Monday, June 18, 2012

How long until Southern Baptists implement safeguards against clergy sex abuse?

The Southern Baptist Convention is convening its annual ballyhoo in New Orleans this week, but it doesn’t look as though they will make any progress on protecting kids against clergy sex abuse.

Since 2006, clergy abuse survivors, and others, have been asking the Southern Baptist Convention to implement denominational safeguards against clergy child molesters. Southern Baptists have refused.

The requests are nothing radical. We asked for the sorts of safeguards that already exist in
other major faith groups in this country. We asked that the denomination provide (1) a safe place where people may report abusive ministers, (2) a denominational panel for responsibly assessing abuse reports (particularly those that cannot be criminally prosecuted), and (3) an effective means, such as a database, of assuring that assessment information reaches people in the pews.

In 2008,
TIME magazine ranked Southern Baptists' rejection of a sex-offender database as one of the top 10 underreported stories of the year.

Now here we are in 2012, and Southern Baptists are still sitting on the sidelines.

A faith group that so devalues its children must change. So we know where this is going. Change is inevitable.

Sooner or later, Southern Baptists will learn the lesson that pious preaching won't protect kids against clergy predators. What we don't know is how long the lesson will take.

Maybe it will take 10, 20 or 50 years. But we know how this ends. Southern Baptists will eventually come up to speed with what other faith groups are doing to assure that predators cannot easily hide among their clergy ranks.

It is inevitable. A future is coming when children in Baptist churches will be a great deal safer than they are now. A future is coming when those who report clergy abuse will be met with ministry and outreach rather than minimization and denial. A future is coming when people in the pews will be able to find out about credibly accused clergy so that predators cannot so easily church-hop.

When that future arrives, we will all look back with a vague sense of wonder at why it took Southern Baptists so long.

But there is always someone who fights a rear-guard action to preserve the status quo. And it doesn't matter how irrational or dysfunctional that status quo may be.

When it comes to dealing with clergy sex abuse, it looks as though the rear guard status quo will be Southern Baptists.

While other major faith groups have recognized the need for clergy accountability mechanisms, Southern Baptists persist in denominational do-nothingness. Worst of all, they claim religious principle as the reason. Confronted with people trying to report predatory clergy, Baptist leaders retreat behind the Pharisee-like legalism of their autonomous
polity as an excuse for why they are powerless.

It might be comical if it weren't so dangerous.

But someday, even this most recalcitrant of faith groups will see the light and take action. It is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the rear guard is convening in New Orleans this week. How many more conventions will it take before Southern Baptists provide their kids with the same sorts of safeguards as kids in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches?

This is a revised version of a column that was written on the eve of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 2010 annual meeting and that was previously published by Ethics Daily.

Thanks to Associated Baptist Press for republishing this post on June 19, 2012.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pastor accused of cover-up is featured speaker for Southern Baptist Convention

Jack Graham
As the "horror story" of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky unfolded at trial this past week, I thought about the boys of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano. They too hold horror stories about sexual abuse inflicted on them by someone they trusted and revered, church minister John Langworthy.

That was twenty years ago, and prominent pastor Jack Graham was at the helm of Prestonwood at the time. He still is.

Graham and other Prestonwood leaders were told about abuse allegations against Langworthy, but they kept it quiet. Amy Smith, a former Prestonwood intern, said that Langworthy even confessed to church leaders about “molesting boys in the church,” but that Prestonwood leaders didn’t go to the police. They simply "dismissed" Langworthy and got him off their own church-turf, but they didn’t act to protect other kids or to prevent Langworthy from moving on to other churches . . . which Langworthy did.
Last August, when Langworthy revealed to his Mississippi Baptist congregation that, while “serving” in a Texas church, he had “sexual indiscretions with younger males,” it was an admission that pointed to a prior “cover-up” at Prestonwood.

So you might imagine that those Prestonwood church leaders who kept quiet about Langworthy’s abuse of kids would be held accountable, right?

Jack Graham will be a featured speaker at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors' Conference on June 18th in New Orleans. So... not only does the Southern Baptist Convention do diddly-squat to hold accountable those who keep quiet about clergy sex abuse, but it actively promotes a pastor with a long “cover-up” history in his church . . . as though Graham were a model for other pastors to follow. The implicit message the SBC sends is this: "Clergy sex abuse cover-up? No big deal."

When the Penn State scandal first came to light, Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler said that the tragedy of it was “teaching the entire nation a lesson it dare not fail to learn.”
Maybe what Mohler really meant was “the entire nation” except Southern Baptists . . . because it’s obvious the Southern Baptist Convention has not yet learned any lesson from the Penn State scandal. Indeed, when Baptists promote pastors such as Jack Graham -- less than a year after news of his church’s “cover-up” – it appears that Baptists aren’t even trying.

If Southern Baptists had actually learned something from Penn State, there would be no more excuses. No church or denominational leader who is complicit in the soul-searing action of turning a blind-eye to reported clergy child molesters would be let off the hook. No more “uncharted waters” excuses. No more of the “we asked him to resign” excuse (knowing full-well that Baptists’ porous system leaves predatory ministers free to roam). And no more of the immorally misused “local church autonomy” excuse. Kids deserve better, and their safety demands it.
I find it particularly troubling that Baptists are featuring Jack Graham at a Pastors’ Conference with a Father’s Day theme. Fatherhood carries with it a covenant to the next generation. Yet, by refusing to hold pastors such as Graham accountable, the Southern Baptist Convention breaches that covenant of care.

It is not enough for Southern Baptists to simply talk the talk of “children are precious.” Both individually and institutionally, they must demonstrate this by their deeds – actions speak louder than words.
Many clergy abuse reports are not able to be criminally prosecuted, often because of the delay caused by church cover-ups. Yet, even when clergy abuse reports are no longer subject to criminal prosecution, clergy who are credibly accused must still be held denominationally accountable and refused access to ministerial positions of trust.

And clergy who keep quiet about reports of abuse must also be held accountable.

Prestonwood saga shows clergy abuse database is overdue
Jack Graham: Deceiver, believer or in-betweener?
Words alone won't stop Baptist predators
Penn State and Prestonwood: Consequences are necessary

And see Amy Smith's post about the price she paid for seeking to protect other kids and to expose the terrible keep-it-quiet cover-up that happened at Prestonwood.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Baptist pastor had long rap sheet

A “pastor now facing child sex abuse charges in Texas spent nearly a decade in the Texas state prison system before he was hired to pastor a church” in Alabama.

Despite a long criminal rap sheet, Mark Allen Green got hired into a position of trust as a pastor for the Cowboy Church of Marshall County in Albertville, Alabama.
The “Cowboy Church” in Albertville is shown as being affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Green’s rap sheet speaks volumes about how low the standards are for Southern Baptist pastors  – in fact there are no denominational standards – and about the perilous lack of systemic safeguards in the largest Protestant denomination in the land.
When it comes to their clergy, the Southern Baptist Convention engages an excess of permissiveness. So long as a man isn’t literally sitting in prison, he can likely find a Southern Baptist pulpit to stand in.

There is no denominational system that will stop him.
There is no denominational system that will warn people in the pews.

When the Sand Mountain Reporter contacted Randall Stoner, the director of missions at Marshall Baptist Association, Stoner made a short written statement and then said, “Due to legal issues, we cannot comment any further.”
"Legal issues"? I hope so. Why? Because the Southern Baptist Convention has shown that it will not, on its own, implement the sorts of common-place clergy oversight mechanisms that now exist in other major faith groups. It will take the long, dogged development of the law to eventually prod this denomination into action.

Southern Baptist leaders candy-coat their reckless intransigence with religious rationalization. “We believe in the autonomy of the local church,” they say . . .  as though the Bible itself somehow precluded denominational cooperation for the prevention of clergy sex abuse.
Yet denominational entities exercise power, influence, and authority in a wide range of other contexts. For example, the regional “director of missions” is often the guy who helps Baptist churches with finding new pastors and helps pastors with finding new jobs.

Recently, in a clergy sex abuse case in Florida, a jury found liability against the statewide Florida Baptist Convention, in addition to the Lake County Baptist Association and the local church. So, Southern Baptist denominational entities may be starting to get a little less overconfident and a little more nervous.
I think that’s a good thing.

Besides, according to WAFF News, the Marshall Baptist Association director of missions, Randall Stoner, "said they began dealing with the issue” last Sunday. But, if Southern Baptist churches are so totally and utterly autonomous and independent, as Southern Baptist officials assert, then why is a denominational entity, the Marshall Baptist Association, “dealing with the issue” at all?
And if this is a matter that rests wholly on the local church’s shoulders, then why does an official for a denominational entity say that he cannot comment due to legal issues? His own statement refusing comment is a statement that demonstrates the cooperative alignment between the denominational entity and the local church.

Denominational connectivity is the de facto reality of Southern Baptist life. The local churches are not totally independent, but rather, are part of a denominational web.
I wish I could say that the Cowboy Church’s hiring of a career criminal as pastor was incomprehensible. But it’s not. When a denominational web is so lacking in systemic oversight mechanisms, such stories become tragically predictable.

Update 9/27/2012: A Texas grand jury declined to indict on the child sex charges. But the question remains of whether this man should have been allowed into a position of trust as a pastor when he had a multi-year, multi-county rap sheet like the one shown here. Is a religious system safe when it so easily allows for this?