Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Southern Baptist churches get "group" tax exemption?

I’m still pondering some of the things Morris Chapman said when he was trying to avoid a budget-cut for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. That was when Chapman, the Executive Committee's longtime former president, went to town talking about the “enormous responsibilities” of the Executive Committee and about how it was “empowered to function” on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I wrote about some of it in a prior post, but as I said, I’m still pondering it. I know it’s pretty dry stuff, but bear with me.

In that same column, Morris Chapman says this:

“The Executive Committee maintains the I.R.S. group tax exemption on behalf of all cooperating churches.”

“Group” tax exemption?

When it comes to the problem of clergy sex abuse, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee has repeatedly claimed that it is powerless to take action because each and every church is completely autonomous and totally independent.

But if each and every church were completely autonomous and totally independent, wouldn’t you expect that each and every church would file for its own tax exemption?

This seeming contradiction puzzled me so much that I finally went to the I.R.S. website and downloaded its Publication 1828, the “Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations.” (Yes, folks, I’m a certifiable nerd.) According to Publication 1828, the I.R.S. allows that a church may be recognized as tax-exempt “if it is included in a list provided by the parent organization.” And “under the group exemption process, the parent organization becomes the holder of a group ruling . . . .”

“Parent organization.” Those were the words that caught my eye.

There are many circumstances in which a “parent organization” can be held legally responsible for harm done within an apparent subsidiary organization.

There are also circumstances when the “parent organization” is not legally responsible. So the term “parent organization” is not, in and of itself, determinative. But the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention is a “parent organization” for purposes of federal tax law certainly suggests that it has a closer connection to the 45,000 Southern Baptist churches than the “we’re powerless” connection that it claims whenever it gets confronted with the problem of Baptist clergy sex abuse.

In other words, whether or not the Southern Baptist Convention’s “parent organization” status may ever subject it to legal responsibility for the sexual abuse and cover-ups that occur in Southern Baptist churches, its “parent organization” status makes apparent that it has enough of a connection that it should at least carry a measure of moral responsibility.

So, I decided to plow further into Publication 1828. Toward the end, it has a table with the filing requirements for I.R.S. Form 990. That’s the form that most other non-profit organizations have to file so as to show how they’re spending the money they take in.

“Churches” don’t have to file Form 990. This means that “churches” don’t have to disclose how much they’re paying their top executives like other sorts of non-profits do.

Guess what? The national denominational entity of the Southern Baptist Convention claims status as a “church.” This is what multiple journalists have told me, in expressing their frustration at being unable to obtain information about the salaries and compensation packages of the Southern Baptist Convention’s top honchos.

Again . . . this all seems a mystery to me. Why shouldn’t people in the pews – people who put hard-earned dollars in the offering plate -- be able to find out how many of those dollars the high-honchos who run the “parent organization” are paying to themselves?

The Internal Revenue Code does not specifically define the term “church,” but Publication 1828 lists “attributes” of a “church,” including these:

• “organization of ordained ministers”
• “ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study”
• “established places of worship”
• “regular congregations”
• “regular religious services”
• “Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young.”

So how exactly does the national denominational entity of the Southern Baptist Convention display these “attributes” so as to qualify for the benefits of being considered a “church”?

For example, if the national denominational entity of the Southern Baptist Convention is indeed a “church,” then who are its ministers?

And if the ministers of the national denominational entity of the Southern Baptist Convention are the same people as the ministers of the 45,000 local Southern Baptist churches, then those local churches are not really as independent as the SBC claims, are they? In fact, those ministers are the very people who give the national denominational entity of the Southern Baptist Convention its own status as a “church.”

To me, this all seems pretty mind-boggling. The same ministers who give the national denominational entity its status as a “church,” so that it can avoid federal non-profit disclosure laws, are the very same ministers for whom the national denominational entity claims it cannot possibly exercise any oversight.

Does this make sense to any of you? Can any of you explain it to me? I’m really struggling with it. To me, it looks like the national denominational entity of the Southern Baptist Convention gets to have its cake and eat it too.

Now here’s why I think this tedious tax-related stuff may be important.

These kinds of “have your cake and eat it too” inconsistencies are what may someday bring accountability to the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s what I believe.

Perhaps accountability will come in the form of legal responsibility. Or perhaps it will come in the form of moral responsibility, with a collective groan of disgust from church-goers who will finally refuse any further financial support for such an unaccountable organization.

Either way, someday, these kinds of “have your cake and eat it too” inconsistencies will break down the pretext of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “we’re powerless” charade. It’s a charade that leaves countless kids and congregants at risk, and so, that day cannot possibly come soon enough.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Truth and reconciliation needed

In Benton, Arkansas, the former music minister of First Baptist Church is up for parole less than two years into a ten-year term on sexual indecency charges.

In 2009, former Southern Baptist minister David Pierce received a 10-year plea-bargained sentence “after he admitted to abusing 11 boys for his own sexual gratification.” Pierce was originally charged with more than 50 counts of sexual indecency with children, but his conviction was based on four counts that were within the limitations period for prosecution.

Now, with Pierce up for parole, “members of the church say they still can’t talk about what happened for decades behind closed doors.”

But if the church members “still can’t talk about what happened,” can you imagine how difficult it is for those whom Pierce sexually abused? For those boys, the betrayal of what Pierce did was not some mere abstraction. They absorbed the reality of it within their very bodies. A link between faith and abuse was embedded into their brains.

And how many of those boys were there? We still don’t know, do we? Is anyone even trying to find out?

Maybe part of the reason the church members “still can’t talk about what happened” rests in the fact that it “happened for decades.”

During those decades, there were almost certainly others in the church who received information on which they should have acted –- information that, if they had reported it to authorities, could have served to prevent the abuse of so many for so long.

At the time of Pierce’s sentencing, an Arkansas Times news article made apparent that Senior Pastor Rick Grant had information about music minister David Pierce’s conduct for at least six months before Pierce was arrested. Not only did Grant receive information from a boy’s father, but he also received information from a now-grown man who specifically told Grant about the sexual abuse Pierce inflicted on him as a kid. When Grant talked with Pierce about the allegations, Pierce didn’t deny them, and he even provided Grant with a list of boys "whom he’d had inappropriate contact with.” But Pierce explained the problem as a “one-time run of bad decision-making,” and Grant was apparently willing to accept that explanation. Not until still another man talked with Grant did Grant decide that Pierce should be fired from his position at the church. Even then, Grant didn’t tell all that he knew. He cast a minimizing slant on Pierce’s conduct by saying that Pierce was terminated because of “serious moral failures.”

Finally, a boy came forward with a report that was still within the limitations period for criminal prosecution, and Pierce was arrested. Thank God. But long before Pierce’s arrest, there were likely others in the church who had information, but who kept quiet and turned a blind eye.

That blind-eyed response is what the people at First Baptist Church of Benton need to examine. That means looking at themselves, and that’s something far more painful than merely looking at former minister David Pierce.

What about the other pastors and ministerial staff who served with Pierce during his 29-year tenure at First Baptist of Benton? Perhaps they, too, received information that they mentally minimized and dismissed without taking action. Prominent Southern Baptist pastors Greg Kirksey and Randel Everett were among those who served with Pierce.

Perhaps one reason the church members “still can’t talk about what happened” is because they still carry a vague sense that “what happened” has been hushed up and left “behind closed doors.” When so many are abused for so long, there is almost always more to the story than a single perpetrator. There are almost always others who knew things that should have been brought into the open at the time . . . and that should still be brought into the open even now.

Only when the people of First Baptist Church of Benton can face up to their own complicity, and the likely complicity of other church leaders, can they hope to find some measure of peace. They cannot talk about “what happened for decades” unless they are allowed to know “what happened for decades.”

I can’t help but think that what First Baptist Church of Benton needs is something akin to a “truth and reconciliation” commission. With such a commission, prior pastors, church staff and church members could be given the opportunity to make full disclosure of any and all information they might have about Pierce’s abuse of kids. The commission could make a national public outreach effort to try to gather the stories of others who may have been abused by Pierce. One victim said he thought there were probably “dozens – maybe triple digits” whom Pierce likely abused at the church. Many of those boys, who are now grown men, may be far-flung across the continent, but their stories should still be heard. The church owes them that.

Finally, the commission could work toward restorative justice for those who were wounded at First Baptist of Benton. With the provision of counseling costs and a commitment to hearing the survivors’ stories, the commission could take a small step toward affirming the humanity and dignity of those who were abused and abandoned by religious authority.

Reconciliation starts with truth. But in order to hold transformative power, the truth must be made transparent.

If the First Baptist Church of Benton wants to transform the hurt, betrayal and shame of “what happened for decades,” then it must first engage a process of truth-telling and truth-hearing.


Related posts:
Questions need answers in Benton, 8/28/09
Remember the boys of Benton, 9/13/09
Basically brainwashing, 8/29/09
Polanski and Pierce parallels, 10/2/09
A good man who does nothing, 8/4/09
Denial: It ain’t just a river, 9/1/09
What’s wrong with this picture? 6/17/09

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dear Pastor Oliver

In Georgia, a Southern Baptist “youth counselor” and Sunday School teacher has been charged with multiple counts of felony child molestation. The alleged victim is a 14-year-old boy.

James “Ben” Harris, age 33, met the boy in his Sunday School class at Lawrenceville’s Brookwood Baptist Church. That’s Harris in the photo. He’s married and has kids

According to the police report, “the boy’s mother found sexually explicit text messages… on a cell phone Harris had bought the boy for Christmas. Recent contact between the two included a church retreat in Macon last month in which Harris and the alleged victim slept in the same motel bed.”

As reported in the Gwinnett Daily Post, the senior pastor of the church, Dean Oliver, responded to all this with some remarkably unpastoral and mealy-mouthed statements.

“Pastor Dean Oliver of Brookwood Baptist Church said
Harris was not technically on staff at the church ….”

Dear Pastor Oliver,
Your church put this man into a position of trust and gave him access to kids. Whether he was “technically” on staff or not is immaterial. The technicality of a man’s staff position will not do anything to ameliorate harm to a kid who is molested. Nevertheless, when ugly allegations are raised, it seems that Baptists have all sorts of ways to minimize things – such as claiming a minister isn’t really ordained or making him a consulting minister instead of a staff minister. Now you’ve just demonstrated still another way – claiming that the man isn’t “technically” on staff. In the face of such awful news, couldn’t you manage to say something a little less weaselly than that?

Pastor Dean Oliver said Harris was subjected to “a very thorough process of background checks.”
Dear Pastor Oliver,
Background checks are important, but if you had educated yourself on this subject, you would know that the vast majority of active child molesters don't have a criminal record. (Some experts place those who have a criminal record as low as 3 percent; almost all place it at less than 10 percent.) It is pure ignorance for Baptist churches to persist in thinking that they’re doing enough by doing background checks. (And while your church may be exceptional, we have little reason to believe that most Baptist churches even bother with the bare bones minimum of background checks.)

Since this particular form of ignorance has been actively promoted by Southern Baptist officials, I can almost understand why you would say such a thing. But still . . . it’s ignorance. You owe it to the kids and congregants of your church to educate yourself on the realities of child sex abuse. It might also be nice if you could manage to say something pastoral instead of immediately launching into a defense of the church. And how about publicly reaching out to any other kids who may have been hurt?

Pastor Dean Oliver said “the church is reviewing policies and procedures … but leaders are confident no further safeguards could have been in place.”

Dear Pastor Oliver,
Open your eyes! If Harris and this boy were able to share a motel bed at a church retreat, as the police report indicates, then your church dropped the ball on supervision. Further safeguards could indeed have been in place – safeguards that could have precluded an adult Sunday School teacher from sharing a motel bed with a 14-year-old.

This “no further safeguards” statement is the most disturbing of your quoted comments. It indicates that the same thing could likely happen all over again in your church. Even in the face of a dreadful lapse, you are apparently unwilling to learn from it. Blind-eyed pastors such as you are the people who make so many Baptist churches such perfect places for predators.

Update: For more words from Pastor Dean Oliver, be sure to check out his comments on this post: parts one and two.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MLK brings thoughts on moderate Baptists

From a Birmingham jail cell, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to the “moderate” religious leaders of his day. He told of how “gravely disappointed” he was in them.

Of course, King had always known better than to expect support from men such as Bull Connor, but for a time, King apparently held some hope that “moderates” would stand with him and other black Americans in their struggle for justice. However, in his letter from the Birmingham jail, King said that he had almost reached the conclusion that the greatest stumbling block was “not the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” wrote King.

As I have watched so many clergy abuse survivors struggle against the dehumanizing effect of Baptists’ institutionalized injustice, I have often pondered the words of King’s letter. And I too have grown to the conclusion that, in Baptistland, the “moderates” may be the most frustrating of all.

Any fool will know that religious leaders who denounce clergy molestation survivors as “evil-doers” and “opportunists” will not be likely to extend compassion or care. Of course, that’s “any fool” except countless other Baptists who remain content to keep the men who spew such hateful words in high leadership. Nevertheless, for us mere mortals, the heartless cruelty of Baptist men such as that -- and there are many of them -- is at least transparent. So we don’t get our hopes up.

But it has taken me much longer to accept the reality of what King wrote about in his letter -- the reality that, with only rare exceptions, “moderates” are equally unhelpful. They are “more cautious than courageous,” and they remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security” of their status-quo do-nothingness.

In fact, with respect to clergy sex abuse, most “moderate” Baptists maintain the same status-quo do-nothingness as the “conservative” and “fundamentalist” Baptists.

In his letter, King complained of those “moderate” leaders who constantly said: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods….”

I have often heard virtually identical words from “moderate” Baptist leaders. But I, too, have seen that, though “moderates” may say they agree, they will not take steps toward actually implementing change because to do so would upset their status-quo power structures.

And the “moderates” put forward the exact same excuse as those other Baptists who call us ugly names. It’s the “all Baptist churches are autonomous” excuse.

They are more devoted to their “order” of autonomous churches – an “order” that they themselves define – than they are to justice-making, reconciliation, protection of the young, or care for the wounded.

Perhaps worst of all, they proclaim their “order” as religious doctrine, which only serves to twist religion into a tool for the further oppression of those who, at the hands of Baptist ministers, have already suffered more than enough from the perversion of religion as a weapon.

Sometimes I really wonder . . . do you think Baptist leaders actually believe the words they speak?

Do they actually believe that, despite the cooperative connectivity of Baptist churches, Baptist leaders are nevertheless powerless to do anything about clergy who are credibly accused of molesting kids? Or do they simply spout the Baptist party-line of “autonomy” to avoid rocking the boat, to protect their own careers, or simply to preserve the false-peace of the status-quo?

Do they actually believe that the New Testament prescribes the parameters of “local church autonomy” so precisely that it allows Baptist churches to cooperate for funding ministers’ retirements, for international missions, for keeping historical records, and even for investigating churches with gays in their membership . . . but NOT for responsibly assessing reports about clergy who molest kids?

How do intelligent “moderate” religious leaders arrive at actually believing such things?

If they can come up with such a contrived “autonomy” definition as that, why do they not go ahead and come up with a definition that will serve for the protection of kids and for ministry to the wounded? It’s obvious that, in practice, they’re defining it how they themselves choose. So why don’t they choose a definition more functional for the well-being of others?

How do intelligent “moderate” people convince themselves that providing critical information to congregations -- information about ministers credibly accused of sexual abuse -- will somehow take away the autonomy of churches to decide what to do with that information?

How do they not see the self-serving hypocrisy in such a radicalized view of “local church autonomy”?

And how can they possibly imagine that this abstraction of “autonomy” -- an abstraction that they themselves have defined for their own ends -- could possibly be more important than protecting real kids against clergy who molest and rape them?

I’ll never understand it.

Weighed against the reality of predatory clergy who church-hop through the porous network of Baptistland, the excuse-making of “moderate” Baptist leaders sounds hollow indeed.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., moderate Baptist leaders “stand on the sideline” mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

This column is a revised version of my 2010 MLK-day posting.

Friday, January 14, 2011

SBC Execs Have the Power

At the end of 2010, I was looking back at some of the year’s big Baptist stories, and I paused over Morris Chapman’s remarks about the Southern Baptist Convention’s Great Commission Resurgence Task Force.

The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force pushed proposals that they claimed would make Southern Baptists more effective in “winning the world” for Christ and that created a new revenue category called “Great Commission Giving.” The proposals were adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention at-large, and the net effect resulted in a drop in the budget for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

Morris Chapman, the former president of the Executive Committee, opposed the proposals and published his reasons. This is where it gets interesting.

Morris Chapman went on at some length about the “enormous responsibilities” and “enormous importance” of the Executive Committee. He explained that the Executive Committee was “a standing committee empowered to function (when appropriate) on behalf of the SBC.”

Compare these remarks to what was said in 2008 when the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee refused to implement safeguards for the protection of kids against Baptist clergy predators. The Executive Committee claimed it had “no authority to bar known perpetrators from ministry or start an office to field abuse claims.”

So which is it? An Executive Committee with “no authority” or an Executive Committee that is “empowered to function”?

And how can any entity carry “enormous responsibilities” of “enormous importance” if it is not also afforded “authority”?

The obvious answer is that the Executive Committee is indeed “empowered to function” on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention. If it wanted to, it could choose to implement strategies, similar to those in other major faith groups, to bar perpetrators from ministry and to assess abuse claims that cannot be criminally prosecuted (which is most of them). The problem is that the honchos who head-up the largest Protestant denomination in the land have not yet seen the “enormous importance” of protecting kids against clergy predators, and of ministering to those wounded by clergy abuse. So, whenever that topic is raised, the Executive Committee shifts into its self-serving “no authority” posture.

This is the denomination whose officials hold a crafty “now you see it – now you don’t” sort of power. But make no mistake about it – even when they choose to mask their power, the power is still there.

In proclaiming the “enormous responsibilities” of the SBC’s Executive Committee, Morris Chapman provided “some examples of things the Executive Committee undertakes and subsidizes for the benefit and health of the entire Convention.” In particular, he pointed to this responsibility:

“The Executive Committee houses and maintains and all of its family of Web sites, including … Church Search and Job Search. The SBC is the only denomination to receive, completely free (paid for by the Executive Committee, CP-supplied budget) such comprehensive service in these areas. All cooperating churches have a web presence… and the ability to post open positions for qualified job applicants.”

So . . . the Executive Committee has the authority to provide “comprehensive service” for helping Baptist churches find pastors and for helping Baptist pastors find jobs. Indeed, Chapman brags that the SBC is the “only denomination” to provide such “comprehensive service.” Yet, despite its power to provide “comprehensive service” in this area, the one thing the Executive Committee claims it cannot do is to provide churches with a resource for obtaining reliable information about pastors who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

That’s where the Executive Committee chooses to wash its hands of the problem and claim “no authority.”

But make no mistake about it – the Executive Committee is making a choice with its do-nothing response. It’s not that it can’t; it’s that it won’t. It is, after all, “empowered to function” for the benefit of the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole.

Finally, Morris Chapman points out that, in 2010, the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force was given a designated budget of $250,000. Contrast this with the $0 budget that was allocated when 8,000 Southern Baptist “messengers” directed the Executive Committee to conduct a study on addressing clergy sex abuse. No budget at all was allocated when the mere messengers thought something was important, but $250,000 was allocated when the honchos thought something was important.

From the get-go, when it failed to even allocate a budget, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee made apparent that it didn’t think a denominational effort to protect against clergy sex abuse was important. As Chapman himself suggests, “adequate funding” is essential if work is to get done. But make no mistake about it – the Executive Committee made a choice. It wasn’t that the Executive Committee lacked authority to allocate funding for a legitimate study; it was that it didn’t choose to.

The Executive Committee is “empowered to function” for the benefit of the Southern Baptist Convention. If it wanted to implement strategies for better protecting kids and congregants against clergy sex abuse, it could readily choose to do so. The fact that it doesn’t means that it carries not only "enormous responsibilities" but also enormous shame.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bill Zeller's suicide note

Bill Zeller’s suicide note provides painful and tragic testimony to the long-lasting, soul-searing destruction of sexual abuse. He was a “brilliant” 27-year-old doctoral student, but he wasn’t able to escape the “darkness” that haunted him from having been molested and raped as a child. He never spoke about it until the note he posted on Facebook just before he hanged himself. Below, I have reprinted Zeller’s note in its entirety . . . because that’s what he requested.

Based on Zeller’s words, the abuse and the “darkness” of its aftermath seems, in some way, linked to the “fundamentalist Christian” faith of his parents. It’s a faith in which, as Zeller describes it, good people are doomed to Hell while “child molesters go to Heaven, as long as they were ‘saved.’” His parents went to a Bible church, which of course isn’t the same as a Baptist church, but it’s not so very different either.

Zeller’s note should be mandatory reading for the many religious leaders, including many Baptist leaders, and for many in the pews as well,
who have repeatedly dismissed and minimized the pain of those who suffered such abuse, and who have attacked and smeared those who sought to report abuse.

Bill Zeller’s note:

"I have the urge to declare my sanity and justify my actions, but I assume I'll never be able to convince anyone that this was the right decision. Maybe it's true that anyone who does this is insane by definition, but I can at least explain my reasoning. I considered not writing any of this because of how personal it is, but I like tying up loose ends and don't want people to wonder why I did this. Since I've never spoken to anyone about what happened to me, people would likely draw the wrong conclusions.

"My first memories as a child are of being raped, repeatedly. This has affected every aspect of my life. This darkness, which is the only way I can describe it, has followed me like a fog, but at times intensified and overwhelmed me, usually triggered by a distinct situation. In kindergarten I couldn't use the bathroom and would stand petrified whenever I needed to, which started a trend of awkward and unexplained social behavior. The damage that was done to my body still prevents me from using the bathroom normally, but now it's less of a physical impediment than a daily reminder of what was done to me.

"This darkness followed me as I grew up. I remember spending hours playing with legos, having my world consist of me and a box of cold, plastic blocks. Just waiting for everything to end. It's the same thing I do now, but instead of legos it's surfing the web or reading or listening to a baseball game. Most of my life has been spent feeling dead inside, waiting for my body to catch up.

"At times growing up I would feel inconsolable rage, but I never connected this to what happened until puberty. I was able to keep the darkness at bay for a few hours at a time by doing things that required intense concentration, but it would always come back. Programming appealed to me for this reason. I was never particularly fond of computers or mathematically inclined, but the temporary peace it would provide was like a drug. But the darkness always returned and built up something like a tolerance, because programming has become less and less of a refuge.

"The darkness is with me nearly every time I wake up. I feel like a grime is covering me. I feel like I'm trapped in a contimated body that no amount of washing will clean. Whenever I think about what happened I feel manic and itchy and can't concentrate on anything else. It manifests itself in hours of eating or staying up for days at a time or sleeping for sixteen hours straight or week long programming binges or constantly going to the gym. I'm exhausted from feeling like this every hour of every day.

"Three to four nights a week I have nightmares about what happened. It makes me avoid sleep and constantly tired, because sleeping with what feels like hours of nightmares is not restful. I wake up sweaty and furious. I'm reminded every morning of what was done to me and the control it has over my life.

"I've never been able to stop thinking about what happened to me and this hampered my social interactions. I would be angry and lost in thought and then be interrupted by someone saying "Hi" or making small talk, unable to understand why I seemed cold and distant. I walked around, viewing the outside world from a distant portal behind my eyes, unable to perform normal human niceties. I wondered what it would be like to take to other people without what happened constantly on my mind, and I wondered if other people had similar experiences that they were better able to mask.

"Alcohol was also something that let me escape the darkness. It would always find me later, though, and it was always angry that I managed to escape and it made me pay. Many of the irresponsible things I did were the result of the darkness. Obviously I'm responsible for every decision and action, including this one, but there are reasons why things happen the way they do.

"Alcohol and other drugs provided a way to ignore the realities of my situation. It was easy to spend the night drinking and forget that I had no future to look forward to. I never liked what alcohol did to me, but it was better than facing my existence honestly. I haven't touched alcohol or any other drug in over seven months (and no drugs or alcohol will be involved when I do this) and this has forced me to evaluate my life in an honest and clear way. There's no future here. The darkness will always be with me.

"I used to think if I solved some problem or achieved some goal, maybe he would leave. It was comforting to identify tangible issues as the source of my problems instead of something that I'll never be able to change. I thought that if I got into to a good college, or a good grad school, or lost weight, or went to the gym nearly every day for a year, or created programs that millions of people used, or spent a summer or California or New York or published papers that I was proud of, then maybe I would feel some peace and not be constantly haunted and unhappy. But nothing I did made a dent in how depressed I was on a daily basis and nothing was in any way fulfilling. I'm not sure why I ever thought that would change anything.

"I didn't realize how deep a hold he had on me and my life until my first relationship. I stupidly assumed that no matter how the darkness affected me personally, my romantic relationships would somehow be separated and protected. Growing up I viewed my future relationships as a possible escape from this thing that haunts me every day, but I began to realize how entangled it was with every aspect of my life and how it is never going to release me. Instead of being an escape, relationships and romantic contact with other people only intensified everything about him that I couldn't stand. I will never be able to have a relationship in which he is not the focus, affecting every aspect of my romantic interactions.

"Relationships always started out fine and I'd be able to ignore him for a few weeks. But as we got closer emotionally the darkness would return and every night it'd be me, her and the darkness in a black and gruesome threesome. He would surround me and penetrate me and the more we did the more intense it became. It made me hate being touched, because as long as we were separated I could view her like an outsider viewing something good and kind and untainted. Once we touched, the darkness would envelope her too and take her over and the evil inside me would surround her. I always felt like I was infecting anyone I was with.

"Relationships didn't work. No one I dated was the right match, and I thought that maybe if I found the right person it would overwhelm him. Part of me knew that finding the right person wouldn't help, so I became interested in girls who obviously had no interest in me. For a while I thought I was gay. I convinced myself that it wasn't the darkness at all, but rather my orientation, because this would give me control over why things didn't feel "right". The fact that the darkness affected sexual matters most intensely made this idea make some sense and I convinced myself of this for a number of years, starting in college after my first relationship ended. I told people I was gay (at Trinity, not at Princeton), even though I wasn't attracted to men and kept finding myself interested in girls. Because if being gay wasn't the answer, then what was? People thought I was avoiding my orientation, but I was actually avoiding the truth, which is that while I'm straight, I will never be content with anyone. I know now that the darkness will never leave.

"Last spring I met someone who was unlike anyone else I'd ever met. Someone who showed me just how well two people could get along and how much I could care about another human being. Someone I know I could be with and love for the rest of my life, if I weren't so fucked up. Amazingly, she liked me. She liked the shell of the man the darkness had left behind. But it didn't matter because I couldn't be alone with her. It was never just the two of us, it was always the three of us: her, me and the darkness. The closer we got, the more intensely I'd feel the darkness, like some evil mirror of my emotions. All the closeness we had and I loved was complemented by agony that I couldn't stand, from him. I realized that I would never be able to give her, or anyone, all of me or only me. She could never have me without the darkness and evil inside me. I could never have just her, without the darkness being a part of all of our interactions. I will never be able to be at peace or content or in a healthy relationship. I realized the futility of the romantic part of my life. If I had never met her, I would have realized this as soon as I met someone else who I meshed similarly well with. It's likely that things wouldn't have worked out with her and we would have broken up (with our relationship ending, like the majority of relationships do) even if I didn't have this problem, since we only dated for a short time. But I will face exactly the same problems with the darkness with anyone else. Despite my hopes, love and compatability is not enough. Nothing is enough. There's no way I can fix this or even push the darkness down far enough to make a relationship or any type of intimacy feasible.

"So I watched as things fell apart between us. I had put an explicit time limit on our relationship, since I knew it couldn't last because of the darkness and didn't want to hold her back, and this caused a variety of problems. She was put in an unnatural situation that she never should have been a part of. It must have been very hard for her, not knowing what was actually going on with me, but this is not something I've ever been able to talk about with anyone. Losing her was very hard for me as well. Not because of her (I got over our relationship relatively quickly), but because of the realization that I would never have another relationship and because it signified the last true, exclusive personal connection I could ever have. This wasn't apparent to other people, because I could never talk about the real reasons for my sadness. I was very sad in the summer and fall, but it was not because of her, it was because I will never escape the darkness with anyone. She was so loving and kind to me and gave me everything I could have asked for under the circumstances. I'll never forget how much happiness she brought me in those briefs moments when I could ignore the darkness. I had originally planned to kill myself last winter but never got around to it. (Parts of this letter were written over a year ago, other parts days before doing this.) It was wrong of me to involve myself in her life if this were a possibility and I should have just left her alone, even though we only dated for a few months and things ended a long time ago. She's just one more person in a long list of people I've hurt.

"I could spend pages talking about the other relationships I've had that were ruined because of my problems and my confusion related to the darkness. I've hurt so many great people because of who I am and my inability to experience what needs to be experienced. All I can say is that I tried to be honest with people about what I thought was true.

"I've spent my life hurting people. Today will be the last time.

"I've told different people a lot of things, but I've never told anyone about what happened to me, ever, for obvious reasons. It took me a while to realize that no matter how close you are to someone or how much they claim to love you, people simply cannot keep secrets. I learned this a few years ago when I thought I was gay and told people. The more harmful the secret, the juicier the gossip and the more likely you are to be betrayed. People don't care about their word or what they've promised, they just do whatever the fuck they want and justify it later. It feels incredibly lonely to realize you can never share something with someone and have it be between just the two of you. I don't blame anyone in particular, I guess it's just how people are. Even if I felt like this is something I could have shared, I have no interest in being part of a friendship or relationship where the other person views me as the damaged and contaminated person that I am. So even if I were able to trust someone, I probably would not have told them about what happened to me. At this point I simply don't care who knows.

"I feel an evil inside me. An evil that makes me want to end life. I need to stop this. I need to make sure I don't kill someone, which is not something that can be easily undone. I don't know if this is related to what happened to me or something different. I recognize the irony of killing myself to prevent myself from killing someone else, but this decision should indicate what I'm capable of.

"So I've realized I will never escape the darkness or misery associated with it and I have a responsibility to stop myself from physically harming others.

"I'm just a broken, miserable shell of a human being. Being molested has defined me as a person and shaped me as a human being and it has made me the monster I am and there's nothing I can do to escape it. I don't know any other existence. I don't know what life feels like where I'm apart from any of this. I actively despise the person I am. I just feel fundamentally broken, almost non-human. I feel like an animal that woke up one day in a human body, trying to make sense of a foreign world, living among creatures it doesn't understand and can't connect with.

"I have accepted that the darkness will never allow me to be in a relationship. I will never go to sleep with someone in my arms, feeling the comfort of their hands around me. I will never know what uncontimated intimacy is like. I will never have an exclusive bond with someone, someone who can be the recipient of all the love I have to give. I will never have children, and I wanted to be a father so badly. I think I would have made a good dad. And even if I had fought through the darkness and married and had children all while being unable to feel intimacy, I could have never done that if suicide were a possibility. I did try to minimize pain, although I know that this decision will hurt many of you. If this hurts you, I hope that you can at least forget about me quickly.

"There's no point in identifying who molested me, so I'm just going to leave it at that. I doubt the word of a dead guy with no evidence about something that happened over twenty years ago would have much sway.

"You may wonder why I didn't just talk to a professional about this. I've seen a number of doctors since I was a teenager to talk about other issues and I'm positive that another doctor would not have helped. I was never given one piece of actionable advice, ever. More than a few spent a large part of the session reading their notes to remember who I was. And I have no interest in talking about being raped as a child, both because I know it wouldn't help and because I have no confidence it would remain secret. I know the legal and practical limits of doctor/patient confidentiality, growing up in a house where we'd hear stories about the various mental illnesses of famous people, stories that were passed down through generations. All it takes is one doctor who thinks my story is interesting enough to share or a doctor who thinks it's her right or responsibility to contact the authorities and have me identify the molestor (justifying her decision by telling herself that someone else might be in danger). All it takes is a single doctor who violates my trust, just like the "friends" who I told I was gay did, and everything would be made public and I'd be forced to live in a world where people would know how fucked up I am. And yes, I realize this indicates that I have severe trust issues, but they're based on a large number of experiences with people who have shown a profound disrepect for their word and the privacy of others.

"People say suicide is selfish. I think it's selfish to ask people to continue living painful and miserable lives, just so you possibly won't feel sad for a week or two. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it's also a permanent solution to a ~23 year-old problem that grows more intense and overwhelming every day.

"Some people are just dealt bad hands in this life. I know many people have it worse than I do, and maybe I'm just not a strong person, but I really did try to deal with this. I've tried to deal with this every day for the last 23 years and I just can't fucking take it anymore.

"I often wonder what life must be like for other people. People who can feel the love from others and give it back unadulterated, people who can experience sex as an intimate and joyous experience, people who can experience the colors and happenings of this world without constant misery. I wonder who I'd be if things had been different or if I were a stronger person. It sounds pretty great.

"I'm prepared for death. I'm prepared for the pain and I am ready to no longer exist. Thanks to the strictness of New Jersey gun laws this will probably be much more painful than it needs to be, but what can you do. My only fear at this point is messing something up and surviving.

"I'd also like to address my family, if you can call them that. I despise everything they stand for and I truly hate them, in a non-emotional, dispassionate and what I believe is a healthy way. The world will be a better place when they're dead -- one with less hatred and intolerance.
If you're unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.

"They live in a black and white reality they've constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don't understand that good and decent people exist all around us, "saved" or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.

"A random example:
'I am personally convinced that if a Muslim truly believes and obeys the Koran, he will be a terrorist.' - George Zeller, August 24, 2010.

"If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were "saved" at some point), that's your choice, but it's fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him.

"Their church was always more important than the members of their family and they happily sacrificed whatever necessary in order to satisfy their contrived beliefs about who they should be.

"I grew up in a house where love was proxied through a God I could never believe in. A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was literally beaten out of me. A house full of hatred and intolerance, run by two people who were experts at appearing kind and warm when others were around. Parents who tell an eight year old that his grandmother is going to Hell because she's Catholic. Parents who claim not to be racist but then talk about the horrors of miscegenation. I could list hundreds of other examples, but it's tiring.

"Since being kicked out, I've interacted with them in relatively normal ways. I talk to them on the phone like nothing happened. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I like pretending I have a family. Maybe I like having people I can talk to about what's been going on in my life. Whatever the reason, it's not real and it feels like a sham. I should have never allowed this reconnection to happen.

"I wrote the above a while ago, and I do feel like that much of the time. At other times, though, I feel less hateful. I know my parents honestly believe the crap they believe in. I know that my mom, at least, loved me very much and tried her best. One reason I put this off for so long is because I know how much pain it will cause her. She has been sad since she found out I wasn't "saved", since she believes I'm going to Hell, which is not a sadness for which I am responsible. That was never going to change, and presumably she believes the state of my physical body is much less important than the state of my soul. Still, I cannot intellectually justify this decision, knowing how much it will hurt her. Maybe my ability to take my own life, knowing how much pain it will cause, shows that I am a monster who doesn't deserve to live. All I know is that I can't deal with this pain any longer and I'm am truly sorry I couldn't wait until my family and everyone I knew died so this could be done without hurting anyone. For years I've wished that I'd be hit by a bus or die while saving a baby from drowning so my death might be more acceptable, but I was never so lucky.

"To those of you who have shown me love, thank you for putting up with all my shittiness and moodiness and arbitrariness. I was never the person I wanted to be. Maybe without the darkness I would have been a better person, maybe not. I did try to be a good person, but I realize I never got very far.

"I'm sorry for the pain this causes. I really do wish I had another option. I hope this letter explains why I needed to do this. If you can't understand this decision, I hope you can at least forgive me."

Bill Zeller

"Please save this letter and repost it if gets deleted. I don't want people to wonder why I did this. I disseminated it more widely than I might have otherwise because I'm worried that my family might try to restrict access to it. I don't mind if this letter is made public. In fact, I'd prefer it be made public to people being unable to read it and drawing their own conclusions.

"Feel free to republish this letter, but only if it is reproduced in its entirety."

Monday, January 3, 2011

What if it had been her own kid?

That’s Sue and Tommy Gilmore in the photo. This is an update to yesterday’s post.

Take a good look at that woman: Sue Gilmore.

As a young church girl, I was made to apologize to her. And I did.

That’s right. Her husband, minister Tommy Gilmore, sexually abused me, repeatedly and severely, but in the end, I was the one who apologized. I stood there in front of Sue Gilmore in her husband’s office at the church, and I flat-out blubbered. I literally begged her to forgive me for what I had done.

“It was all my fault,” I said. That was what he had instructed me to say. And so I said it.

As a kid, I actually believed it.

But she was a grown adult. She was a mother. What in the world was she thinking?

She stood there stone cold. She glared at me and said only four words: “I’ll pray for you.”

And I just kept blubbering.

That pathetic image of my adolescent self is seared in my brain . . . along with so many other dreadful images. And all of them arrive with a soundtrack of Bible verses and religious chicanery.

That woman – Sue Gilmore – has a son and daughter of her own. If some minister had done to her own daughter what her husband did to me, what would Sue Gilmore have said then? I wonder.

Tommy Gilmore should have been criminally prosecuted. But because so many other so-called good Christians covered for him – other Baptist ministers and even his wife – he wasn’t. She herself was part of the cover-up.

The reason the two of them are spaced far apart in that photo is because I cropped out one of their grand-kids who was seated between them. So that raised another question in my mind. What if some minister sexually abused one of Sue Gilmore’s grand-kids in the way that her husband did me? What would Sue say then?

Thanks to the person who directed me to this more current photo; thanks to the person who provided the info about Gilmore being shown on TV at FBC-Orlando; and thanks to all of you for your thoughts. The psychic pit of rot that is the residue of clergy sex abuse never really totally goes away, does it? But we carry on. We survive. And sometimes we even thrive. Now if I can just claw myself back out of this pit, I know the sunshine will stifle the stench.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

To the people of FBC-Orlando

This man, Tommy Gilmore, is in your church.

His full name is Thomas Edward Gilmore. His wife’s name is Darla Sue Dunagan Gilmore.

From time to time, I hear from people in the Orlando area who tell me about having seen him. Someone once told me they thought he might be teaching Sunday School. And recently, someone spotted him on television during one of Pastor David Uth’s sermons. He said that Gilmore was seated in the TV camera area at First Baptist Church of Orlando and speculated that this might mean Gilmore was becoming more brazen and that he might even try to move into another leadership role somewhere.

This was hard news for me to hear, even though I don’t know what the fact that he was shown on TV might actually mean.

But I know this: Tommy Gilmore is the man who sexually abused me when I was a church kid in Farmers Branch, Texas.

He was a trusted minister. He was married and had a kid. He was well over a decade older than me. He did it with words of God and in the house of God. He twisted Scripture into a weapon against me.

And he has never shown a shred of remorse.

Other ministers knew at the time about what he did to me, and they simply allowed him to move on. So Gilmore went on to build a ministerial career in prominent Southern Baptist churches in Texas, Georgia and Florida; and no one in Baptist leadership stopped him from working with kids.

Tommy Gilmore can be part of a church and apparently feel quite comfortable. Why shouldn’t he? Baptist churches have been sanctuaries for him – a place where he was safe to do whatever he wanted with no consequence. Other Baptist leaders covered for him.

But I’m like a great many clergy sex abuse survivors. The idea of being part of a church is not even thinkable for me. How could I ever feel safe in such a place? I’ve seen the meanness that churches can do – even to kids. I saw it in my own life, both as a child and as an adult, and I’ve seen it in the stories of countless others. When a minister goes wrong, churches can display a mob mentality. It’s pretty ugly.

Clergy predators commit despicable deeds that wreak terrible havoc in the minds and souls of kids, but it is the faith community itself that commits the final savagery, tearing people limb to limb if they dare to speak of what the minister did.

There’s nothing unusual about me. Very few Baptist clergy abuse survivors feel any sense of safety in Baptist churches.

In Baptistland, ministers can molest, rape and sodomize kids, and still find a welcoming church. But for those whom Baptist ministers have abused – if they dare to speak about it – there is only heaped-on hate. Our stories are too awful.

Make no mistake about it – there were plenty in Baptist leadership who were informed about what Gilmore did. Moreover, they knew the allegations were well-substantiated – confirmed by another minister and also by the fact that the Baptist General Convention of Texas had placed Gilmore’s name in its secret file of ministers reported by churches for sexual abuse.

But there was absolutely no one in Baptist leadership who would do diddly-squat to assure the protection of other kids.

Despite all my efforts to get help from Baptist leaders – at last 18 of them in 4 different states and at national headquarters – Gilmore continued working in children’s ministry. At his last position (at least the last position I heard about), he was hired as a contract minister rather than a staff minister. I always wondered if that was part of an attempt to hide him. But though he didn’t appear on any church staff registry, there he was . . . still delivering a sermon (which was even posted online at the time), and still talking about his work in children’s ministry and his counseling work . . . and this was long after I had reported him to Baptist officials.

Despite the knowledge of so many in Baptist leadership, the only thing that finally got Gilmore removed from children’s ministry was my filing of a lawsuit, and the fact that the Orlando Sentinel reported it. The Orlando Sentinel reported that news, and included Gilmore’s name in the article, despite the fact that Gilmore’s attorney had threatened to sue the newspaper if it did so.

I thank God for the Orlando Sentinel. The newspaper did what no Baptist official would do. The newspaper at least gave parents a warning and the chance to decide for themselves about who they would trust their kids with.

Given the history, I have no reason to believe that Gilmore wouldn’t still be able to assume some other leadership role or ministry position in a Baptist church. Who would stop him?

So, if you’re a parent with kids at First Baptist Church of Orlando, be warned. And if Tommy Gilmore assumes a leadership role, please, take your kids elsewhere.

Related news articles:
"Book says SBC lacks system of preventing sexual abuse" (pointing out that the Orlando Sentinel reported Gilmore's name, "ignoring the threat of a lawsuit")
"SBC to consider national clergy sex offender database" (which, as we all now know, they didn't actually consider in any serious manner)
"Austin lawyer pushes Baptist churches to confront sexual abuse"

1/5/2011: Orlando News Center reprint of this posting

Saturday, January 1, 2011

We all shine on

Survivors: Shine on in 2011!