Thursday, June 30, 2016

SBC church seeks to 'out' child sex abuse victims

David Clohessy speaking to the press, along with other SNAP members,
outside Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas
(Kansas City Star photo)

A Southern Baptist megachurch that is being sued over sexual abuse inflicted on minor girls has filed a court petition requesting that the girls’ names be made public.

Although sexual abuse lawsuits involving minors are typically filed under “Jane Doe” or “John Doe” pseudonyms in order to preserve the children’s anonymity, Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kansas, has requested that the court require the children and their mother to proceed in open court under their real names.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, described it as a “stunningly callous” and “mean-spirited” tactic.
Clohessy’s organization, SNAP, has been instrumental in bringing countless clergy sex abuse cases into the light of day. It was originally formed by survivors of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests, but today, SNAP has members who were sexually abused within many other faith groups, including Baptist groups.   
Clohessy stated that, in his 28 year history of advocacy work, this was the first time he had ever seen a religious institution seeking to “out” a minor who was bringing forward a claim of sexual abuse. “I’ve never seen a defendant try to ‘out’ kids who are still kids in a child sex case,” he said.
For those of you who don’t know much about SNAP, let me just point out that SNAP is the organization whose work helped bring to light the child molestation cases that formed the basis for the movie “Spotlight,” which recently won an Academy Award. Clohessy himself has talked with hundreds upon hundreds of child sex abuse survivors and mostly survivors abused in religious institutions. He knows the ugly patterns of such cases better than probably anyone else in the country. Yet, with all the cases he has seen, Clohessy had never seen a church seek to “out” the identities of children who were sexually abused.
Incidentally, there’s no doubt that these children were sexually abused. The perpetrator is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence. The fact that he also had two prior felonies was a factor in determining the length of his sentence, and it also forms part of the basis for the family’s civil lawsuit against the church. The suit alleges that the church knew the perpetrator was dangerous and failed to take adequate precautions for the protection of kids.
And now … so desperate is this Southern Baptist church to pull out all the stops in trying to defend against the family’s civil suit that it is doing what virtually no other religious institution has previously done. It is seeking to publicize the names of children who were sexually violated.
Brad Russell, attorney for
Westside Family Church
(photo: Shawnee Mission Post)
The attorney for the church -- i.e., the guy who is pursuing this deplorable tactic -- is Brad Russell. In his court filing, he tried to justify the tactic by claiming that the family had used “a Pearl Harbor styled barrage of negative publicity” against the church.

As SNAP often does when it is trying to draw attention to a serious safety problem in a church, it held a press conference outside the church. I’ll leave it to you to take a look at the photo of that group of concerned citizens speaking out for the protection of children and decide for yourself whether you think it looks like “a Pearl Harbor styled barrage.” To me, it looks like attorney Russell went off on a grossly exaggerated and untenable rant.      
Since Westside Family Church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, SNAP called on SBC officials, including newly-elected SBC president Steve Gaines, to denounce the church’s “inexcusable” tactic of trying to “out” children victimized by sexual violence. But of course, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting. Gaines himself has a much-publicized prior history of having kept quiet about an admitted child molester on his own ministerial staff. Yet, despite Gaines’ known cover-up history, Southern Baptists chose him as their leader just a couple weeks ago. That’s how dysfunctionally oblivious this denomination is to the dynamics of child sex abuse and to the ways in which its own leaders create such a hostile climate for those who would seek to report child molesters who prey on church kids.

Update 10/25/2016: The district court judge rejected the argument of the church's attorney and ruled that the minor plaintiffs will remain anonymous in court proceedings. The judge also denied the church's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. So, the case is currently set to go to trial in August 2017.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Southern Baptists elect known clergy-sex-abuse-cover-upper as president

Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis
(photo by Joni B. Hannigan)

At its June 14-15 annual meeting in St. Louis, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Steve Gaines as SBC president. Gaines, who is the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, was implicated in a widely-publicized clergy child molestation cover-up about nine years ago.
Here's what was uncovered at the time: Gaines knew for at least six months that a Bellevue staff minister, Paul Williams, had molested a child, and Gaines simply kept quiet. He did not report the crime to the police, and he also kept Williams’ conduct a secret from the congregation. If a blogger had not made the news public, there’s no telling how long Gaines would have persisted in keeping Williams’ dangerous conduct under wraps.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Gaines had obviously chosen to prioritize the protection of his staff minister rather than the protection of kids, and despite Gaines’ secrecy, the church chose to retain Gaines as its senior pastor. Gaines faced virtually no consequences.
Furthermore, not only did Gaines keep quiet about the fact that a staff minister had admitted to molesting a child, thereby leaving other kids at greater risk, but he also allowed Williams to continue to serve as a counselor for congregants who had been sexually abused as children. Can you imagine how those people felt when they learned that the very minister who had been counseling them was someone who himself had molested a kid? As one woman later explained her pain: “That a suspected pedophile might have been titillated by the story of her abuse at the hands of a since-deceased relative -- the thought turns her stomach.”
It seemed plenty bad enough at the time that Gaines’ mega-church, Bellevue, had no apparent problem with retaining a senior pastor who kept quiet about a child-molesting-minister. But leave it to Baptists to go from bad to worse in dealing with clergy sex abuse. It now appears that the entire Southern Baptist Convention also has no problem with such cover-up conduct in their highest leaders.
In electing Steve Gaines as SBC president, the largest Protestant denomination in the country has spoken loud and clear: Clergy child molestation cover-ups are no big deal in Baptistland.

See also SNAP's 6/15/2016 press release blasting Southern Baptists' election of new president.

Update: "Advocates fault new SBC president's record on child sex abuse," Baptist News Global, 6/17/2016

Related posts:
"Steve Gaines on Protecting Kids," 12/4/2007
"The Malignancy of Baptist Oblivion to Clergy Sex Abuse," 4/8/2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

SNAP prediction: Next "Spotlight"-style exposé will focus on Baptists

David Clohessy
Executive Director, SNAP
On June 3, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released a letter to top officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling on them to create a "safe place" office to which clergy sex abuse survivors can file reports about their alleged perpetrators and predicting that, without action, Baptists will become the next target of a "Spotlight"-style exposé. The letter, from SNAP's Executive Director David Clohessy and Outreach Director Barbara Dorris, was directed to SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page and SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore. Here it is.

Dear Dr. Page and Dr. Moore:

With the approach of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2016 annual meeting, we are writing with two requests:

First Request.  We ask for the creation of a denominationally-funded “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may file a report about their alleged perpetrators and that the “safe place” office be widely publicized.

Reason for First Request. It is flat-out cruel for Baptist denominational officials to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must go to the church of the accused pastor if they want to report him within the faith community. This is like telling abuse survivors that they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is a response that inflicts additional harm on greatly wounded people and that turns a cold shoulder to those who seek only to protect others. To avoid the hopelessness that often besieges survivors who see no realistic avenue for even making a report, and to encourage Baptist clergy abuse survivors to speak out, the SBC needs to provide a “safe place” where survivors may report their perpetrators to people who have the professionalism and experience to receive those reports with compassion and care.

Because of the traumatic damage that is done to them, most clergy abuse survivors are well into adulthood when they seek to formally report those who abused them in childhood. Often, their claims can no longer be criminally prosecuted. Indeed, most experts estimate that less than 10 percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. Church cover-ups frequently contribute to the failure of prosecution because many survivors made some outcry in childhood only to have their outcry suppressed within the church while the perpetrator was allowed to move on. Yet, despite these harsh realities, many survivors still strive in adulthood to protect others by reporting their perpetrators within the faith community. By providing a “safe place,” the SBC could facilitate their reports rather than stifling them.

As you know, in the past, we requested that the SBC provide its affiliated churches with the resource of trained outsiders for assessing clergy abuse reports that cannot be criminally prosecuted and for informing congregations about credible allegations. These were reasonable requests because realistic response protocols are essential to the prevention of clergy sex abuse, and realistic response protocols require the use of outsiders. Sadly, the Executive Committee declined those requests, claiming that “local church autonomy” precluded them, and that is why we are now making this smaller request for the creation of a “safe place” to receive reports. The mere fact of denominational record-keeping -- i.e., of receiving reports and logging allegations -- presents no plausible possibility of interfering with local church autonomy.  

Frankly, our hope is that, if the SBC Executive Committee would simply begin to receive reports and systematically log allegations, there would eventually come a point when SBC officials would realize the need to provide churches with a professionally-staffed office for responsibly assessing those reports and for informing churches about credible allegations -- and would also realize that providing churches with this kind of information doesn’t violate their autonomy. In other words, we hope for incremental change. Our view is that an outsider’s assessment should happen whenever a minister has even a single allegation, but even if you disagree with us on that, surely you would agree that there would be some point at which multiple allegations against a minister should be responsibly assessed and churches should be warned. For example, if a minister had accrued 3 abuse allegations in 3 churches in 3 different states, would you think this was enough to warrant a denominational assessment as to whether churches should be informed? What if the minister had accrued 10 allegations? 20? Surely there would be some point at which you would agree that denominational officials should help churches with the provision of information about church-hopping ministers who have multiple credible accusations of child sex abuse? Whatever that point may be, the place to start is with receiving reports and systematically logging the allegations.

The SBC Executive Committee has the power. Dr. Page, your predecessor, Morris Chapman, described the role of the Executive Committee as the “fiduciary of the Convention” and as the denominational entity “empowered to function” on behalf of the SBC. Therefore, we ask that the Executive Committee exercise its power for the creation of a “safe place” office for receiving reports about clergy sex abuse in SBC churches.

Alternatively, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has the power. In 2008, when the Executive Committee rejected the proposal for a denominational database of admitted and credibly-accused clergy sex abusers, it pointed to the existence of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and said that no additional office was needed because the ERLC was “fully capable” of “the provision of ministry called for by sexual abuse victimization.” The Executive Committee further stated that “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….” Dr. Moore, although your ERLC predecessor chose to do essentially nothing for the provision of ministry to clergy abuse survivors, we are asking you to choose differently and to “serve as the office of receipt” for reports about clergy sexual abuse in SBC churches. Put an end to the dysfunctional denominational cruelty of insisting that survivors report to the church of the accused perpetrator.

Second Request.  Dr. Page, nine years ago on April 19, 2007, you wrote a column, published in the Florida Baptist Witness, in which you demonstrated the antithesis of compassion and care for clergy sex abuse survivors, and once again, we are asking for an apology.

Reason for Second Request. Writing as the president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country, you labeled those who were speaking in the media about Baptist clergy sex abuse as “nothing more than opportunistic persons.” As was noted in EthicsDaily at the time, the only group that was publicly speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse was our organization, SNAP, whose members are, for the most part, people who were molested and raped by clergy when they were children. Your words were extremely hurtful, set a terrible example, and helped to foster within your faith group a climate of hostility toward clergy abuse survivors. We are still hoping that, someday, you will understand the harm of what you wrote and will make a public apology, which we would be happy to receive.

Conclusion. Data gathered by the Associated Press demonstrated that clergy sex abuse is not only a Catholic problem but also a huge problem for Protestants. If the SBC persists in denominational do-nothingness, we predict that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé will be focused on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that time comes, we earnestly implore you to at least take the step of creating a “safe place” for denominationally receiving clergy abuse reports.

Reported by Baptist News Global, "Victims' group asks Southern Baptists to create 'safe place' for reporting sexual abuse," June 3, 2016.