goes wrong, there is no one who will take responsibility or exercise oversight. As Baptist historian Timothy Weber once said, when things go wrong in Baptistland, “there is no there, out there.”

In 2002, renowned religion writer Terry Mattingly wrote one of the most concise explanations of Baptistland’s “no accountability” problem that I have ever seen. The headline for his column was “Where does the Baptist buck stop?” And the answer he gave was essentially this: Nowhere.

In Baptistland, the buck stops nowhere. And when the buck stops nowhere, no one takes responsibility and actually does anything.

Be sure to observe that, when Terry Mattingly talks about “why it will be hard for freewheeling and autonomous Protestant congregations to attack clergy sex abuse,” he uses Southern Baptist churches as the prime example. Why? Because when it comes to the lack of accountability and oversight, the denominationally-affiliated Southern Baptist churches are just as freewheeling and unaccountable as independent Baptist churches such as those of Eddie Long.

Kudos again to BaptistPlanet for plainly stating the “Baptist” connection in the Eddie Long story. It is only when people begin to see the patterns in these “Baptist” stories – patterns that Terry Mattingly wrote about in 2002 – that the problem may finally be responsibly addressed.

BaptistPlanet is written by “two prize-winning, veteran, mainstream daily newspaper and online journalists” who are both Southerners. These guys know the Baptist terrain, and they know what they’re talking about. They rightly identified Eddie Long as “Baptist."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Twenty years behind

In The Huffington Post this week, writer Valerie Tarico offered some concise reasons for why so many Americans “largely overlook the horrific pattern of Protestant pedophilia and sexual exploitation.” These are some of the factors she names:

• "The Catholic Church is easier to think of as a monolithic entity. That means it is easier for the press to cohere the abuse incidents into a single story and our brains to grok it. The idea of one big conspiracy appeals to us: "The Church" did it and then covered it up."

• "The centralized hierarchy of Catholicism makes Catholic offenders easier to sue and guarantees deep pockets. The lawsuits in turn both generate their own news cycle and bring victims out of the closet."

• "Since most Americans are Protestants, the Catholic sex abuse scandal is a story about "them." Protestant Pedophilia is a story about "us," which makes it less gratifying and more uncomfortable."

Southern Baptists are by far the largest of the Protestant faith groups, with about twice as many members as the next largest Protestant group – the Methodists. And if you count all the many Baptist groups together, Baptists are about four times as big as any other Protestant group. So, when you talk about Protestant clergy sex abuse, Baptists are a very big part of what you’re talking about.

With that in mind, I would add this to the factors listed by Tarico:

• The Catholic Church keeps records on accused priests. Record-keeping is essentially part of their religion, and their own records have played a big part in revealing the scandal. Meanwhile, the largest Protestant denomination doesn’t bother with record-keeping on its clergy. This makes it more difficult to track Baptist clergy predators and to connect the dots on who knew what. For Baptists, it’s no records, no trace, no trouble. (Maybe that's the real reason for why they refuse to keep records?)

Tarico ends by pointing out that, 22 years ago, when Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Betrayal of Trust, “the pattern in Catholic congregations was to huddle the wagons around accused clergy.” Today, she says, “after years of repeated exposure, Catholics are less likely to rally to the side of pedophiles, turning potentially devastating ire and scorn on the victims.” For Gaylor, the past week’s stories of pastor Eddie Long taking the pulpit amidst standing ovations is déjà vu. "Some Protestants are where Catholics were 20 years ago," she says. "We have a long ways to go."

Gaylor’s words parallel what I myself said in speaking to a SNAP convention last year. I was asked, “Where are Baptists in how they deal with clergy sex abuse?”

My answer: “Baptists are about a decade behind the Catholics, maybe more.”

Nowadays, I think I’d go with the “maybe more” part. Twenty years behind is probably a more realistic assessment.

Addendum: In a comment, Valerie Tarico notes that "a good resource focused on the Southern Baptist Convention is It links investigative journalism and also looks at the insitutional hierarchy as well as individual incidents." Thanks, Valerie!