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.


Jeri said...

Great article! I am featuring the newest Hephzibah House podcast today on my blog, but I plan to link to this tomorrow. It's also just as true for the IFB.

Anonymous said...

Good article... Applies to the RCC heirarchy as well as the baptist leadership

Anonymous said...

Please learn the facts about Southern Baptists before displaying your ignorance for everyone to see. Southern Baptists are congregationalists. There is no power structure. Southern Baptist leaders have no power over local churches.

Christa Brown said...

Anon 7:39 -- Actually, Anon, you are the one who has just displayed the sort of ignorance that makes Southern Baptist churches more dangerous. A person who believes that religious doctrine can legitimately be twisted into a rationalization for turning a blind eye to clergy sex abuse is a person who displays an immoral and unconscionable ignorance . . . and yet it is an ignorance that is manifest throughout the Southern Baptist Convention, and it undermines the very faith they purport to profess. I am fully aware that Southern Baptists are congregationalist in polity. But it's not their congregationalist polity per se that makes SBC churches more dangerous. It's how they have radicalized that polity into an excuse for denominational do-nothingness rather than using their polity in a cooperative effort for the better protection of kids. There are other faith groups with congregationalist polity that are doing better on this, including even a Baptist congregationalist group -- i.e., the American Baptist Churches USA. As Robert Parham, editor of EthicsDaily, stated: "Southern Baptist leaders are being disingenuous when they hide behind the shield of local church autonomy to avoid taking needed actions to protect children from predatory preachers. They are making a false statement about theological and functional church polity." You can read more about my own views on how Southern Baptists' congregationalist polity is being used as an excuse here.

Ginny said...

To the anonymous poster who stated that ignorance of SBC protocol was's a question for you: A denomination that can structure and man a Home Mission Board, a Foreign Mission Board and numerous SBC Colleges....setting up funding, staffing, and providing documentation down to the receipts for donations from individuals somehow can't seem to find the will or the means to document 'where' a pastor is in the pulpit? Almost every HR department of a major corporation can tell you where any of their employees are assigned at any given time, and since the SBC is the second largest Christian denomination in the world to say they don't have access to that type of documentation is ludicrous. If a pastor is ill, the SBC can provide a 'supply' pastor....if they know where he is when he is sick, they should really know where he is when he is this 'sick'.

Christa Brown said...

Ginny: Thanks for providing some good examples of ways in which Southern Baptists structure themselves for cooperative funding and efforts on things that are important to them. To your examples, I would add that they also have no problem with using the pooled resources of autonomous churches to provide Baptists ministers with better retirement and insurance plans, funding a study to provide churches with information so they can "adequately compensate their ministers," and funding pastors' conferences at which the latest up-and-coming SBC "stars" are promoted. I could go on and on . . . but here's just one more . . . at the denominational level, the Southern Baptist Convention even uses the pooled resources of autonomous churches to provide those churches with information about what hymns are deemed to be theologically trustworthy.

So ask yourself this, Mr. Anon 7:39 -- If the SBC can provide churches with information about what songs are deemed theologically sound, why can't they provide churches with information about ministers who have been deemed unsafe for positions of authority around kids? And if the SBC can provide local churches with information about adequate compensation packages for ministers, why can't the SBC provide churches with information about which ministers have been credibly accused of sexual abuse? Why isn't the safety and protection of kids just as important and just as worthy of a strong cooperative effort as the provision of retirement and insurance packages for ministers?

Jim said...

Anon. 7:39 is either totally ignorant concerning the "influence" the SBC national body holds over local congregations, or his/her head is so far in the sand they can't see the obvious. The FACT is, the SBC can exert as much influence as it cares to, in areas that it cares about. The other SAD FACT is, the SBC does not care about the abusive behavior of pastors and other church leaders, as long as those leaders are not women, or people of a same-sex orientation, or practitioners of "speaking in tongues." Everything in SBC life is either ok, negotiable or forgivable. They can lie about education, life experiences, and even be credibly accused of child sexual abuse, and remain ministers in good standing. We would not allow that kind of blindness for one minute in business, industry or public education. But in SBC churches, and others, it can be "sanctified" by some notion of "cheap grace" and explained away by saying "Southern Baptists are congregationalists." That's a hell-of-a-way to run an institution calling itself "church" (By the way, I used the term "hell- of-a-way," not as a curse, but as descriptive of the origin of such ecclesiastical blindness).

Wendy Stubblefield said...

This is such an insightful article. I agree - there isn't a wash basin large enough to wash away the guilt of Southern Baptist pastors and leaders who look the other way when kids are sexually abused, protect the predators, and cover up their crimes. Sooner or later, justice will come to call.

Anonymous said...

"Anthony Dale Newton pleaded guilty.... but...." sentence was suspended for time served"


A former Lexington pastor has pleaded guilty to sexual battery charges in Henderson County Circuit Court.

In the court of Judge Roy Morgan Jr. on Tuesday, Anthony Dale Newton pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual battery by an authority figure.

He was sentenced to four years on each count, according to court records. Newton's sentence was suspended with time served and he was placed on state probation, according to Henderson County Circuit Court. He was fined $500 and has to register as a sex offender.

Newton was initially charged with aggravated statutory rape of a 16-year-old girl in the case. Newton was accused of having a 16-year-old girl perform oral sex on him during a church lock-in on New Year's Eve, an affidavit said. At the time of the incident, he was pastor of H20 Church in Lexington.

He still faces sentencing in a plea deal in Decatur County, authorities said Wednesday.

The 51-year-old is charged in Decatur County with aggravated statutory rape and sexual battery by an authority figure, according to court documents. Affidavits state that Newton is accused of having sexual contact with a 16-year-old girl who attended his church on Dec. 10 in Decatur County.

His plea agreement in Decatur County would involve a six-year sentence if it is accepted, and that sentence would run consecutive to the Henderson County sentence, according to Henderson County Circuit Court.

The state statute on aggravated statutory rape, defined as "the unlawful sexual penetration of a victim," applies when the defendant is at least 10 years older than the victim and the victim is between the ages of 13 and 18.

Anonymous said...

More Baptist Pedophiles

also, judge being lenient on Pastoral sexual abuse?

"Anthony Dale Newton pleaded guilty.... but...." sentence was suspended for time served"



New BBC Open Forum said...

If a pastor is ill, the SBC can provide a 'supply' pastor....if they know where he is when he is sick, they should really know where he is when he is this 'sick'.

How true.