Friday, January 18, 2013

Clergy sex abuse and the "silence of the many"

"True evil lies not in the depraved act of the one, but in the silence of the many." On this day, I am contemplating these words, attributed to a black Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr.

In countless stories of Baptist clergy sex abuse, we have seen the sad truth of King’s words made manifest. Even with childhood histories of horrific abuse – of having been molested, raped and sodomized by Baptist preachers – many have said that the worst of their experience came when they tried to tell about the abuse within the faith community.

That was when they faced “the silence of the many.”

That was when the relational fabric of community, and often even of family, was torn asunder.

That was when faith itself was deemed a fraud.

Church after church has stood, not in solidarity with those who have been abused by clergy, but rather, with the accused minister-molesters. Often, the churches have stood with the ministers even when they admit their soul-murdering deeds, and sometimes, even when they have been criminally convicted.

Church leaders have quietly allowed accused preacher-predators – even those with multiple accusations -- to hop to new churches – and to do so repeatedly.

Denominational leaders have sat back and claimed powerlessness. Simultaneously, they have stayed silent about Baptist pastors, including some high-profile pastors, who kept quiet about abuse allegations involving ministerial staff.

The unmistakable message of so much silence and do-nothingness is that, among Baptists, clergy sex abuse is typically treated as “no big deal.”

No one in Baptistland wants to hear the voices of those who were sexually abused by Baptist clergy. Indeed, in the Southern Baptist Convention, there does not even exist a basic structure to support the compassionate hearing of such wounded people. Instead, they are told that they must take their allegations to the church of the accused minister. This is like telling bloody sheep that, if they want help, they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is a system that does not work.

But no one in denominational offices will take responsibility for assuring that clergy abuse allegations will be responsibly heard, or even that any records will be kept.
As a practical matter, because the vast majority of molestation allegations cannot be criminally prosecuted, a Southern Baptist preacher can stand in a pulpit so long as he is not literally sitting in prison. There is no denominational entity that will stop him. Even when a minister has hopped through multiple churches in multiple states with multiple allegations, Southern Baptist denominational entities pretend that it is better to not know -- to not even try to know.

Denominational leaders claim that their hands are tied by the congregationalist polity of Southern Baptist churches. In effect, they assert an “it’s our religion” rationalization for denominational do-nothingness.

However, some have realized that this is not truly a stance based on religion. Rather, it is based on the weighing of “responsibility and liability issues.” In effect, it’s a business decision. As David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, recently explained: “If the organizing body of a denomination claims no responsibility for supervising, or even ordaining clergy, it may be harder to hold it responsible when a pastor molests a child.”

Southern Baptist leaders have weighed these “responsibility and liability” issues and have come down on the side of seeking to protect denominational entities via a do-nothing response. Other major faith groups, including some congregationalist faith groups, have come down on the side of seeking to protect church kids via the implementation of denominational review boards to assess abuse allegations. Such review boards can at least provide a first step toward denominationally hearing the voices of those abused by clergy.

But for Southern Baptists, this first step remains untaken. They stand on an island of inertia.

The result is that Baptist church kids are being ravaged, not only by the sexual abuse of many ministers, but also by the denomination’s complicit silence. The rationalization by which the denomination cloaks its do-nothingness is of little consequence; this is true even when that rationalization is called “religion.”

The end of power remains the same  --  to preserve the status quo. If Southern Baptists want to responsibly engage their faith with respect to clergy sex abuse, they must start by considering the silent complicity of their own church and denominational power structures. They must respond to this systemic problem from a position of compassion and care rather than from a position of power.

What better way for Baptists to honor a Baptist preacher’s timeless voice for justice than by committing to actively hear the voices of those brutalized by their own clergy and ostracized by their own complicity?

Thanks to the Associated Baptist Press (an independent news service) for publishing this column!