Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary

Penn State has now fired football coach Joe Paterno because of his failure to respond appropriately in the face of child sex abuse allegations. Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler described this firing as a “necessary action.”

But if that’s what Mohler really believes – that Paterno’s firing was “necessary” – will Mohler also urge the firing of former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham from his leadership position at the Prestonwood Baptist megachurch in Dallas? If Paterno’s firing was “necessary,” shouldn’t Graham’s firing also be “necessary”?

Graham too failed to go to police with information about a person in high trust who was accused of child sex abuse. Instead, Graham allowed the accused staff minister to simply move on and thereby unleashed him into the broader denominational body, placing many more kids at risk.

Graham’s failure is all too common in Baptistland. We have seen this keep-it-quiet pattern in megachurches and mini-churches, in city churches and rural churches. It is a pattern that allows accused clergy child molesters to church hop with ease, and that places kids in the Southern Baptist Convention at greater risk.

Mohler talks about the lessons of the Penn State scandal and rightly points out that making a report to law enforcement should be the first step in confronting a suspicion of child sex abuse. But what happens when the first step fails? What happens when a church leader like Jack Graham fails to go to the police and a couple decades pass before someone speaks up again? By then, it is often too late for criminal prosecution.

Experts say that less than ten percent of child sex abuse allegations are criminally prosecuted. Part of the reason for the low rate of prosecution is precisely because far too many adults keep quiet about information that should be reported. And it is the very nature of the harm that the child-victim is typically silenced. By the time the victim grows up and becomes capable of speaking about it, the limitations period for criminal prosecution has typically passed.

Other major faith groups have denominational processes for assessing clergy abuse allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted. Such processes at least allow for the possibility that a minister who is credibly accused of sexual abuse will not be able to remain in a position of trust. Moreover, they allow accusations to be heard by people who are outside the accused minister’s circle of trust and influence. But Southern Baptists do not have such processes. This is a huge safety gap.

Many Baptist clergy abuse survivors have tried in adulthood to report their perpetrators to denominational officials in local, state and national offices. Often, they start out with the assumption that, surely, denominational officials will want to take steps for the protection of others. Invariably, their assumption is rent asunder. The reality of what they encounter is a Baptistland in which no one will hear them. There is no system by which any denominational official will do diddly-squat to help a clergy abuse survivor in seeking to protect others or in seeking accountability for minister-molesters.

Mohler is right: reporting to law enforcement is essential. But child sex abuse is a massive and time-weighted problem, and the criminal justice system cannot handle the entirety of the task on its own. There must also be institutional systems for assuring that people in positions of high trust are held accountable. In this respect, Southern Baptists have failed abysmally. Southern Baptists have abdicated responsibility and betrayed the safety of children in refusing to implement the sort of basic accountability systems that are becoming the bare-bones standard of care in other faith groups.

Mohler seems to want to address this. “Every church and Christian institution needs a full set of policies, procedures, and accountability structures,” he says.

But where exactly are the “accountability structures” for Southern Baptists? If there is one thing the Prestonwood saga has shown us, it is that local churches cannot  –  cannot  –  responsibly address clergy abuse allegations against their own ministers. They lack the objectivity. Trained outsiders must be brought to the task.

The lessons of Penn State need heeding, and it is not enough for Baptist leaders like Al Mohler to simply talk about those lessons. Words must be put into deeds. Southern Baptists must actually implement effective accountability systems and they must begin to hold their own leaders accountable.

When Southern Baptist leaders such as Al Mohler begin to publicly address the failures of Southern Baptist leaders such as Jack Graham, then perhaps more people will begin to think that Southern Baptists take this problem seriously.

This too is a lesson from Penn State that Southern Baptists should heed. If an organization does not impose consequences for leaders who turn a blind eye, then blind-eyed behavior will occur more frequently and children will remain at greater risk.

Related post: "Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer or in-betweener?"

Update: "Former minister fights molestation charge," ABP, 10/25/12 ("... his previous church, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, where leaders reportedly fired Langworthy in 1989 for molesting boys in the church but did not report him to police as required by law."