Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Will changing of the guard bring any change on clergy sex abuse?

Russell Moore
"In a generational changing of the guard, Southern Baptists are gaining a new advocate for their values in Washington and around the country as Russell Moore, a media-savvy theologian, takes the helm of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.” This news, reported last week by the Religion News Service, means that the ERLC will no longer be headed by Richard Land, who had been at the commission’s helm for nearly twenty-five years.

As the ERLC’s new leader, Russell Moore claims that he will use “convictional kindness” to defend Southern Baptist ideals.

“Convictional kindness.” What do you think that means with respect to the denomination’s do-nothingness on clergy sex abuse? Will there be any change?

Kindness starts with listening. But Southern Baptists lack any system for even hearing the voices of clergy abuse survivors, much less for listening to them. There is no denominational office to which people might report abusive clergymen – no safe place where they might hope to have their abuse reports compassionately heard – no trained panels for responsibly assessing abuse reports – no one in denominational authority who will take any responsibility for doing anything at all, regardless of how many abuse reports a minister may have against him.

Baptists’ do-nothingness is an aberration from what other major faith groups are now doing. Realizing that most child molestation cases cannot be criminally prosecuted, other denominations have developed clergy accountability systems to try to provide at least the possibility that a minister may be held accountable to the faith community even if he can no longer be held accountable under the law. Such systems also provide the possibility that clergy abuse survivors may at least be heard within the faith community, even if their claims can no longer be heard within the legal system.

Most clergy child molesters have more than one victim, and due to the nature of the trauma, most victims are unable to speak out about their abuse until many years later. These two realities mean that the best way to prevent clergy sex abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past.

Thus, listening is an essential component of kindness -- kindness not only toward those who were abused by clergy in the past, but also kindness toward kids in the future who are better protected when credibly-accused clergy predators are disallowed from positions of such high trust.

Will Russell Moore bring this kind of kindness to the ERLC?

It’s not such a far-fetched thought to imagine that the ERLC could provide such a forum – i.e., a forum through which the denomination might responsibly and compassionately hear the voices of those wounded by Southern Baptist clergy.

Back in 2008, when the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee rejected the idea that the denomination should create a review panel for receiving clergy abuse reports, and rejected the idea that the denomination should keep a database of records on credibly-accused ministers, the Executive Committee claimed that these steps were unnecessary “in view of the existence of an SBC entity already assigned the task of assisting Southern Baptist churches through ‘communication and advocacy of moral and ethical concerns’….”

“That entity,” wrote the Executive Committee, “is the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is fully capable of determining the proper construction, prioritization, and provision of ministry called for by sexual abuse victimization.”

Thus, the SBC’s Executive Committee pointed to the existence of the ERLC as one of its primary reasons for refusing to create any new denominational safeguards to protect against clergy sex abuse.

Richard Land
Yet, despite being “fully capable” as the Executive Committee stated, the ERLC under Land’s leadership did not choose to prioritize any provision of ministry for those victimized by the sexual abuse of Baptist clergy.

Will the ERLC under Moore’s leadership choose differently? Will it choose kindness toward Baptist clergy abuse survivors by showing a willingness to responsibly hear their stories? Will it choose kindness toward Baptist church kids in the future by providing people in the pews with a reliable source of information so they might better protect against church-hopping clergy-predators?

In that 2008 report, the SBC Executive Committee said still more about the powers of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with respect to clergy sex abuse: “Continued ministry to assist churches in addressing this vital topic seems to fall naturally within the assignment of the ERLC. Should the ERLC arrive at a different conclusion in the future about the advisability of receiving reports of sexual abuse … and desire to serve as the office of receipt, it may so advise the Convention and make appropriate recommendations in that regard.”    

Thus, the SBC Executive Committee suggested that the ERLC had the power to decide for itself whether it wanted “to serve as the office of receipt” for reports of clergy sex abuse, and that the ERLC could, on its own, make such a recommendation to the Southern Baptist Convention so as to better assist churches in addressing this problem.

Under Richard Land’s leadership, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission did essentially nothing with respect to assisting churches in ferreting out church-hopping clergy-predators and essentially nothing with respect to any provision of ministry for those wounded by Baptist clergy predators.

Will Russell Moore bring about any change? He has talked about “kindness.” But will he demonstrate that “kindness” by leading Southern Baptists toward responsibly dealing with the problem of clergy sex abuse?
The Southern Baptist Convention convenes its annual meeting next week in Houston. If Moore holds the conviction of his words, then now is the time for him to take action by recommending to the Convention that the ERLC “serve as the office of receipt” for reports of clergy sex abuse.

Update: Thanks to a reader for reminding me that Russell Moore publicly sang the praises of Philip Gunn, even after Gunn advised officials at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Mississippi NOT to divulge to police investigators information about what an accused minister-molester had said to church officials. Despite the church's recalcitrance, the minister was ultimately convicted. Obviously, this doesn't give reason for optimism that Moore will assume any leadership in furthering the protection of kids from clergy sex abuse.

Update 1/10/2014: Now we have yet another indication of how unlikely it is that Moore's leadership will bring any positive change in the SBC's denominational do-nothingness on clergy sex abuse. The ERLC has announced the formation of a "Leadership Network" to join with the ERLC in applying "the gospel of the kingdom to the major cultural issues of our day." Named to the "Leadership Council" for this new network is pastor Greg Belser of Morrison Heights Baptist Church -- a pastor who has been implicated in one of the SBC's biggest clergy sex abuse cover-up scandals to date, the Prestonwood/Morrison Heights scandal. In Belser's short bio on the ERLC's "Leadership Council" site, he talks about how the ERLC helps him in "resourcing our church for speaking courageously in the culture." In my opinion, Belser could show himself to be a great deal more courageous if he would submit his own conduct to the review of an independent organization such as GRACE and let that organization speak to the truth of what happened in the Prestonwood/Morrison Heights scandal. In any event, Belser's appointment to the ERLC's "Leadership Council" doesn't bode well for anticipating any improvement in the SBC's blind-eyed nonresponsiveness on clergy sex abuse.