Saturday, April 30, 2011

Complicity in Baptistland

Twenty-one years ago, the prominent Southern Baptist pastor of a Texas megachurch allowed a music minister to quietly move on despite multiple reports of sexual abuse that were made by several boys in the church.

That music minister – I’ll call him Lee Worthington – is now employed as a minister at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. The senior pastor – I’ll call him Mack Jackson – must surely know that his blind-eyed do-nothingness placed a lot more boys at risk.

The church – I’ll call it Stone Forest Baptist Church – didn’t report the allegations to authorities, and the boys’ parents didn’t press charges. The church leadership never notified the congregants or told other parents so they could talk to their children. It was all swept under the rug.

In the past year, a person who used to be a Stone Forest staff member has been trying desperately to get something done about this. “Being so young at the time,” he told me, “I did not realize the gravity… of the cover-up that took place before my very eyes. I certainly do now.”

He was particularly perturbed a while back when news of a different clergy sex case hit the headlines and senior pastor Mack Jackson bragged that, in several decades’ time, he had never had a single moral problem with any staff person in his church. The hypocrisy of it was too much.

Yet, I find myself wondering whether Mack Jackson may have actually believed what he said. Maybe he believes that it doesn’t constitute a moral problem unless a minister has been criminally convicted. Of course, that’s like saying that, so long as a minister doesn’t get caught, he can do what he wants with impunity. Since less than 10 percent of child molestation cases can be criminally prosecuted, that’s a very dangerous belief, particularly because ministers hold positions of high trust. Of course, the other possibility is that senior pastor Mack Jackson simply lied to himself and to others.

According to the former staff person, minister Worthington admitted to church staff that he had molested the boys. He begged to stay on through the summer, but was told to leave town immediately, or he would be reported. So he left town, and got a job at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi.

This former Stone Forest staff person has talked with at least one governmental official in Mississippi and with a Baptist official in Texas. He has recently communicated with another Stone Forest minister – I’ll call him Jeff Nelson – who was there at the time and who is still there. Nelson indicated that he too knew about the molestation allegations against Worthington. In fact, by email, Nelson made clear that, 21 years ago, church officials had talked with the church’s attorney about the matter, and that in recent months, after this former staff person contacted them, church officials talked with the attorney yet again.

I figure the attorney probably told church officials that they should let sleeping dogs lie. He would likely explain that, even in the rare event that those boys from 21 years ago decided to file a lawsuit, a court would probably conclude that their claims were beyond the statute of limitations. On the other hand, if Stone Forest officials were to now speak out about the abuse reports against their prior minister and about their own failure to properly assess the reports before allowing him to move on, then minister Worthington might decide to sue the church for damaging his career. And, as the attorney may have pointed out, minister Worthington’s claim would be within the statute of limitations. So, the attorney might have advised that the greater risk of liability would be if church officials were to now speak up about the prior abuse allegations against Worthington.

But of course, the attorney is giving legal advice, not moral advice. The two domains are not one and the same. The attorney is focused on protecting the corporate institution of the church against the risk of financial loss. He is not focused on protecting the boys in Mississippi against the risk of grievous sexual, psychological and spiritual harm.

Because Stone Forest officials still weren’t doing anything, this former staff person contacted at least four reporters that I know of. Good reporters. But the story has never seen the light of day. Why? Because newspapers are often extremely reluctant to publish such information without confirmation from some sort of official proceeding or official record. Without that, it puts the newspaper at risk.

With clergy abuse reports in most other major faith groups, there is at least the possibility of an official denominational process or denominational record. But that possibility doesn’t exist for Southern Baptists, and this makes it more difficult to get news about clergy abuse allegations into the light of day.

Though I changed the names, this story is true. In big churches and small, it is a common scenario, and it exemplifies the problem that Southern Baptists must address.

There is no office to which those who were sexually abused by Baptist clergy, and whose claims are too old for prosecution, can safely make a report. Not only are the victims themselves shut out from any possibility of a denominational reporting process, but so too are the countless others in Baptist churches who have information about predatory ministers who have church-hopped to new pulpits.

No one should believe that Southern Baptists will be able to prevent the clergy-predators they don't yet know about so long as they have no system for doing anything about the clergy-predators they're specifically told about.

Southern Baptist leaders stand on the sidelines as church kids are placed in the trust of ministers who have been reported for child molestation. They betray the sanctity of those young lives. By failing to implement the sorts of safeguards that other major faith groups have, Southern Baptists are sacrificing the safety of kids on the altar of local church autonomy. This is the use of religion for the rationalization of evil.

When the world is watching, Mack Jackson is the prominent pastor who brags that he has never had a single moral problem with any staff member. But when the world is not watching, and when he can get away with it, Mack Jackson is the prominent pastor who quietly lets a minister reported for child molestation move on to another church.

How I wish that Mack Jackson would open his heart to the cries of the wounded and consider the horrific harm that he has unleashed toward more young boys. I wish he could see the ocean of pain that submerges those who have been sexually abused by purported men of God.

But of course, this grandiose Mack of a pastor is no-doubt firm in his settled belief in his own self-righteousness. He could walk past a pile of bodies – and he would likely not even glance.

The complicity of men such as this has spread deep and wide in Baptistland. I believe it is a big part of the reason for why Southern Baptist leaders refuse to create a denominational office for receiving clergy abuse reports and informing congregations. They refuse for fear that their own complicity and cover-ups will be exposed.

Update 8/8/11:
Disturbing revelations about Prestonwood's former minister, WFAA-TV
Abuse confession raises questions of cover-up by Baptist mega-church, Associated Baptist Press 
Clinton music minister confesses to sexual indiscretions, Clarion Ledger
Former minister, teacher makes startling admission, WAPT News
Wolves in the Music Ministry, part 1, New BBC Open Forum
Wolves in the Music Ministry, part 2, New BBC Open Forum

Related posts:
Three-legged stool, 11/17/08
Among Baptists, who will give a hoot? 5/21/10
Basically no one, 6/12/10

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"True Crime" will spotlight the Matt Baker case

Watch "True Crime with Aphrodite Jones" on the Investigation Discovery channel on Thursday, April 28, at 9:00 p.m. Central Time. Click on the channel finder in the top right corner of this page to plug in your zip code and find your local listing. UPDATE: This program will replay on May 1 at 1:00 p.m. Central Time.

This is the case involving Southern Baptist pastor Matt Baker who, despite multiple reports of sexual abuse and assault, was able to move with ease through churches, schools and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. For over 16 years, what Matt Baker learned in Baptistland was that a Baptist pastor could get away with almost anything and face no consequence. Ultimately, he even tried to get away with murder. And he nearly did.

At the start of the murder trial, prosecutors said that they had evidence of at least 13 young women, including four minors, against whom Baptist pastor Matt Baker had made inappropriate “advances” and assaults.

From Texas Monthly's prior report, we know that at least three of those sexual abuse and assault reports were made directly to Baptist officials, including two at a single church – the historic First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas. Yet no one stopped Matt Baker. No one removed him from ministry. No one held him accountable.

How could a man with so many abuse and assault allegations remain as a Baptist minister? This is a question that Baptist officials need to address.

In most other organizations, an institutional failure of this magnitude would give rise to a lot of questions. Leaders would try to understand how things went so wrong. They would try to assess the damage. They would try to figure out what to do to assure that it wouldn’t happen again. They would try to find out how many were wounded.

But that doesn’t happen in Baptistland. Instead, Baptist officials simply hunker down, recite their blind-eyed mantra of “local church autonomy,” and pretend that it’s not their problem. It’s a very dangerous head-in-the-sand sort of approach.

I gave an on-camera interview for this "True Crime" program, and I am grateful to Investigation Discovery for spotlighting this tragic case. It raises questions that still need answers.

My prior postings on the Matt Baker case:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Future study on Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors... maybe


As some of you already know, my life has changed a lot over the past year. I’m now pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies in the joint program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. I hope that, with a broader understanding, I may become a more effective voice for encouraging compassionate outreach to those wounded by clergy sex abuse and for prodding the implementation of effective clergy accountability systems.

[Incidentally, the Iliff School of Theology is not in any way connected to Baptists. It is loosely affiliated with the Methodists, but just so you’ll know, I’m not Methodist either. I don’t categorize myself as much of anything when it comes to institutional religion.]

In the future, I hope that I may be able to conduct a research study on Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors, and on the survivors’ thoughts and feelings about various things related to the abuse and its aftermath. I hope many of you will participate. (And by “clergy,” I’m referring to pastors, ministers, deacons, Sunday School teachers, missionaries, and church officials.)

It may be a year or more before I can even begin such a study, but the blog and website have been getting a lot of hits lately, and so I would like to use this spike in visibility to go ahead and start gathering email addresses from people who might be interested in participating.

If you think you might like to participate in such a study, please send an email with “Future Study” in the subject line to

Please do not include any additional information with your email.

This will not in any way make you part of any study. It will simply put your email address on a list that I may use down-the-road to send out information about a possible future study. If and when that time arrives, you have absolutely zero obligation to participate in any way unless you choose to do so at that time. And, of course, I’ll have a lot more to say about the specifics of the study at that time.

Please feel free to link to this post on your own blogs, websites and Facebook pages. I am hoping to reach as many Baptist clergy abuse survivors as possible.

Many thanks for your help.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pontius Pilate holds lesson on clergy sex abuse

As Holy Week unfolds, I find myself thinking about Pontius Pilate, the powerful Roman leader who thought he could wash his hands of an innocent’s blood by shoving responsibility onto others.

“I find no fault in him.” That’s what Pilate said about the vulnerable person who offered testimony before him. But then Pilate started worrying about his own power and his own career, and he didn’t act on what he knew to be true.

Pilate had the power to release Jesus. But instead he washed his hands, and then he handed Jesus over for crucifixion.

Perhaps Pilate didn’t dictate that Jesus should be crucified, but he allowed it. He made a choice. Pilate could choose to risk his career and let Jesus go free; or he could choose to protect his power at the cost of Jesus’ life.

We know what Pilate decided. He protected his own power and he turned Jesus over to the religious leaders of the day. “Crucify him yourself,” he said.

So Pilate evaded responsibility and passed the guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion on to others. He made a big show of it. He had a wash basin brought out, and he stood before the crowd washing his hands.

Nowadays, that’s what we remember him for –- the show. Pilate made a display of not liking what the crowd wanted, but then he washed his hands, turned his back, and allowed it to happen.

Southern Baptist leaders make a big show as well. They talk about “precious children,” but ultimately, they choose do-nothingness in the face of clergy sex abuse reports. In effect, they bring out a big wash basin.

Southern Baptist leaders hold the power, but they shove responsibility onto others.

It’s as though they all have Pontius Pilate syndrome.

Rather than use their power for the protection of innocent kids -- a power they have surely shown when other issues troubled them -- Baptist leaders choose to do nothing. They wash their hands of clergy sex abuse and leave the problem up to the crowd.

They turn the safety of innocents over to the 44,000 local churches to deal with on their own. . . as if each of those 44,000 churches could even begin to have the resources to effectively fight the scourge of church-hopping clergy-predators. Yet, despite the churches’ shared faith identity, and despite the churches’ cooperative efforts on many matters, Southern Baptist leaders twist “local church autonomy” into a shibboleth of a shrug when it comes to reports of clergy sex abuse. They refuse to implement anything akin to the sorts of safeguards that other major faith groups have.

By washing their hands and shirking responsibility, Southern Baptist leaders allow clergy-predators to easily roam among their churches. They choose to protect their power structures rather than to protect innocent kids.

How can they make such a choice? Because they refuse to hear the cries of the wounded. They listen instead to lawyers and public relations people whose advice on how to handle clergy sex abuse has transformed the Southern Baptist Convention into a corporation focused on protecting its assets rather than protecting its flock.

I wonder if Pilate also had lawyers and PR people whispering in his ear.

Southern Baptist leaders may wash their hands of this, but they cannot cleanse their hearts.

These are men who hold the power to make kids in Baptist churches a great deal safer. But they choose passivity instead. They refuse any denominational system for assessing clergy abuse reports. They refuse any denominational system for warning people in the pews. And they even refuse a denominational system for record-keeping on credibly-accused clergy.

They simply wash their hands of all of it.

Among other faith groups, we have seen leaders who failed miserably in the exercise of their designated responsibilities. When the lines of responsibility are clear, the blame is easier to assign.

But is it any better to have leaders who utterly refuse responsibility?

Did “washing his hands” purge Pilate of guilt for allowing the crucifixion of Jesus?

By refusing to even keep records on credibly-accused clergy, Southern Baptist leaders allow the clergy-predators to easily find new prey. By washing their hands of it, they allow that many more kids will have their bodies and souls rent asunder by those they trust the most.

I don’t think there’s a wash basin in the world that’s big enough to take away their guilt.

Thanks to Associated Baptist Press for publishing this column! And thanks to the Knoxville Daily Sun for the reprint!
See also FBC-Jax Watchdog's take on this column.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Malignancy of Baptist Oblivion to Clergy Sex Abuse

In Somerville, Tennessee, the March 2011 newsletter for Warren Community Church featured Paul Williams. In fact, the newsletter announced that Paul Williams “has recently been asked to serve as a Trustee” for the church.

This is the same Paul Williams who admitted to sexually abusing a kid when he was a minister at the prominent Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis.

This is the same Paul Williams for whom Bellevue’s senior pastor Steve Gaines kept quiet about his admission of child molestation and tried to sweep it under the rug.

This is the same Paul Williams whose wife kept the secret of his pedophilic behavior and for whom many others on Bellevue’s staff also kept quiet. (Incidentally, that’s Williams and his wife in the photo, which was in the church newsletter.)

For years, the people in Bellevue’s pews have acted as though all of this were no big deal. Despite the reality that pastor Steve Gaines knew about minister William’s sexual abuse of a kid, and kept quiet about it, Bellevue’s congregants have retained Gaines as their senior pastor, as if it were all a matter of little consequence. By keeping Gaines in the pulpit as senior pastor, this prominent church sends a clear message that, in Baptistland, a pastor’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse carries no significance to his purported role as a moral and spiritual leader.

All of that would be plenty disturbing enough, but now we see still another Southern Baptist church that is apparently willing to turn a blind eye with respect to Paul Williams.

Despite the lack of “Baptist” in its name, Warren Community Church is indeed a Southern Baptist church. It’s Southern Baptist affiliation is shown on the website. (Lately, quite a few Baptist churches have been dropping the “Baptist” name – as though they’re ashamed of it – and yet they still retain the Baptist affiliation. E.g., Two Rivers Baptist Church rebranded to become the Fellowship at Two Rivers.”)

So, despite all the publicity that surrounded the Paul Williams/Steve Gaines scandal at Bellevue Baptist Church, Paul Williams had no trouble moving to another Southern Baptist church, where he is now being made a Trustee and is being presented in the newsletter as though he were a good Christian example to follow. If it’s this easy for an admitted clergy child molester like Williams to be accepted as a leader in another Southern Baptist church, can you imagine how much easier still it is in the average case? The case in which there was little or no publicity? The case in which the molester never admitted it but was simply allowed to move on with no one bothering to look into it?

The newsletter of Warren Community Church even shows a picture of Williams surrounded by children, and holding a child in his lap. Any parent or kid in that congregation would likely look at that newsletter and believe that Paul Williams is someone they can trust. In effect, the newsletter sets them up. It sets them up to trust a man who has already shown that he cannot safely be trusted with kids.

The newsletter also points out that Williams has made seven trips to help renovate a kindergarten classroom in Albania. His seventh trip was just a few weeks ago, March 19-27.

Should Baptists be sending an admitted child molester to renovate a kindergarten classroom in Albania? Why is there no one in Baptist leadership who sees the problem with this, and who will do anything about it?

Here’s why. A pervasive malignancy has enmeshed itself in the Southern Baptist Convention. It is the malignancy of oblivion to clergy sex abuse. It is the malignancy of a “no big deal” attitude toward clergy sex abuse. It is the malignancy of blind-eyed do-nothingness in the face of clergy sex abuse.

It is a malignancy that promotes the reputations of men rather than prioritizing the protection of kids.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

ABC's 20/20 will spotlight the Tina Anderson story

“Try to imagine the pain and humiliation of a teenage girl, just 15 years old, who says she was forced to stand in front of a New Hampshire church congregation and confess her ‘sin’ of being pregnant. She says not only was she forced to confess her pregnancy, but also to ask for their forgiveness – with no mention of the man she says sexually abused her.”

That’s the story of Tina Anderson, taken from ABC’s 20/20 press release. 20/20 will spotlight Tina's story this Friday, April 8, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time and 9:00 p.m. Central Time. Check your local listings.
Meanwhile, you can read more about Tina’s story in my prior blog posts: “Alleged rape cover-up implicates multiple pastors, multiple churches;” “Police say girl raped, then relocated;” and "Stay away." This is a story that implicates Baptist officials and Baptist congregations in New Hampshire, Colorado, Indiana and Wisconsin.

If you’d like to better understand how abuse gets covered-up in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, I suggest Jeri Massi’s book, Schizophrenic Christianity.

The patterns of abuse in IFB churches are quite similar to what we see in Southern Baptist churches. Both types of Baptists claim that every local church is autonomous, and both types use that doctrine as a rationalization to avoid any oversight from outsiders or even from denominational entities.

For both types of Baptists, a central root of the problem is the absence of effective accountability systems for Baptist clergy.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Baptists zealous on prison violence, paralyzed on clergy violence

In my March 29th post, I posed the question that Dee Miller asked over a decade ago:

“What is it that keeps people in the church zealous about confronting the evils of this world, yet paralyzed when confronted with the evils of violence in our own front yards?”

The next day, the Southern Baptist Convention provided a good illustration of the kind of duality that Dee was talking about. Writing for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Doug Carlson published a column urging that the government should do more for the prevention of prison rapes. He requests that people submit comments to the U.S. Department of Justice as it considers standards for minimizing the incidence of sexual abuse in prisons and for providing assistance to those who have been abused.

"Protection from sexual violence” is “a basic human right,” he says.

I agree: Protection from sexual violence should be considered a basic human right. But what I don’t understand is why the Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t advocate just as forcefully for the protection of kids in its own churches against the sexual violence of its own Baptist clergy predators.

Why is the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission so zealous about sexual violence in prisons when it remains so mute about sexual violence in Baptist churches?

The “basic human right” to be protected from sexual violence is a right that should also extend to kids in Southern Baptist churches. At a minimum, Baptist church kids deserve at least the same sorts of safeguards against clergy violence as what kids in other major faith groups get. Yet, Southern Baptists do not even provide a safe place to which victims of clergy violence may make a report.

The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission uses its Baptist-funded voice to urge that people should write to the U.S. Attorney General with this statement: “As a person of faith, I hold as sacred the basic right of all people, including those in custody, to be free from sexual abuse. . . . I believe some standards must be strengthened to better protect incarcerated adults and youth from abuse.”

Much the same could be said to the Southern Baptist Convention itself: “As a person of faith, I hold as sacred the basic right of all people, including kids in Baptist churches, to be free from sexual abuse . . . . I believe some standards must be implemented to better protect Baptist church kids from abuse.”

The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission complains that immigration detention facilities and military facilities are exempted from the federal standards for protection against prison violence. Yet, the Southern Baptist Convention exempts itself from the basic standards that other major faith groups now apply for protecting church kids against clergy violence. Worst of all, it uses religion as its rationalization, claiming that because local churches are autonomous, the denomination has no obligation concerning the clergy who carry forth the Southern Baptist brand.

So nonexistent is any denominational oversight for Southern Baptist clergy that, if a pastor isn’t sitting in prison, he can probably find a Baptist pulpit to stand in. There is no denominational system that would prevent him. Yet, experts recognize that less than 10 percent of child sex abuse cases can be criminally prosecuted.

Other major faith groups attempt to deal with this reality, and to prioritize the safety of congregants, by implementing internal denominational mechanisms for assessing clergy abuse reports and for assuring that credibly-accused clergy cannot easily church-hop. Southern Baptists don’t bother.

That’s why Southern Baptist pastor Matt Baker was able to work as a chaplain at a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed youth, even though multiple reports of sexual abuse and assault had been lodged against him with various Baptist officials. There those kids were, confined in a treatment facility, and Baptists threw those kids a rattlesnake.

Where was the voice of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with respect to this travesty on their own Baptist turf? I heard nothing but a deafening silence.

Despite multiple reports of sexual assault and sexual abuse, Baptist officials sat silent while Matt Baker hopped from one church to another and another and another, with nary a consequence. It took the murder of a young woman, and the unrelenting perseverance of her mother, for people to finally learn the truth about Baptist pastor Matt Baker’s long history of abuse and violence.

Matt Baker personified the evil of violence in Baptists’ own front yard. Yet, despite multiple opportunities, Baptist officials were paralyzed in confronting it. To this day, they remain paralyzed. They have given no indication of having learned any lesson from that horrific tragedy. The do-nothing system remains the status-quo for dealing with sexual violence in Baptists’ own front yard.

Finally, ask yourself this: Why is it that Baptist officials have no problem with using the pooled dollars of autonomous churches to fund a commission that advocates for protections against prison violence, and yet Baptist officials refuse to use those same pooled dollars for funding a commission that could provide their own churches with information about credibly-accused Baptist clergy?

Why does the doctrine of local church autonomy preclude a cooperative effort toward addressing the evil in Baptists’ own front yard when it does not preclude a cooperative effort toward addressing the evil in other yards?


Related post: "More talk from Mr. So-called Ethics," 3/18/08