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!


chet said...

(Maybe that's the real reason for why they refuse to keep records?)

Playing the devil's advocate here: having served as a Clerk for one Baptist Association, and have been heavily involved in another, the reason that records are sparse has nothing to do with predators. Rather, its because of laziness, ineptitude, or just a lackadaisical attitude towards writing things down.

When I did some research into the minutes of my current Association, I discovered that we are missing over 26 years of minutes from past meetings. I seriously doubt that they are missing on purpose. Likely they got lost at some point when we were moving from one office to another.

Our decentralized structure has been one of our strengths, but there are some glaring weaknesses and this area is one of the biggest.

chet said...

As a follow up on my earlier comment, the real reason why the SBC doesn't want to keep records on offenders has nothing to do with protecting the offenders, but rather it has to do with protecting the SBC and affiliated entities from lawsuits.

I'd still vote for establishing the list, but thats why it hasn't happened thus far.

Christa Brown said...

"...there are some glaring weaknesses and this area is one of the biggest."

I agree, and this is why there needs to be a denominational office (or multiple regional offices) officially charged with the task of keeping denominational records on credibly accused clergy. If no one is designated with the responsibility, then no one takes responsibility. For the safety of kids and congregants, Baptists must work cooperatively to plug the holes in their porous network so that clergy predators cannot so easily exploit the weakness of the system.

"... it has to do with protecting the SBC and affiliated entities from lawsuits."

I agree. "No records, no trace, no trouble." And by protecting the SBC and affiliated entities from lawsuits, they also protect them from the media glare that accompanies lawsuits. But by not keeping denominational records on credibly-accused clergy, they are essentially choosing to protect the institution against the risk of lawsuits rather than protecting kids against clergy predators. Southern Baptist officials are making that choice, and the reality and immorality of that choice should not be overlooked or forgotten.

Anonymous said...

As a survivor of priest abuse, I beg to differ. Catholics, on the whole, are still very likely to take the side of the perpetrator over the victim, they are very likely to try to cover it up if at all possible, they are very likely to try to intimidate victims and advocates into keeping quiet. As a leader with SNAP, I know this to be true.
What they have learned is how to spin the message more skillfully.

Christa Brown said...

Anon: I know that Catholics still have a long way to go on this. The fact that I make comparisons should not be construed as any sort of statement that the Catholics are universally or consistently doing the right thing nowadays. They aren't. But I see progress as a sort of continuum, and yes, I do think Baptists are far behind on that continuum, not only as compared to Catholics but also as compared to most mainline Protestant groups.

In large measure, it is due to the 20-year history of SNAP's efforts that there are more possibilities for clergy accountability within the Catholic system than there were in years past. SNAP should be proud of that. Their 20 years of work have not been wasted effort.

What Valerie Tarico was pointing to was the image of a 25,000 member Baptist congregation standing and shouting and applauding and raising their arms in praise for a pastor who has been publicly accused of sexually abusing 4 teens.

To Tarico's comments, I would add my own observation of these factors that illustrate different places on the continuum: (see my next comment below)

Christa Brown said...

Catholic lay people organized the Voice of the Faithful as a visible group for the support of clergy abuse survivors. No such group exists among Baptists.

The comments of officials at the highest level of Southern Baptist leadership have been appalling. You state that what Catholic leaders have learned is "how to spin the message more skillfully." Even this is something that Baptist leaders have not yet learned. E.g., The Southern Baptist president publicly castigated clergy abuse survivors who speak out as being "nothing more than opportunistic persons." And then there was the lovely statement of a former Baptist president and current Baptist seminary president that clergy abuse survivors (including SNAP members) were "evil-doers" and "just as reprehensible as sex criminals."

Baptist leaders are still so inured to their own arrogance that they don't even see the need to "spin the message." They are comfortable with flat-out name-calling. I know many Catholic survivors feel that the Pope's apologies have been little more than pretense and spin, but suffice it to say that, in Baptistland, we have seen not even so much as the pretense of any public apology from leadership -- spinned, feigned or otherwise.

Catholic leaders have been keeping records for a very long time. It's part of Catholic canon law. They have tried to keep the records hidden, but ultimately, in large part, it has been their own records that have come back to haunt them... and rightfully so. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists still don't keep any denominational records at all on accused clergy.

Most Catholic dioceses in this country, and most mainline Protestant faith groups, now have various forms of review board processes for assessing clergy abuse reports, and often for disciplining the clergy. The review board processes often don't work as they should, but at least the possibility of a process is there. Meanwhile, for Southern Baptists, there is not even yet the beginning of any possibility for a review board process for assessing clergy abuse reports. And the very concept of "credible accusations" is alien to Baptists.

Almost 800 Catholic priests have been removed from active ministry in this country based upon ecclesiastical processes, and as I recall, only about 3 percent were ever criminally convicted of anything. For Southern Baptists, as a de facto matter, if a minister isn't criminally convicted and sitting in prison, he can probably find a pulpit to stand in. (Or he can start up an independent Baptist church . . . or as one Baptist scholar said: He can move to California [or Florida or Georgia, etc.] and start a church there.) There is no denominational process, regional or national, for removing him from ministry.

Some Catholic dioceses now provide counseling for clergy abuse survivors, and sometimes even independent counseling. In Baptistland, there is no system or expectation for the provision of counseling to clergy abuse survivors.

As I recall, there are now about 18 dioceses that not only engage review board processes but that also publicly post the names of credibly-accused clergy. That possibility doesn't exist in Baptistland.