Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why education isn't enough

Baptist leaders often say that, in order to prevent sexual abuse in churches, congregants should be educated to recognize the signs of potential abuse. But what do you do when you see the signs, and no one else wants to see them?

What do you do when what you see involves the minister, and everyone else just wants to ignore it?

That’s what happened to Nancy at her Southern Baptist church in Georgia. Her story is a good illustration of why educational efforts will never be enough. There must also be effective accountability systems that include a process by which clergy conduct can be reviewed by those outside the minister’s circle of influence.

Nancy is plenty educated. She’s a college psychology professor. In the past, she has worked as a counselor for sexual abuse survivors, and she herself is an abuse survivor. She’s also a mom. So when Nancy saw signs of potential abuse, she knew something needed to be done.

I have changed some of the details of Nancy’s story in order to protect the young girl’s sense of privacy. However, in reality, there is nothing unusual about this story. The elements are far too familiar. We’ve seen similar stories in countless other Baptist churches across the country – churches in which ministers with troubling allegations were simply allowed to move on.

For Nancy, it started about a year ago when she noticed on Facebook that one of their ministers, Steve, was being very flirtatious with a 15-year-old girl. He was also overly friendly with her at church.

Minister Steve is married and has kids of his own. He usually preached the sermon on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays. He also served as a Sunday School teacher.

As things progressed, minister Steve started posting more and more Facebook comments about the girl. He posted pictures of himself and the girl together on a church trip, and the pictures had inappropriate captions. Then he posted a comment about how she had given him a great massage.

Nancy recognized these things as “red flags.” She also knew that minister Steve had been accused of sexual harassment at a company he worked for previously. The accusations were corroborated by another employee who had witnessed some of Steve’s conduct; the company began an investigation; but Steve simply resigned in the middle of it.

Nancy went to talk to the girl’s mom. She’s a mom who is on her own with three kids, one of whom has special needs. Her only source of income is her part-time secretarial job at the church.

The mom immediately told Nancy that she had the same concerns, but was afraid to even think about it. The mom then told Nancy about still more of minister Steve’s disturbing conduct. He had been texting and calling the girl, having unsupervised workout sessions with her, giving her skin-tight workout clothes, asking for massages, and “accidentally” touching her during workouts. He had also given the girl a car.

After talking with Nancy, the mom sent minister Steve a short note asking that he not have further contact with her daughter. She said she felt uncomfortable. The note was honest and direct, but all it asked was for Steve to leave the girl alone.

Minister Steve responded by rallying his forces. He told people at the church that the girl’s mom was spreading lies about him. A deacon cornered the girl’s mom and told her that, if she were a better mother and had spent more time with her daughter, this wouldn’t have happened. (If this is the sort of thing a deacon says to the mom, I wonder what he may have said to the girl?)

After that, as Nancy describes it, “all hell broke loose.” Minister Steve started raging and retaliating in emails, on Facebook, in phone calls, and at the church. He figured out that Nancy had supported the mom, and so he also targeted Nancy and her husband. He cursed and yelled and threatened to sue people.

Ultimately, the deacons held a meeting, but they decided not to do anything.

So, for a while, minister Steve kept right on at that church, smiling and shaking hands as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, Nancy and her husband became outcasts. Some church members won’t even look at them or speak to them. People say they are “gossips” and “trying to bring the church down.” All of this has affected Nancy’s own kids. This was, after all, their longtime church home.

The senior pastor and deacons have made it clear that the matter is not to be discussed. No one has tried to reach out to the girl. She seems “scared and ashamed,” says Nancy, who is understandably concerned that the girl has not told everything that happened.

But the mom has now gone back to her quiet ways. As Nancy says, she has learned that, if she doesn’t want to jeopardize her job, “she should simply keep her mouth shut.” So the mom isn’t interested in talking to the police or to an attorney.

Nancy says she knows there were originally other church members who had concerns, but in the face of such abysmal leadership, no one else was willing to stand up. So they just went back to their “singing, preaching, programs and donuts.”

It now appears that minister Steve has left the church. He just stopped showing up. So this one girl is now safe. But Nancy knows the pattern. Minister Steve will probably move on to some other church and other kids will be at risk.

That’s how it works in Baptistland. A single church can make a man a minister based on the lowest of possible standards, or based on virtually no standards. But once he’s a minister, he can easily migrate to other churches.

Nancy is deeply troubled, but she doesn’t know what more she can do. Here are her questions, in her own words.

1. “How do we let the next unsuspecting victims know? The girl’s mother isn’t going to do anything. Our Baptist Association won’t do anything. Our church won’t do anything. I don’t trust the leaders of the next church to do anything. So what can we do?”

2. “Do you stay in a church that refuses to hold people who hurt others, especially children, accountable? Do you stay in a church with poor, weak, and even ungodly leadership that is only concerned with covering things up and making the whole thing go away?”

3. “If you DO choose to leave the church, do you find ANOTHER Baptist church where leadership probably wouldn’t step up to the plate either? I am feeling so disillusioned about churches and their leadership in general. I have begun to feel that many of them are playing church and this isn’t real.”

4. “Everyone we know is happy with the status quo. If it doesn’t affect or concern them (or even if it does), they seem content to sweep it under the rug. We were very active in our church, along with our children, but this has caused us so much hurt, discouragement and disillusionment. I now have so many questions and concerns about things I’ve never questioned in my 41 years of being in Baptist churches.”


Anonymous said...

I always wonder about the spouses of these predators. Do they not have a clue about it all, or wonder why they have to keep leaving churches suddenly? If my husband seemed to love the youth group and kid inappropriately with the girls, I think I'd notice that.

I'd say have your children participate in organizations who do have some kind of system set up to protect them. I'd keep them out of youth ministries at all churches. We must view churches as a business or organization that may or may not deserve our participation.

I don't know. Since nothing seems to work, I'd say opt out of church period, and maybe attend as a family on holidays. Deprive them of your precious children and your money.

I won't comment on figuring out how to alert people re the predator cause that would make this too long. I know that's one of the main issues here. And what really angers me is that they pick on kids who already have stressed families-familes like this one who look to the church to help, not harm.

Christa Brown said...

"I always wonder about the spouses of these predators. Do they not have a clue ...?"

Based on what I've seen, I think the spouses almost always "have a clue" and, often, they have a lot more than that. Sometimes they flat-out know. I think there are all sorts of reasons for why the spouses typically do nothing -- psychological reasons, practical reasons, and reasons related to religious indoctrination on wifely submissiveness -- but none of it makes it right.

Anonymous said...

You know recently at a department store that I work at an employee walked up to another manager who was bent over stocking and touched her from behind in the wrong way. He was instantly fired and is never welcome back to work anywhere for this department store across the U.S. How is it that a non-religious organization knows the right thing to do, but not a religious one? Why such stupidity and blindness?

Anonymous said...

Maybe at the department store, they aren't worried about a cause, they don't feel obligated to not cast the first stone, to be forgiving, to remember we're all sinners-all of which thinking is the background for predators getting away with it all in churches.

Instead of Christians thinking of the above, maybe they need to picture Jesus turning over tables in anger at what leadership allows to take place in God's house.

Christa Brown said...

Yes, Lynn, I couldn't agree more. People SHOULD get angry about this. But instead, as Nancy says, they just go back to their "singing, preaching, programs and donuts."

Wendy said...

I believe church leaders don't get angry, don't stand up, don't get honest, don't do what's right, don't come to the defense of the victim because of their own ungodly selfishness. Pastors and church leaders don't want a "scandal". They don't want word out on the street that one of their ministers has sexually abused a child, so they minimize, justify, or deny the abuse happened at all. They excuse themselves from dealing with it honestly and responsibly and take elaborate measures to cover it up. It has nothing to do with protecting their church members. It's all about protecting the institution of the church - the programs, the membership, the MONEY. Pastors and other leaders don't want to jeopardize their jobs, their paychecks, and their status. At least that seems to be the case with some.

Congregants don't get angry either - at least not enough to do anything about it. They stay silent and follow their church leaders in covering it up.

Getting angry and doing something about it requires sacrifice, and church people apparently refuse to make those types of sacrifices. Oh sure, they'll make all sorts of sacrifices of their time and energy to sing in the choir, teach Sunday School, go to prayer meetings, chaperone youth trips, and organize mission projects. They'll even tithe 10 percent of their income. But let's face it - all these are "feel good" sacrifices. It feels good to sing in the choir, teach Sunday School, and participate in missions.

Dealing honestly with clergy sex abuse doesn't feel good. It's easier to minimize it or pretend it didn't happen. It's easier to defend the predator (directly or indirectly) than to fight for the victim. It's easier to go along with what everyone is doing (usually staying silent) than to REQUIRE their church to hold the predator accountable and help the victim heal. It's easier to keep their place in the church community, rather than being outcast and ostracized.

It really is easier to go back to their singing, preaching, programs, and donuts. The victim has the hard part. The victim pays the price for everyone to go on as if nothing has happened. The wounds from sexual abuse would be enough, but the victim pays for their status quo too.

Christa Brown said...

"The victim pays the price for everyone to go on as if nothing has happened. The wounds from sexual abuse would be enough, but the victim pays for their status quo too."

Such true words, Wendy! The victim not only carries the wounds of the abuse, but also the burden of protecting everyone else from the ugliness of what they don't want to see so that they can all go on in their comfortable little status quo bubble-world of pretending that all is lovely. It's a terrible, terrible burden for a kid to have to carry.

Anonymous said...

Exposing the hypocrisy is a good thing. I don't think group dynamics are going to change. I think that is the problem in families, churches, politics-people instinctively circle the wagons to protect the group. If the victim was an insider, they then become an outsider.

My husband says the only way people will turn against the perp is if they themselves get victimized.

Christa, have there been any churches who have welcomed you as a speaker? Or a women's Bible study group? Getting the sympathy of powerful people within the group might do some good in helping people see the problem. After all, you have a testimony just like anybody else. And testimonies are very important in the Baptist world.

Wendy said...

That begs the question - what does that say about the people of Baptist-land? What does that say about people who force the victim to suffer not only the wounds of clergy sex abuse, but to carry the burden of protecting everyone else from the ugliness of it? These people call themselves CHRISTIANS!!

To believe the predator is the only one responsible is horribly wrong. Church leaders and congregants are complicit by their silence, denial, inaction, and minimization. They're complicit by staying there, giving their money, and playing along. Standing by and watching the church do nothing to hold the predator responsible and help the victim heal is the highest and worst form of betrayal. The bible says that what we do to the least of these (children) we do to God also.

It not only makes me angry - it makes me SICK!!

Debbie Kaufman said...

Wendy: Being Southern Baptist I agree with every word you have written. It's as if Baptists live in a fantasy world and I believe they do blame the victim. This is what the thinking is and it's very hard to change that when that thinking is not just among the people or the pastors, but the leaders of the SBC as well.

Know however that there are those of us who are angry, very angry, and frustrated because although we speak out loudly, it is still being treated as if it does not happen, or it isn't the problem that obvious statistics(and the Ophrah shows recent dealing on this) show it to be.

John Doe said...

Wendy said:

"..It's all about protecting the institution of the church - the programs, the membership, the MONEY.."

I've also said this exact same thing in previous posts on Christa's blog.. MONEY can be the root of all evil.

It is also apparent that religious apathy transcends into the public realm. I've come to the conclusion that people won't stand up for anything unless, of course, they are somehow affected by it...

..Then again, many people still won't stand up and take action.

I learned, long ago, that the primary reason people will not stand up for a noble and righteous cause (e.g. speaking out when it is blatantly KNOWN that wrong-doing has occured), is because most people FEAR losing something important (i.e. job) or they fear being ostracized (loss of relationships).

It takes a STRONG person to ignore what they MIGHT lose (which was GIVEN to them by God, by the way) and to press on to doing the right thing.

Remember, you may FEAR losing something given to you by God and yet, by standing up and fighting for what is right, God can give you so much more than that which you fear losing in the first place.

Those who will ostracize you because you stood up for what is right are not worth your time anyway. If they are willing to respond in such a way, I would question the intent of the relationship you have with them. What is it about the relationship that makes you dependent on maintaining the relationship even in the face of scorn and ridicule?

It is time to be real and not masked version of real. God knows our hearts. He understands our minds. He sees our actions.

You CANNOT HIDE your sin from God just as I cannot hide mine. Maybe then, we should all make every attempt to do what is right by our brothers and sisters..

Maybe God would appreciate that much more than protecting and, in effect, condoning, pedophilic and predatory sin while hiding behind the veil of godliness..

Just sayin'...

Christa Brown said...

"I don't think group dynamics are going to change. I think that is the problem . . . people instinctively circle the wagons to protect the group."

I agree. And that is exactly why Southern Baptists need the resource of an outside review board to responsibly assess clergy abuse reports and to provide congregations with more objective information. It's not rocket science. This is something other major faith groups are already doing (except that others also provide for a system of denominationally "defrocking" clergy -- something no one has even suggested for Baptists).

I find myself pondering what will likely happen with this girl 10 to 20 years down-the-road. That's the more typical scenario. Maybe when she's about 30, she'll be at a psychological point when she starts to understand some of this, and she'll decide she wants to try to report this guy. She'll worry about what he might be doing to other adolescent church girls, and she'll want to try to protect them. Will there be anyone in Baptist life who will even hear her? Given how strongly they circled the wagons when she was still a part of the church, they will surely circle the wagons even more forcefully if she tries to approach them as an outsider. And where else will she turn?

Prosecutors all across the country recognize that most child molestation cases cannot be criminally prosecuted because of the time-gap between when a victim experiences the abuse and when they become capable of psychologically dealing with it. Other major faith groups at least have systems for removing such men from positions of ministerial trust, even if they cannot be criminally prosecuted. Southern Baptists have nothing.

Wendy said...

The terrible irony is that circling the wagons doesn't protect the group. It breeds more predatory sin, dysfunction, callousness, and wounds. It's like selling your soul (and those of the victims) to keep your paycheck or your status or your relationships within the church. Once the victim has managed to separate herself from this dysfunctional system and decides to report her abuser, she is attacked and re-victimized. She has nowhere to turn. As a former SBC member myself, I want to thank each one of you who are speaking out for clergy sex abuse victims. I hope to see the day that Southern Baptists create a review board to assess abuse reports and protect their congregations.

Anonymous said...

"These people call themselves CHRISTIANS!!"

That's why a lot of us walk away from people who call themselves "Christians."

Anonymous said...

"These people call themselves CHRISTIANS!!"

That's why a lot of us walk away from people who call themselves "Christians."

November 8, 2010 2:30 PM

I have actually become MORE suspicious of those who call themselves pastors. I tend to watch what they do instead of what they say. And I automatically think they have something to hang on to: An income and position.

Those two things can be a great snare.

John Doe said...

"Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change." --Robert F. Kennedy