Monday, February 21, 2011

Throw It Away

There are times when so much religiously-fueled vitriol comes my way that I can hardly bear it. When those waves of hate arrive, music is often the best remedy. Thanks to the late great Abbey Lincoln for this breathtakingly beautiful song.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More of what's deplorable in Georgia

Yesterday, a man who identified himself on Blogger as “Nathan Palmer” tried to post a comment to my December column about a former Arnoldsville Baptist Church minister who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl.

Palmer “signed” his comment as “The Pastor of Arnoldsville Baptist Church.”

Pastor Palmer ranted about my prior blog post and also ranted about the Athens Banner-Herald, which reported on both the 2006 case and the 2010 case against Norman Pugh, the former Arnoldsville Baptist minister.

Yeah – that’s right. This involved a former Southern Baptist youth minister who got criminally prosecuted on child molestation charges twice.

As reported by the Athens Banner-Herald, in 2006, church members “rallied around” Pugh; the pastor’s wife posted his bond; and ultimately, a jury failed to find Pugh guilty under the strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of the criminal law.

Several years later, Pugh was again arrested, and this time “on charges of aggravated child molestation, sexual exploitation of a child, electronically furnishing obscene material to a minor and making obscene telephone calls to a child involving a different victim.”

This time, Pugh didn’t get off. He’s now serving a 13 year prison sentence. Thank God.

But get this – Pastor Palmer still doesn’t believe it. He’s still proclaiming Norman Pugh’s innocence.

Even worse, he tries to publicly shame the kids.

In his comment, Pastor Palmer smears the 14-year-old who reported Pugh back in 2006. Then he identifies the 13-year-old victim whose case sent Pugh to prison.

Let me repeat that so it’s clear. In a comment that “The Pastor of Arnoldsville Baptist Church” tried to post on this public blog, he identified a 13-year-old child molestation victim.

It is utterly unconscionable. It is deplorable. It is beyond ignorance. It is mean and hateful. Words fail me.

No way, no how, will I allow such a comment to go up on this blog. I’m offended that Pastor Palmer would even imagine that he could use my blog to publicly post such ugliness.

But Pastor Palmer has surely answered the question I posed in my prior posting when I pondered whether Arnoldsville Baptist Church would now seek out that 14-year-old kid who reported their youth minister in 2006 and offer to pay for her counseling. Given that Pastor Palmer is now trying to smear the kid, it seems self-evident that he’s not likely to shepherd his church to do the right thing and pay for the kid’s counseling.

Are you sickened by this story? I hope so. But here’s the clincher.

“The Pastor of Arnoldsville Baptist Church” ends his ugly comment with this statement: “I agree that any clergy, pastor, priest or any person in authority should be held accountable for all actions. Especially hurting a child. It is deplorable. . . . but just because you read it somewhere doesn’t mean you have the whole story.”

Hold up a mirror, Pastor, because you yourself did something pretty deplorable. Your comment would have publicly identified a 13-year-old molestation victim and smeared a 14-year-old. If you’re even remotely capable of seeing the ugliness in your actions, then you should hold yourself accountable.

Furthermore, what good does it do for a Baptist pastor to “agree” in the abstract that clergy should be held accountable for hurting children if he can’t bring himself to see such hurtfulness in the real world, even when it’s staring him in the face?

Self-righteous platitudes will not protect kids. “The Pastor of Arnoldsville Baptist Church” has demonstrated why Baptistland is such a perfect paradise for predators: There are too many people who want to talk about how much they deplore clergy predators but too few who will actually open their eyes to reality.

Despite multiple allegations, multiple charges, a grand jury indictment, a guilty plea, and a 13-year prison sentence, “The Pastor of Arnoldsville Baptist Church” is still conjuring excuses for refusing to believe what is now beyond doubt: The church’s former youth minister was a child molester.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Straight to Hell"

From Childersburg, Alabama comes this lovely missive today:

“You are going straight to Hell. No doubt about it.

YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF. I hope that when you die, people smear your name in the mud and force your friends and family to sit there and listen to it.”

Then Mr. Childersburg himself proceeded to smear the men who have alleged that a now-deceased Alabama Baptist pastor molested them in childhood. Ugly stuff.

Of course, it’s people like this who prove my point. This is why Baptist churches need the resource of an outside independent review board to assess clergy sex-abuse allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted (which is most).

No one who is trying to talk about the trauma of having been sexually abused by a Baptist minister should have to worry about encountering vitriolic fools like this. And there are far too many of them in Baptistland.

Clergy sex abuse survivors need a safe place to which they can report Baptist ministers with at least a reasonable expectation of being objectively heard. That does not exist in Baptistland.

It doesn’t exist for reports about ministers who are still standing in their pulpits, and it doesn’t exist for reports about ministers who are deceased either.

Baptists don’t want to know the truth of such ugly deeds as clergy child molestations. They don’t even want to attempt to know the truth.

That’s the problem. Denominationally, they don’t even try.

And as for this guy in Childersburg, Alabama who tells me I’m going “straight to Hell”? Well, what else is new?

Join the crowd, Mr. Childersburg, because you’re far from the first “good Christian” to tell me I’m going “straight to Hell.”

In fact, I’ve heard so much of your pseudo-religious style of hate-talk that it’s become flat-out boring and banal.

So here’s how I feel about it. If “heaven” is filled with bully Baptists like Mr. Childersburg, then I don’t want to go there.

In fact, Baptists like Mr. Childersburg make me think that maybe someone should put up a warning sign on heaven’s door: “Enter at your own risk – big bad Baptists are here.”

Of course, despite all the vitriol that arrives in my inbox, I know that not all Baptists are like Mr. Childersburg. Nevertheless, even the non-bully Baptists aren’t doing much of anything to systematically address clergy sex abuse.

That’s where the real shame lies.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Louis" tells why Baptists need review boards

Mike Hogan
Mike Hogan, a mayoral candidate in Jacksonville, Florida, testified as a character witness for a Southern Baptist pastor who was convicted in 2007 of possessing child pornography. To this day, Hogan still doesn’t believe the man was guilty; he said so just last Tuesday in the Florida Times-Union.

The convicted man, Richard Steven Sweat, was a youth pastor at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Jacksonville, and Mike Hogan was active at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville. Both churches are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Hogan didn’t attend the 5-day trial and didn’t hear any of the evidence. Nevertheless, after Sweat was convicted, Hogan testified at the sentencing hearing and swore to the judge that he didn’t have “any reservation whatsoever” about Sweat’s innocence.

So given that Hogan hadn’t heard any of the evidence, why was he so certain of Sweat’s innocence? According to Hogan’s testimony, it was because he had known Sweat for 15 years, because Hogan’s son said Sweat was a person “of great character,” and because Sweat “was unashamed of his love for and his commitment to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Did I mention that Hogan didn’t attend even a single day of the 5-day trial? Twelve jurors actually did sit and hear all the evidence and they concluded that Sweat was guilty. The FBI reached the same conclusion based on a year-long investigation. But apparently Hogan didn’t think the evidence mattered. Hogan was more than willing to proclaim Sweat’s innocence based on his own gut belief that he “knew” the man.

So far, there’s not much of anything in this story that’s unusual, is there? We’ve seen dozens of these kinds of cases in which people insist that they just “know” a minister is innocent.

But here’s what grabbed my attention. When “Watchdog” blogged about this case, a frequent Baptist blog commenter named “Louis” posted this remark:

“This is a very common human trait. If we love something (an idea) or someone so much, we will ignore things or minimize things that show that idea or person in a bad light.

"Mr. Hogan's testimony is so illogical, there is no explaining it except to say that when the evidence contradicts a human's love for someone, that person will ignore the evidence or try to explain it away. . . . History is full of people who do this.”

“Louis” is exactly right: “This is a very common human trait.” But here’s why it’s so puzzling to see such words coming from “Louis.”

“Louis” is the same guy who has repeatedly denounced the notion of providing Southern Baptist churches with the denominational resource of a trained review board to more objectively assess clergy abuse reports that cannot be criminally prosecuted (which is most of them). He is an attorney; he is reportedly on an SBC board; and his blog comments often give the appearance that he is a Southern Baptist official. I’m only about 90 percent certain of who “Louis” actually is, and so I won’t state his presumed identity, but suffice it to say that I think “Louis” is someone who has likely done as much or more than almost any other individual to dissuade Southern Baptist officials from implementing denominational review boards to assess complaints about Baptist clergy sex abuse and to provide Baptist congregations with more reliable information about credibly-accused clergy.

So what in the world is “Louis” thinking? He knows and understands full well about this “common human trait” – i.e., that, as human beings, we tend to overlook, deny and minimize ugly information about awful conduct when the conduct involves someone we love and trust. Yet, “Louis" still proclaims that congregants in local Southern Baptist churches can responsibly assess clergy abuse reports, even when those reports involve their own loved and trusted ministers. Congregants can’t, and the reason they can’t is precisely because of the very “common human trait” that “Louis” himself acknowledges.

This is why other professional groups and other religious groups have accountability systems that seek to procedurally compensate for the reality of this “common human trait.” They have accountability systems that allow for ethical review processes to be conducted by those outside the accused’s immediate circle of influence and trust.

But Southern Baptists don’t bother. Baptist honchos like “Louis” know about this “common human trait” but they still sit back and do nothing to effectively deal with it. This institutional failure is part of what makes Baptistland such a perfect paradise for predators.

Rather than using the words of Jesus as a reason for protecting “the least of these,” Southern Baptists have used their “religion” of autonomy as an excuse to avoid accountability for the powerful. They have done so with the help and advice of men like “Louis.”

Related post:Baptists must face fears and prioritize risks, 8/24/10

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I remember

Trish lived down the hall from me when I was 19 years old and in the dorm at the University of North Texas. She was a dear friend, but though we kept in touch for several years after college, we eventually lost track of one another. I hadn’t heard from Trish for about 30 years when, out of the blue, I got this email the other day:


Since I met you, I have admired you for your courage, intellect, risk-taking and compassion. What you have done in the past few years to openly confront the sexual abuse that you and others have suffered is so powerful! I am so proud of what you have done for yourself and many other victims of clergy abuse.

I will always remember the bravado in your voice (probably due to our over-consumption of homemade Kahlua) and the pain on your face the night we sat on the floor of your Bruce Hall dorm room and you first told me about what you then referred to as ‘your affair.’ I know I was a na├»ve little twit and my jaw fell open, but I was still so shocked and sickened that you blamed yourself and not the married minister and that there was no one who could/would counsel or support you. I ached for you as you described how you felt you were unworthy of love and respect and were so distressed that you had lost your connection to God. Despite all of your academic achievements and global travels, you buried your victimization so deep, but I always felt this abuse was the reason for your despondent and sometimes suicidal phone calls. For years I was haunted by the loneliness that was revealed in those phone calls and prayed that you would never give up hope. That you have taken the damage that has been done to you to help others heal is so inspiring.”

I sat and wept after reading Trish’s email.

I remember that girl – the girl Trish is talking about – the girl who, for years, couldn’t find any meaning for much of anything.

I remember that girl -- the girl whose whole sense of self disintegrated after she was molested, sexually abused and raped by a Southern Baptist minister when she was a 16-year-old church kid. I’m grateful that Trish remembers her, too.

In truth, I have no memory of sitting on the floor in Bruce Hall and telling Trish about “my affair.” But I expect Trish’s memory is more accurate than mine. I was probably totally sloshed.

What I do remember is that, several years after college, Trish had the misfortune of calling me on the phone one night when I had the pills on the counter and was already half-drunk and was trying to get up my gumption to down them. Trish figured out what was going on and she stayed on the phone with me for hours. No telling how things would have turned out if she hadn’t.

I remember only that one suicidal phone call, but again, I don’t doubt that Trish’s memory may be better on this than mine. There were probably other calls.

And then there was the night I finally went through with it . . . and woke up in my own vomit.

I remember that young woman – a young woman whose life should have been full of promise but instead seemed so void of meaning that she saw no reason to continue it.

I remember that young woman – a young woman whose emotions were so deadened that the only thing she felt was disgust at the smell of vomit and anger at her own ineptness.

That’s what clergy sex abuse does to many of its victims.

For people who are raised with faith, faith and meaning become intertwined. The two are often so fused that, when faith gets twisted into a weapon, meaning itself is destroyed.

I was lucky to have a friend like Trish. Many other abuse survivors are not so fortunate.

My youth minister abused me. My music minister silenced me. My childhood church abandoned me. My faith betrayed me.

But my friend Trish was true.

I am profoundly grateful.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Voice of an FBC-Benton Survivor

With former Southern Baptist minister David Pierce now up for parole, and with the parole board hearing closed to the press, I thought it was important to put in print the voice of one of the boys of Benton. Posted with the permission of a courageous survivor, here are his own words.

It’s a bittersweet thing, being able to remember in all the gory detail the exact moment your life went from normal, middle class suburban WASP to something far from normal. Everything. The car (or in this case, the truck), the spot in town we were driving, the questions being asked (including that one fateful question that would begin a downward spiral that would change my life forever). Everything was so benign up to that point that the shock I experienced from hearing that question uttered aloud, at hearing what would be the first of hundreds of prying questions (and looks, and measurements and suggestions), made me completely unable to respond with anything but the truth.

Of all the many moments in my life since then that I wish I could change, this is the one I keep coming back to. The only words I’ve never been able to get out of my head, but always wanted so desperately to forget. I still hear him flippantly ask (as if wanting to know my favorite football team or my opinion on the designated hitter) “you masturbate much?” I was a 13 year-old boy. What did he think the answer to that question was? Still, looking back, he didn’t care about the answer. It wasn’t the specific words that were important. For the first and only time in my life, I passed a test I shouldn’t have.

I was such a typical kid. Especially in the Bible Belt. I grew up in church, taught from an early age to regard ministers with the utmost respect, adoration, and awe. I wasn’t a loner, nor was I one of the “cool kids.” I was smart, musically gifted, and spiritually devout. I was one of those kids that adults loved. Overall, I was a happy kid and have generally fond memories of growing up. At age eight, I started piano lessons, and in doing so found one of the only things I’d ever truly excel at. And, of course, one of the many things he would eventually steal from me.

Growing up at the largest church in a small southern suburb, my family was at church every time the doors opened. I participated in children’s choir because it was a gateway to something bigger and better. Youth choir. But not just any youth choir. One of the largest, most talented, and well-disciplined youth choirs in the state. I couldn’t wait. A place where musical ability was fostered, encouraged, and celebrated. A place where I would finally be in my element. And even better, the chance to work with one of the most respected ministers and choir directors in the Southern Baptist Community.

Anyone who didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt will never understand the pedestal even below-average ministers are placed on. The “good” ones? Forget about it. These aren’t just men who made religion a job. These are men anointed by the very right hand of God. Men whose every action, every word is approved and ordained by the big man himself. Questioning these men out loud is complete and utter blasphemy. Thinking it in your head is reason enough to pray for forgiveness.

At the end of the 7th grade there was a “retreat” for new incoming youth choir members. It was great! We hung out with the older kids (most of them officers in the choir), we sang (sometimes as a group, sometimes in a room alone with him). Looking back, it’s so obvious now (as are many other things) that this was the beginning. This was where he picked his special guys. See, men like David Pierce are many things. Sick, twisted, perverse, evil? Yup. Ignorant? No. Remember, the actions of these “men of God” were not to be called into question, especially when they had a viable Biblical explanation for what would, outside of the church, be such suspect behavior. Like Christ, David always had 3 “disciples” he was closer with. Unlike Christ, David’s top 3 “disciples” just happened to always be 13-18 year old boys.

I often think about what it was that made David identify me as an easy target. I don’t have a good answer. Looking back at some of the other victims, there are some common traits and themes. All were devout Christians. Most had some musical ability. Most did not come from single parent households. Many of us, at one point or another at First Baptist, would commit ourselves to enter the ministry. These are the young boys that would worry about impressing someone like David Pierce.

Looking at many of those same young boys as men now, you see the exact opposite trends. Broken marriages, drug and alcohol abuse, atheism, etc. The wake that is left by a predator of this nature is one of destruction, desolation, and despair. It’s no different for me now, ten plus years later, than it’s been for any other victim. Am I an alcoholic? No. But I certainly have my addictions. My marriage is still intact (some days more than others). I am not an atheist, although I would not call myself a Christian (or a man of faith) either. I am, however, a completely different person than I was during my adolescence. A completely different person than anyone, including myself, thought I would be.

In high school, by all outward appearances, I was that guy. Never cussed, never ever drank. Kind, caring, joyful. Obviously, the time I spent with David had quite a bit to do with the way others perceived me. Anyone that spends that much time in “discipleship” with such a great man of God must truly have a great relationship with Christ, right? I surrendered myself to the ministry the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Initially I wanted to go into music ministry, just like my mentor. Slowly, the more I was able to detach myself from David, the more that changed, until now I am not even a church go-er, let alone a minister. But that’s touching on the end of my story. The beginning is back at that 7th grade youth retreat. David’s personal meat market.

I firmly believe David began grooming me and 2 other boys that very night. Stroking our musical egos, telling us what potential we had to be something special. That part, at least, was completely true. The three of us had the musical potential to be something special. Like so many other things, however, that was snatched from us by a monster.

The individual attention started that week. Time spent at the church during the day, lunches, long truck rides. After David felt his grooming was adequate, the “test”. From that point forward, everything changed. The questions. The places we went. Looking back, it should’ve been so obvious what David’s motivations were. But if I’d been able to recognize that then, David would’ve never chosen me.

One of David’s most frequently used tools was our accountability time. Under the veil of (yet again) a healthy, growing relationship with Christ, we had at least weekly accountability time with David. This was mostly comprised of the 4 s’es. Each one was a specific part of our lives, the whole encompassing our entire walk with God. It was the same every time. “How are you doing spiritually?” Get that one over with first. Who wants to talk about Jesus when you can talk about sex with a 14 year old? “How are you doing scholastically?” Right, because David obviously, genuinely cared about my grades. “How are you doing socially?” Or, are you getting too close to anyone that might figure out our dirty little secret? And finally, the best for last. “How are you doing sexually?” Always last because it took the longest and was the most detailed. Of course, at the beginning the focus was on thoughts (impure thoughts, lust, etc). Because these things are evil and should never ever enter our mind. Well, at first. But then, David’s special three learned that there are exceptions. Porn in the music minister’s office? That’s ok.

It was around this time that each individual child involved learned that 2 of their closest friends also had the good fortune to be one of the chosen few. David had no issues with disclosing information from one boy to another. Comparisons in measurements (David always had us ranked mentally in terms of penis size), how far someone had ventured sexually with a girlfriend, a special masturbation technique used by another. There have been very few things to come out over the last several years that have come as a surprise to me. That was part of the way David kept us from thinking what we were doing was wrong. If it was wrong, surely he wouldn’t have told us about what he did with other guys.

Eventually, like so many other things, sharing information turned into something else. There would be fishing trips where two of us or sometimes all three of us would go. We always went to Goober Heaven. It was a place of shallow shoals, half submerged logs, and large boulders in the Saline River. David often espoused the sexual benefits of Goober Heaven. Generally he brought along his special little kit on fishing trips. It had a seamstress tape and a bottle of lubrication of some sort. It didn’t matter if it was just me and him, or all three of us and him, measurements were taken and we masturbated.

Related posts:
"Benton, Arkansas: Minister's parole hearing is closed to press," 2/1/11
"Truth and reconciliation needed," 1/22/11
"Remember the boys of Benton," 9/13/09

Update: "Pierce parole delayed, for now," Benton Courier, 2/2/11

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Benton, Arkansas: Minister's parole hearing is closed to press

From the get-go, there was a lot that seemed not-quite-right about the case of Southern Baptist minister David Pierce at the prominent First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas. All sorts of things seemed wrong with the picture.

Now there’s even more that seems wrong.

Less than two years into a 10-year sentence for sexual indecency with children, Pierce is up for parole. And get this: The press was denied access to the parole hearing. Why? As reported by the Benton Courier, it was what Pierce and his attorney wanted.

I guess if you’re a prominent former Southern Baptist minister, you can still get special treatment even after you’ve been convicted on multiple child sex charges and even after it has come to light that you sexually abused church-boys for a couple of decades.

In fact, if you’re a prominent former Southern Baptist minister who sexually abuses church-kids, you can get the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and “powerful citizens” to write letters to the judge, urging leniency for you in sentencing.

And if you’re a prominent former Southern Baptist minister who sexually abuses church-kids, you can apparently get your parole hearing closed to the press . . . even if it’s illegal.

Tom Larimer, director of the Arkansas Press Association, said the Parole Board violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act in closing David Pierce’s parole hearing.

“We have researched state law to find an exemption and contacted attorney John Tull of Little Rock, who is the foremost authority on the Freedom of Information Act in Arkansas,” Larimer said.

“There is no exemption in the Act for this kind of thing . . . John Tull cannot find any authority nor precedent for ever doing this before, and it’s his opinion that this was done in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.”

But hey . . . I guess if you’re a prominent former Southern Baptist minister, the law doesn’t apply. You can get what you want . . . even if it’s illegal, and even if you have a two-decade history of sexually abusing kids.

Related post: "Truth and reconciliation needed," 1/22/11