Monday, October 31, 2011

Benton predator up for parole; survivor speaks out

First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas,
a house haunted by the "secret life" that minister David Pierce led for two decades.

Just two years ago, longtime Southern Baptist minister David Pierce was sent to prison after pleading guilty to the sexual abuse of boys at the prominent First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas. Now, Pierce is up for parole again. According to one of the Benton survivors, Pierce could wind up being released as early as November 6.

How did Pierce get away with it for so long? The Arkansas Times pondered that question two years ago as it considered the scores of boys whom Pierce had sexually victimized over the course of decades. As related by reporter David Koons, the answer rested in the blind-eyed and minimizing responses of the church’s senior pastor, other church leaders, Baptist officials, and “some of Benton’s most powerful citizens.” They apparently valued the status of the minister more than they valued the safety of kids or care for the wounded.

Not only did the church’s current pastor, Rick Grant, fail to properly prioritize the protection of kids, but the church’s prior pastors also failed. Both Greg Kirksey, a former 2-term president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and Randel Everett, the former executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had been pastors at Benton during Pierce’s tenure. But what did they do to reach out and help the scores of boys who had been victimized there? Everett kept a timid quietude (just as he did during the trial of Texas Baptists’ “murdering minister” Matt Baker). Kirksey wrote a letter to the judge urging no prison time for Pierce.

Let me just repeat that. At the First Baptist Church of Benton, scores of church choirboys were sexually victimized over the course of decades, and Southern Baptist pastor and former statewide official Greg Kirksey urged no prison time for the perpetrator.

The Arkansas Times got it right. This is why Baptist clergy predators can get away with such awful kid-violating crimes for so long: too many others in Baptistland act as though such crimes are no big deal.

The Benton and Baptistland elites weren’t able to save minister Pierce from prison completely, but it does look as though Pierce could wind up serving very little time.

One of the “boys of Benton” has learned that Pierce is up for parole again on November 6, and will likely be released. Here is what he has to say about it on his Descent from Darkness blog:

“I received a call from the Saline County Prosecutor yesterday. David's next (and it looks like final) parole hearing will be November 6th. In all likelihood David will be released on parole following this hearing. He [may] be out of jail by the end of the year.

"Since hearing the news, I've talked with a couple other adult victims. We all had very similar reactions. We knew this was coming. We knew when he went to prison that he wouldn't stay there as long as any of us thought he should. I don't think there is any way any of us could've prepared ourselves for it actually happening though.

"You deal with something like this for so long, and you get through so many days where you feel like there is no way you'll be able to continue to function. There are plenty of times where those days seem to drag on and on and on. Then you get to a point where those days start to spread out. You have lots of good days in between. Sometimes this happens for no reason, sometimes you can put your finger on exactly why things are getting better. Then something like this happens. It has put me in a complete tailspin. I don't know how to deal with this, I don't know how to handle it.

"Obviously, there is nothing I can do to change it. All I can do at this point is continue doing everything I can to keep it together. For myself, my wife, and my kids.

"The Prosecutor said that at this point he expects David to stay in the Benton area. I can't imagine him actually staying here. I guess he'll still have the people here who have supported him through this and refuse to believe his guilt, even after his confession (including the one who tried to friend me on Facebook, even after starting a fund to collect money for David). Maybe he can attend the Little Rock support group for sex offenders.

"It's hard for me not to think about the people that will undoubtedly be happy that David is being released from prison. From those who wrote letters asking for leniency, to those who don't believe David is guilty at all. It really makes me want to just crawl in a hole for a couple months until all this passes over. Well, until reality sets in, and I realize that none of this will ever pass over for me or any other victim of David Pierce. Honestly, I had high hopes, given David's "fragile medical condition" (as some of his supporters are so quick to point out), that he would die in prison. I think that's how I dealt with the thought of him being released these last few years. Now, I'm being forced to realize that he will get out. He will get to experience freedom again.”

-- "One of Pierce’s alleged victims ... describes a meeting in which First Baptist Pastor Rick Grant allegedly said Pierce could keep his job if he would 'seek to make amends' by apologizing to other victims." Associated Baptist Press, 11/22/11
-- "Parole decision delayed for former music minister convicted of abuse," ABP, 12/2/11
-- "Former Baptist minister paroled for sex crimes," ABP, 1/31/12

Related posts:
Truth and reconciliation needed, 1/22/11
Benton, Arkansas: Minister's parole hearing is closed to press, 1/1/11
Voice of an FBC-Benton survivor, 1/2/11
Remember the boys of Benton, 9/13/09
Denial: It ain't just a river, 9/1/09
Basically brainwashing, 8/28/09
Questions need answers in Benton, 8/28/09
A good man who does nothing, 8/4/09
What's wrong with this picture? 6/17/09

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kentucky ouster contrasts with denominational inaction on clergy sex abuse

A Kentucky Baptist association “convened a special session” to withdraw fellowship from a church that “allowed a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to use its building for meetings.”

“Parents, families and friends.” A Southern Baptist church was allowing these people to meet on church premises. Oh my. This was such a grievous offense that the church got booted out of the regional denominational organization, the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association.

So, not only are gay people themselves “otherized” in Southern Baptist life, but now we see that even the “parents, families and friends” of gay people are “otherized.”

The vote for ouster was 242 to 24. It wasn’t even a close call.

Stories such as this may illustrate at least part of the reason for why this denomination is in decline. Many individuals would feel a measure of dismay at such cold-hearted treatment of people whose only purported offense is in being “parents, families and friends.” But groups will sometimes behave in ways that are far more immoral and discompassionate than what ordinary individuals would. Therein lies one of the major problems of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the name of religion, it has effectively institutionalized an incivility that ostracizes and marginalizes too many.

Not long back, in the face of headlines about teen suicides after anti-gay bullying, Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler addressed the role of churches and spoke of how such teens “need to know that they are loved and cherished for who they are.” It sounded nice, but I think most teens are savvy enough to see right through such easy talk. Actions speak louder than words, and those teens are looking at that 242-24 vote for ouster of a church that allowed “parents, families and friends” to even sit in the church’s chairs.

How should such teens imagine that they are “loved and cherished for who they are” when even their “parents, families and friends” give offense by their mere presence?

Sadly, in Southern Baptist life, there was nothing very unusual about what this Kentucky Baptist association did. At the national level, the Southern Baptist Convention ousted a church in 2009 for nothing more than its “perceived toleration of gay members,” and various statewide conventions have made similar ousters.

Yet strangely, though Southern Baptists seem to have no problem with denominational ouster for churches that don’t tow the line on gays (or even on “parents, families and friends”), Southern Baptists claim denominational powerlessness in the face of churches that harbor clergy predators. Then, “local church autonomy” becomes the doctrinal rallying cry that rationalizes denominational inaction.

But stories like this one in Kentucky reveal just how incoherent that Baptist doctrine has become.

If local churches are not autonomous enough that they can choose to allow a meeting space for “parents, families and friends,” then why are local churches so radically autonomous that they can choose to allow an admitted or credibly-accused clergy predator in the pulpit?

If a regional denominational body can have a “credentials committee” to assess the soundness of a church’s theology and can convene a “special session” because of the urgency to oust a church that allowed “parents, families and friends” to meet, then why can’t a regional Baptist body have a “credentials committee” to assess the safety and trustworthiness of pastors reported for sexual abuse? And why can’t a denominational organization convene with the same level of urgency because of the need to protect the safety of kids and congregants?

Consider the parallel of another regional Baptist association. The first church shown on the membership roster for the Denton Baptist Association, Bolivar Baptist, is a church with a pastor who admitted to conduct constituting sexual abuse of a teen girl and who was eventually court-ordered to pay child support for her baby. Another church in the Denton Baptist Association, Southmont, is a church that gathered a $50,000 “love offering” for a pastor who resigned in the face of a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of a 14-year-old, and after he admitted that “proper boundaries were not kept.” And still another church in the Denton Baptist Association is the prominent megachurch, Prestonwood, whose executive pastor recently acknowledged that the church had known about allegations of sexual abuse against one of its ministers, and yet the church simply allowed the minister to move on to another church. That minister is now under indictment for multiple alleged child sex crimes in Mississippi.

None of these churches have been ousted by the Denton Baptist Association, or by any other denominational body. No matter how unconscionable and reckless a church’s conduct may be with respect to clergy predators, the denomination doesn’t interfere.

But let a church exercise hospitality toward the “parents, families and friends” of gay people, and that’s a different story. Ouster!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breast cancer brings thoughts on hell-wishing

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this year, it hits home. The American Cancer Society estimates that the year 2011 will bring 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the United States. I’m one of those cases.

For me, what was even worse than learning I had cancer was learning that I needed a mastectomy. Even now, though I’m six months down-the-road and feeling stronger, the pain of that day is still raw.

Despite years of hypervigilance, mammograms, and ultrasounds, I wound up with both invasive ductal and invasive lobular tumors at the same time. So this beast of a disease still took my breast.

On the very day when I learned about the second tumor, which limited my surgical options, I received this missive from a self-identified Southern Baptist:

"When life goes sour for you, YOU WILL KNOW WHY!"

It arrived with the usual slew of “you’re going to hell” and “God will have judgment on you” sorts of messages. Baptists were filling my inbox with rage because I had blogged about a Washington youth pastor who, according to a news report, “confessed on tape to raping a 12-year-old girl.” Despite the reported confession, the pastor’s supporters were certain of his innocence and determined to make sure I knew. Suffice it to say that the guy recently pled guilty.

In case after case, ever since I began speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, I have reaped heaps of Baptist wrath. So, apart from the lousy timing of it, there was nothing unusual about this particular missive. Besides, I figure everyone’s life goes “sour” at some point, and so, given how many of these ugly messages I get, the coincidence of the timing certainly wasn’t startling.

Nevertheless, it gave me pause to receive such vitriol on a day when I was in such pain. Not for one second did I believe my breast cancer was indicative of God’s wrath, but I pondered the nature of human wrath and the question of why good people use religion to justify their own rage.

What is it about religious belief that often seems to fuel such harshness? What is it about religious belief that can foster such fear-based responses? And what is it about religious belief that blinds people to the crimes of their ministers?

If I could answer these questions, I feel like I would solve some great mystery. But of course, I can’t. Heck, I can’t even figure out why so many of these vitriol-senders seem to have a stuck caps-key.

I also pondered what it must feel like to hate someone so much that you would wish them to hell and would invoke God on your side -- as if any human actually held such power. I have tried to put myself in their shoes, but ultimately I realized I couldn’t. Even if I wanted to return hate for hate, and to say “go to hell” right back, it wouldn’t hold the same meaning.

Many of the Baptists who send me such missives have made clear that they believe in a very literal hell. In fact, they often seem to revel in that belief, delighting in the details of the agony that they claim I will eternally endure because I have spoken out about anointed men of God and about church cover-ups. “Not even Aloe Vera Gel will help you,” said one message.

I laughed at that one, but mostly, such hell-wishing messages infuse me with sadness. When did the faith of my youth become so permeated with meanness?

I cannot possibly understand the feeling behind these messages because, for me, hell holds a more metaphorical meaning. I don’t believe that humans will physically experience the pain of their flesh forever burning. So, even if I wanted to, I am simply incapable of wishing for anyone else the same sort of hell as what so many Baptists have wished for me. You can’t wish for what you don’t believe in.

But what I can wish for – and pray for – is that faith may ultimately work to foster human compassion and care rather than human hate.

I’m now a breast cancer survivor, and I’m also a survivor of Baptist clergy sex abuse. Life seems more precious than ever, and if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s this: There is no time for hate. Not for any of us.

Please make sure you and your loved ones get mammograms, and if you have a family history of breast cancer or dense breast tissue, talk to your doctor about additional screening methods.
For more info:
Susan G. Komen Foundation
The Scar Project ("Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.")

Thanks to the Associated Baptist Press for publishing this column! And thanks to the Knoxville Daily Sun for the reprint!

"The mindset of Hell moves first to protect its power and status."
 -- Jeri Massi

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Two years later

The article’s first sentence tells the essence of the problem: "Pastor Matthew Ellis' first urge was to trust his youth minister."

For pastors and congregants alike, that's the first instinct for most people when a minister is accused of sexual abuse. Good people tend to think the best of others, and particularly of others who are in positions of high trust.

Many other faith groups now have clergy accountability systems and review processes that at least carry the possibility of compensating for this normal human instinct. But Southern Baptists do not. So most of the time, in Baptistland, the first instinct is what prevails.

Brian Brijbag
That’s what nearly happened in this Tampa Bay case. Two years ago, a father uncovered some suspicious correspondence between his teen daughter and youth minister Brian Brijbag at the First Baptist Church of Brooksville in Florida. The father went to the church’s senior pastor, Matthew Ellis, who questioned the girl and apparently didn’t believe her. And, based on the article, it seems no one bothered to go to the police.

I can only imagine the sort of hostile questioning that girl may have been subjected to, given that pastor Ellis apparently viewed it as allegations of “adultery” rather than as allegations of abuse.

In any event, Brijbag was allowed to continue as a youth minister at First Baptist of Brooksville, and it doesn’t appear that other parents were even warned.

Now, two years later, minister Brijbag, who is a married father of three, has been accused by a second girl. Once again, pastor Ellis’ first instinct was to simply trust Brijbag. “I still believed he was innocent of any wrongdoing,” said Ellis. In fact, pastor Ellis was so confident of minister Brijbag’s innocence that, when Brijbag submitted his resignation, pastor Ellis urged him to rescind it.

Brijbag has been arrested on two counts of sexual activity with a minor, and pastor Ellis seems to finally – belatedly -- be having some doubts. But it took multiple allegations, an arrest, and two more years of kids being left at risk in that church.

That’s something that parents at First Baptist of Brooksville should be upset about. Their kids were left at risk while their pastor, Matthew Ellis, simply trusted an accused youth minister.

Will the congregants hold pastor Ellis accountable for this failure and for leaving their kids at risk? I doubt it.

And consider this . . .  if minister Brijbag had quietly moved on to a new church after the first accusation -- as Baptist ministers often do -- then kids in other churches could have also been placed at risk.

First Baptist of Brooksville is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but will the denomination impose any consequence on pastor Ellis for his irresponsible handling of abuse allegations? Nope. This is a faith-group that imagines itself to be beyond the need for the common sorts of accountability systems that many other human organizations have.

It was only Brijbag’s own conduct that finally raised suspicion for pastor Ellis. After the latest accusations, pastor Ellis wanted minister Brijbag to meet with the accuser and her father, but this time, Brijbag refused pastor Ellis’ suggestion, saying that he didn't want to have his integrity attacked.

Ironically, this is where clergy molestation victims share common ground with accused ministers. Many clergy abuse survivors say that the experience of having been disbelieved and attacked by their faith community is even more painful than the memory of having been sexually molested by a minister. It is the community that often causes even more harm than the molesting minister.

This is why Baptists, as a faith community, need a denominational panel of trained professionals to assist churches with clergy abuse reports, to assure that allegations are referred to secular authorities according to the law, to assess allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted (which is most), and to assure that all persons who make reports of clergy abuse will at least have their reports received in a responsible and compassionate manner.

10/14/11: This post made the news. Read "Advocate says Baptists ill-equipped to address sexual abuse by clergy" in the Associated Baptist Press.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer or in-betweener?

“There’s deceivers and believers and old in-betweeners.”
– Willie Nelson

Jack Graham
In 2008, when a minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas was charged with solicitation of a minor, senior pastor Jack Graham, who is also a former Southern Baptist president, bragged that, in his forty years of ministry, he “never had one moral problem with a staff member, until now.”

With the facts that have come forth in recent days, many would say that Graham’s statement wasn’t true. Graham had a very big “moral problem” with a prior Prestonwood staff member. It was a “moral problem” and more. It was a clergyman’s crimes kept quiet.

In 1989, Prestonwood church officials learned of allegations that a staff minister, John Langworthy, “acted inappropriatedly with a teenage student.” A former Prestonwood staff intern, who was there at the time, has said that Langworthy “confessed to molesting boys in the church.”

With Jack Graham at the helm, Prestonwood church officials responded by quietly dismissing Langworthy. They got Langworthy off their own turf, and in doing so, they effectively unleashed him into the larger denominational body and placed many more kids at risk.

This “cover-up” didn’t come to light until two decades later.

Any fool can see that Jack Graham failed miserably back in 1989. He failed the people of his congregation. He failed the kids who tried to tell about what Langworthy had done. And he failed the kids in Langworthy’s future churches.

But that was 1989, and Graham’s failures are all too obvious. What I want to know is this: What happened in 2008?

What was Jack Graham thinking in 2008 when he claimed he had “never had one moral problem with a staff member”?

In the words of Willie Nelson, was Graham a “deceiver”? Was he flat-out lying about never having had “one moral problem”? Perhaps he simply saw no need to tell the truth in 2008 because two-decades of cover-up had already passed. The safety of kids be damned . . .  keep up the smokescreen. Is that what Graham was thinking?

Or was Graham a “believer”? Did he really believe that what Langworthy did to kids didn’t constitute a “moral problem”? Perhaps Graham believes that child sex abuse isn’t a “moral problem” unless the perpetrator gets criminally convicted. Is that what Graham was thinking?

Or was it the third possibility? Maybe Graham was a plain old lukewarm “in-betweener.” Maybe he was a human being who simply said what was easiest. Maybe Graham wasn’t actively trying to deceive, and maybe belief was irrelevant to him. Maybe he was simply a human being who took the in-between easy road of keeping quiet about his own collusion, of lapsing into denial in the face of a dreadful past, and of protecting his own self-image, his own turf, his own career, and his own prestige.

It’s hard to actually know what Graham was thinking because Graham has refused to comment.

But whatever category you may place him in – whether as a deceiver, believer, or in-betweener – Jack Graham has provided a good illustration of why the Southern Baptist Convention needs better clergy accountability systems, including an accessible denominational database of convicted, admitted, and credibly-accused clergy.

We have seen the Graham pattern too often: When clergy sex abuse hits on their own turf, pastors typically fail to make kid-protection the top priority. Since Southern Baptists refuse the implementation of any denominational system to compensate for this pattern, the result is a denomination in which known, reported, and even self-admitted clergy child molesters can church-hop with ease.

John Langworthy left Prestonwood and went to Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi. Like Graham, Mississippi church officials also made grievous mistakes in dealing with abuse accusations.

Langworthy has now publicly admitted that he had “sexual indiscretions with younger males” while working at a Texas church. Last week, he was indicted on charges that, even prior to his stint in Texas, he sexually abused five boys from two other Baptist churches in Mississippi. The boys were between 10 and 13 years old.

Related posts:
Admitted minister-molester: "I was not asked to resign," 9/9/2011
Mississippi rep seeks secrecy for church, 9/8/2011