Thursday, February 25, 2016

Spotlight: Lessons to be Learned

The movie “Spotlight” has received six Oscar nominations, including best picture, and on February 28 when the Oscars are presented, clergy sex abuse survivors all across the country will be watching and cheering.
The story focuses on the Boston Globe journalists who exposed the patterns of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Boston Archdiocese. But for many of the survivors who will be watching, we know the story is much bigger than Boston and much broader than Catholicism. Many of us were not abused by Catholic priests but rather by Baptist pastors and by clergy in other faith groups. Yet we will all be cheering for “Spotlight” because we all share similar experiences. We too know the horror of sexual abuse perpetrated in the name of religious authority and the nightmare of religious institutions that turn a blind eye.
It would be a mistake to view the “Spotlight” story as pertaining only to Catholics. To indulge that sort of thinking would be to engage in the same sort of denial that allowed the Boston abuses to persist for so long. The lessons of “Spotlight” are not merely about “those bad Catholics” but rather are lessons about what one of “Spotlight’s” screenwriters, Josh Singer, called the “collective looking away.” From beginning to end, the movie illustrates the natural human tendency to want to turn away from realities too repugnant to acknowledge, and it shows us the role that such denial can have in allowing for horrific crimes and cover-ups.
Clergy sex abuse and cover-ups are not just a Catholic problem. “In reality, the likelihood is that more children are sexually abused in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches.” Those are the words of Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor, a law professor at Liberty University, the founder of GRACE, and a grandson of Billy Graham. He’s a man who has devoted his life to dealing with these sorts of crimes and to understanding the dynamics of collusion within faith communities. Tchividjian knows what he’s talking about, and the available data backs him up.
I know that Tchividjian’s words are probably gut-wrenching for many of you in Baptistland, but I beg you to ponder them and to not turn away from this reality.
For those who might like to more closely consider the data, I suggest the Insurance Journal and Ethics Daily as starting points. I wish we had even better data, and I have long advocated that Baptist churches need to cooperatively maintain clergy abuse reports in denominational offices so that congregants might at least be informed about church-hopping abusive ministers and so that we might better understand the extent of the problem. But the day when Baptists decide to keep records on their clergy and to systematically share ugly information has not yet arrived, and that is part of why the data is so limited.
But let me be clear, I have no interest in a debate about whose clergy abuse more kids. The numbers are plenty awful for both Catholics and Protestants, and for both, the numbers are undoubtedly the product of underreporting, which means the real numbers are probably even higher.
Clergy sex abuse and cover-ups are an epidemic problem for all faith groups. The problem is facilitated by individual and institutional denial, and in this sense, Catholics and Protestants have far more similarities than differences.
Because the human tendency toward denial is so common, faith groups need to have systems in place to try to counteract it. This is where Baptists have fallen behind as compared to many other faith groups. While mainline Protestant groups have developed denominational boards for receiving reports about clergy sex abuse, for keeping records on abuse reports, and for warning congregations, Southern Baptists and most other Baptist and evangelical faith groups have not. (The American Baptist Churches USA are the exception; even though American Baptists also profess the autonomy of the local church, they have cooperatively allowed for the implementation of regional review boards in an effort to assure a measure of clergy accountability.)
This failure to keep denominational records on clergy abuse reports is a critical safety gap for Baptists because less than ten percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. This means that it is up to the institutions who afford clergy the mantle of trust to also do the job of policing their ranks and of warning congregations when the risks of trusting a particular individual become too great. When religious institutions fail to step up to the plate with their own functional accountability systems, ninety percent of clergy child molesters will likely slip through the cracks and church-hop their way to new prey.
Every day I continue to wonder how much longer Baptists will stew in their own denial, refusing to see the depth and difficulty of the problem that confronts them. Given the news released this week from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, it appears as though Baptists will remain mired in the quicksand of denial.
The largest statewide Baptist denominational entity announced that it was doing away with its confidential file of abusive ministers who had been reported by churches based on “substantial evidence,” a confession, or a conviction, and was instead going to focus on providing churches with resources for prevention. Though the BGCT’s file was always seriously flawed in practice -- because the BGCT would receive reports only from churches (who almost never report their own clergy) and because the BGCT did not proactively seek to warn other churches but simply kept the information in a closed file cabinet -- many clergy abuse survivors had hoped that, eventually, the BGCT would amend its practice so as to also accept clergy abuse reports from the victims themselves. That hasn’t happened, and instead the BGCT has doubled down on denominational do-nothingness. Its press release makes clear its view that the local congregation is where responsibility for dealing with “clergy sexual misconduct” must rest. (The very fact that the BGCT uses the minimizing language of “misconduct” says a lot about the extent of their denial … but I digress.)  
The goal of prevention is a good one, but Baptists persist in sidestepping the most powerful prevention strategy of all. Most child molesters have multiple victims, and so the best means to prevent abuse in the future is to assure that, when someone tells about abuse in the past, the report is dealt with responsibly. This is what Baptists are not doing.
Prevention requires realistic response protocols, and realistic response protocols must include the use of outsiders. Many other faith groups have learned this lesson, but Baptists still haven’t.
For Baptist denominational officials to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must go to the church of the accused pastor is like telling them they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is hurtful from the get-go and many abuse survivors won’t even attempt it -- and for good reason. Not only will the local church likely lack the expertise, but necessarily, it will also lack the objectivity to responsibly consider an abuse report against its own pastor. In the typical scenario, churches lash out against the accuser. Then, what often happens is that the pastor is simply allowed to move on to a new church, sometimes in another state, with few records kept and even fewer records shared.
For those children who wind up being sexually abused by a pastor who has moved on after abuse allegations at a prior church, the fact that the pastor was merely "allowed" to move on and not "assigned" is a fact that does not diminish by one iota the pain and trauma of the children. Nor does this fact diminish the moral repugnance of a denominational system that turns a blind eye and refuses to intervene.

Thanks to Baptist News Global for picking up this column and publishing it under "Perspectives." (Baptist News Global is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.)