Thursday, February 28, 2013

One Commission, Two Commission: What's the Difference?

Last month, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote a letter to President Obama.

Whew. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But that’s what it says on the letterhead: “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

The Commission maintains offices at Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville and also on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

Richard Land, who is the head of this lofty-sounding commission was writing to the President to tell him that “we would like to take this opportunity to add our voice to the discussions” on gun control.

He used that word “we” quite a lot. So who exactly is the “we” and by what authority does Land speak for the “we”?

After all, this is a denomination that claims it cannot possibly create a commission to consider clergy sex abuse allegations – as numerous other denominations have done -- because the Southern Baptist Convention has no authority to tell local churches about their ministers. Or so they say. They claim that Baptists’ professed belief in local church autonomy precludes such a thing.

Yet, obviously, this is a denomination that has no problem with creating a commission to consider political issues and to tell others – including even the President – what the Commission deems to be “sensible proposals.”

In fact, “the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission takes positions on a broad array of moral and social concerns.” For example, the Commission recently helped to sponsor an ad in USA Today, urging that Boy Scouts should refuse to allow gay people into their membership.

These public acts of position-taking are paid for with dollars pooled from local Southern Baptist churches, who contribute to the functioning of denominational offices through their “Cooperative Program” giving.

So here’s what I don’t understand.

If Southern Baptists can create a denominational commission for taking public positions on social issues and for telling others what they think is “moral,” why can’t Southern Baptists create a denominational commission for responsibly assessing abuse allegations against their own Baptist clergy and for telling Baptist congregants about their conclusions? Why can’t Southern Baptists create a denominational commission to offer “sensible proposals” to churches – proposals such as “this man should not be allowed to remain in ministry” – just as they now have a commission that offers “sensible proposals” to the President?

If Southern Baptists can create a commission empowered to tell others who they think should and should not be allowed into the Boy Scouts, why can’t Southern Baptists also create a commission empowered to tell their own churches who they think should and should not be allowed to stand in Southern Baptist pulpits? Why can’t Southern Baptists create a commission that could tell their own Southern Baptist churches about ministers who have substantiated sex abuse allegations?

If Southern Baptists can create an Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – and can even allow it to have a second office on Capitol Hill – why can’t Southern Baptists also create a Commission for Ministerial Accountability? Why does “local church autonomy” allow for the first Commission but preclude the second?

It is as though Baptists are saying that their religion allows them to eat red potatoes but not russet potatoes. It makes no sense.

This nonsensical inconsistency makes apparent that there is neither reason nor religion behind the Southern Baptist recalcitrance on clergy sex abuse.

Most clergy molestation claims cannot be criminally prosecuted. This is a big part of the reason why many other faith groups have begun implementing denominational commissions to assess clergy abuse allegations. Even if denominational leaders cannot put such men in prison, they can at least keep records on the allegations, warn congregants, and inform churches. They can take away the clergy-predator’s weapon of unsuspecting trust.

No doubt it may be easier for Southern Baptists to tell others what they think is moral, but what is much needed is for Southern Baptists to turn a mirror on themselves. They must create a Commission by which their own clergy may be made denominationally accountable so that they cannot so easily church-hop.

For Southern Baptists to persist in claiming that their religion precludes this sort of accountability is nothing more than a lame excuse and a cowardly cloak.

Related posts:
Autonomy schmonomy, 2/18/2009
More autonomy schmonomy, 8/16/2009

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Real men don't buy girls

We have seen too many reports of Baptist pastors who apparently don’t understand this basic truth: "Real men don’t buy girls.” Just a few days ago, on February 21st, a 54-year-old pastor at the First Baptist Church in Everett, Washington, was charged with commercial sexual abuse of a minor. But of course, he’s merely the most recent one to make the news. 

Maybe Baptist seminaries need to start teaching this truth to their students: “Real men don’t buy girls.” Or maybe evangelicals’ “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” could address it? (Yes, such an organization really exists.)
Photo from Restore A Voice.

Friday, February 22, 2013

United Nations chides U.S. for laxity on clergy sex abuse

In a report adopted this month in Geneva, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child chided the United States for “failing to fully pursue cases of child sex abuse in religious groups.”

As reported by the Reuters news service, the Committee wrote in its report that it was “deeply concerned at information of sexual abuse committed by clerics and leading members of certain faith-based organizations and religious institutions on a massive and long-term scale.” It also found a “lack of measures taken by (U.S. legal authorities) to properly investigate cases and prosecute those accused.”

The Committee arrived at its conclusions after a routine review of U.S. compliance with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In response to the Committee’s report, SNAP, the world’s largest support network for clergy sex abuse survivors, issued a statement. In some other western democracies, wrote SNAP, “courageous political leaders have launched governmental investigations into heinous clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. But little if anything of comparable significance has happened in the U.S.”

“The right to practice one’s religion is precious,” continued SNAP. “Even more precious, however, is the right of children to grow up without being sexually violated, especially by those who claim to be religious guides.”

The U.N. Committee’s report shows that the world is watching. The United States loses moral authority when it allows the rubric of religious freedom to trump the rights of children.

If religious institutions do not stop the cover-ups and begin implementing effective measures of clergy accountability, then sooner or later, government institutions will intervene, as they have in some other democratic countries.

Religious freedom does not include the right to cover-up clergy sex crimes. Religious freedom does not include the right to let accused clergy predators church-hop without accountability. Religious freedom does not include the right to leave church kids at risk of rape and molestation by ministers, or the right to leave church parents in the dark about accused clergy predators.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s unconscionable failure to implement clergy accountability systems cannot rightly be shielded under the guise of religious freedom. It’s not religion. It’s the hateful machination of a huge religious institution’s self-serving spare-no-cost protection of its own power structure. The cost, of course, is paid by kids.

The world is watching.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Baptists terminate investigator of child sex abuse claims

Only a few weeks before the release of a final investigative report on allegations involving a missionary's sexual abuse of kids, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) has fired the investigative team, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE).
The investigation had been on-going for nearly two years, and GRACE had interviewed approximately 100 witnesses. At issue in the investigation was not only the missionary’s alleged acts of sexual abuse, but more broadly, questions related to how ABWE responded to allegations. In other words, the investigation was also concerned with who at ABWE had knowledge about the accused missionary’s conduct, and with what they did or did not do.

GRACE was prepared to issue its final report and had already informed ABWE that the report would be delivered before the end of March.

ABWE hired a new investigative team to replace GRACE, but its new investigative team has a privacy policy which provides that the results of its investigation will be  released only to the client -- i.e., only to ABWE -- and not publicly.

Read GRACE's February 11th letter in response to ABWE’s termination – a letter that sets forth some of ABWE’s conduct during the investigative process – and decide for yourself what you think about this. Personally, I think ABWE’s termination of GRACE gives the appearance that there were likely some officials at ABWE who feared that GRACE’s report would implicate them in a keep-it-quiet cover-up in much the same way that an independent investigation of the Penn State scandal implicated others at the institution in addition to the child molester.

GRACE sums up its response to ABWE with this statement: “When placed in the context of ABWE’s conduct over the past 20 months, the termination of GRACE strongly suggests ABWE is unwilling to have itself investigated unless the investigation is within your control.”

GRACE also points out that many missionary kids and their families have been waiting for a decade to have an independent investigation of this matter. Tragically, GRACE is almost certainly correct in stating that, for many of these individuals, ABWE’s decision “will inflict a pain as great as any they have ever known.”
Related post:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

People to remember in the Prestonwood/Morrison Heights scandal

Amy Smith
(Rick Guy/The Clarion Ledger)
Over the course of two and a half years, Amy Smith made dozens of phone calls, and sent even more emails, to try to assure that Southern Baptist minister John Langworthy would not be able to molest more children. Smith knew what had happened 20 years earlier at the prominent Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, when she was a college intern there.

“Although ministers at Prestonwood fired Langworthy in 1989 when at least one teen told church leaders Langworthy molested him, they never reported the allegation to police,” reports the Clarion Ledger.

Langworthy simply picked up and moved to Mississippi, where he went to work as a staff minister at another prominent Southern Baptist church, Morrison Heights. He also became a choir teacher in the Clinton school district.

In her efforts to bring Langworthy to justice, Smith encountered the usual brick wall of Baptists’ keep-it-quiet system. The saga of her efforts to get around that system, and to find someone who would put kids’ safety first, is a saga that implicates “the silence of the many.”

It would be easy to believe that clergy molestation scandals are about the bad deeds of “lone wolf” perpetrators. But Smith’s saga shows all too clearly that this easy belief is not the truth.

The truth is that most Baptist clergy molestation scandals also involve many other people who turned a blind eye – who could have done more but didn’t – who gave rote “thank you for your concern” responses -- and who bullied any who tried to speak out. The Prestonwood/Morrison Heights scandal is no different; it implicates “the many” and not merely John Langworthy.

Those many others should also be remembered in connection with this scandal. Among the most well-known are these:
  • Rev. Jack Graham, former Southern Baptist Convention president and senior pastor of Prestonwood at the time Langworthy was fired and still twenty years later when Smith was seeking help to expose Langworthy;
  • Rev. Neal Jeffrey, a current Prestonwood staff minister who was also on staff when Langworthy was fired, and who was contacted by Smith twenty years later;
  • Rev. Greg Belser, senior pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Mississippi, who was contacted by Smith, and after a quiet internal church investigation, initially “decided to keep Langworthy” and then allowed him to simply resign;
  • Dr. Phil Burchfield, superintendent of the Clinton school district, who was Smith’s first phone call in 2010, but who obfuscated and did not nearly enough;
  • Philip Gunn, an elder at Morrison Heights, an attorney, and Mississippi Speaker of the House, who reportedly advised church leaders not to cooperate with the police in disclosing their communications with Langworthy.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Smith sent emails to the high school principal, high school counselors, members of the school board, PTA leaders, and a staff member at the Mississippi Department of Education. The father of one of Langworthy’s victims said that he had also contacted the Mississippi Baptist Convention, but to no avail.

Smith’s own parents “objected to her speaking out” and told her she should “write letters of apology to the pastors at Prestonwood.”

Meanwhile, the parent of a Langworthy victim is asking “that Prestonwood take responsibility for their coverup.”

Thanks to Amy Smith, that “coverup” was exposed, and in January, John Langworthy pled guilty on multiple child molestation charges. He is a convicted felon, but because his crimes were concealed for so long, he will serve no prison time.

Smith’s efforts were solidly vindicated by Langworthy’s conviction, but those efforts came at a heavy personal cost.

Last week, The Clarion-Ledger published two lengthy articles about Smith’s saga, and I expect Smith would say they’re the short version.

Consider all that Smith went through, and imagine that, instead of being someone who simply knew about a clergy perpetrator, you are someone who carries the weight of trauma and shame from a clergyman’s sexual abuse. It is a childhood trauma so profound that you can scarcely bear to bring the images to the forefront of your own mind, much less to speak about it with someone else. If you encountered the sort of resistance that Smith encountered – from family, community, church leaders and others – how long would you continue to pursue it? How long could you pursue it before you realized that you had to let go in order to save your own self?

The victims of John Langworthy were fortunate to have an advocate like Amy Smith, who stood in solidarity with them, and who gave of herself in order to bring forward their voices. Many other clergy abuse survivors are not so fortunate. The Baptist keep-it-quiet machine effectively silences them, with the result that, even when minister-molesters are reported to church and denominational leaders, most are still able to continue as ministers.

When a faith group does nothing at all about its clergy-coveruppers, you can be certain that its clergy predators will persist. That is the institutionalized scandal of the Southern Baptist Convention.