Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hopeless and Hopeful: Reflections on the past and thoughts for the future

A decade ago, when I first began calling on Baptists to institute protective measures against clergy sex predators, some people warned me that “Baptists are hopeless.” But I was an optimist.

I thought that, if only Baptists understood the extent of the problem, they would surely choose to implement clergy accountability systems similar to those that exist in other major faith groups.

I was wrong.

I thought that, if only Baptists understood the soul-murdering trauma that comes from sexual abuse by clergy, they would take action to better prevent the harm and minister to the wounded.

Again, I was wrong.

The inaction of Baptists derives not from a failure of understanding but from a denominational lack of will and a surfeit of institutional self-protection.

Does the fact that I was so wrong mean that this decade of effort in Baptistland has been of no value? Far from it.

Gains during the last 10 years

Over the past decade, there have been over 560,000 pageviews on this blog, and even more on the website (which I stopped maintaining in 2012). So a whole lot of people have been made aware of this systemic problem in Baptistland, and many have seen the cruelty that resides at the heart of this faith group -- the cruelty of turning a deaf ear to those sexually savaged by clergy and of leaving children as sitting ducks for predatory pastors.

Over the past decade, many journalists have become more savvy in understanding the dynamics of clergy abuse cover-ups in Baptistland. I will always feel grateful for the few journalists who were at the forefront in chronicling Baptist clergy abuse stories, and now, the next generation’s  journalists are more attuned.

Over the past decade, more attorneys have begun exploring avenues for legal accountability in Baptist abuse cases. For the first time ever, a jury verdict was handed down against a statewide Baptist denominational entity, and you can bet that we will see more of such “appropriate” rulings in the future. I’ve been told that Baptist denominational entities have settled other abuse claims, and though it sadly seems that Baptists are still using confidentiality agreements, even with such secrecy, the spending of denominational dollars on defense will eventually have an impact. The tenacity and creativity of America’s trial lawyers will someday bring Baptists into the movement for clergy accountability.

Over the past decade, other bloggers and advocates have begun to speak out about Baptist clergy sex abuse cover-ups, and no doubt, more will follow.

Over the past decade, the world’s largest clergy abuse survivor network, SNAP, has increased outreach efforts to Baptist abuse survivors, and recently, SNAP predicted that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé would likely focus on the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over the past decade, Baptist churches themselves have begun adopting policies for dealing with clergy sex abuse. One prominent pastor estimated that, ten years ago, “probably much less than 1%” had any kind of policy at all. Now, at least some churches do. The policies tend to be inherently inadequate and often little more than window-dressing -- for reasons I’ll talk about below -- but ten years ago, most in Baptistland were denying even the existence of a problem.

Finally, and most importantly, over the past decade, hundreds of Baptist clergy abuse survivors have begun their own healing journeys and have realized that they are far from alone in what was done to them -- done to them not only by the sexual abuse of predatory pastors but also by the re-victimizing complicity of countless other Baptist leaders. Some of their stories have been reported in the media; most have not. But this much I know for sure: What will someday bring change to this recalcitrant faith group is not the preached platitudes of Baptist leaders but the cumulative courage of clergy abuse survivors. This is where hope resides -- in the terrible truth of survivors’ stories.

Backward steps in 2016

Despite the decade's many gains, 2016 was a year in which that “hopeless” word often took hold in my head. Not only was there the continuing flood of clergy abuse cases with the same awful patterns of cover-ups and do-nothingness, but there were also institutional decisions that made the Baptist badlands seem even bleaker.

For starters, in 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention, this country’s largest Protestant faith group, elected a known clergy sex abuse cover-upper as its president. It was as though the cover-up of child sex crimes had rendered the pastor promotion-worthy rather than making him subject to accountability.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas, the largest statewide Baptist denominational entity, announced that it was abolishing its confidential file of abusive ministers. Though the BGCT’s public relations people spun this as a positive, survivors saw it for what it was -- a step backwards. The BGCT’s file was always part of a seriously flawed practice -- because the BGCT would receive reports only from churches (who almost never report their own ministers) and because it kept the information in a closed cabinet rather than proactively seeking to warn other churches -- but survivors had long hoped that the BGCT would amend its practice so as to accept abuse reports from the victims themselves. In 2016, that hope was dashed.

The national body of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship established a “clergy sexual misconduct task force” in 2016, and from initial reports, it appears the CBF has opted to follow the denominational hands-off model of the BGCT and SBC, with the timid provision of “awareness” workshops and policy samples for churches. These things are fine but they’re a far chasm from what’s needed -- and from what other faith groups, including some congregationalist groups, are already doing. I had long hoped that the CBF would eventually follow the model of the American Baptist Churches USA, the one Baptist group that has implemented denominational review bodies and record-keeping so as to provide at least the possibility of holding abusive pastors accountable within the faith group even when they cannot be criminally prosecuted. And, back in 2007, the small Alabama CBF had actually adopted such a model, giving rise to even greater hope that the national CBF organization would someday follow suit. That hope is now gone. (The Alabama CBF’s prior denominational review policy can no longer be found on its website, but you can still see the elements of that policy here).

Rationalization for denominational do-nothingness

It was particularly sad to see the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship offer up the same “local church autonomy” rationalization that Southern Baptists have spouted from the get-go, as though their purported lack of “hierarchical structures” could insulate denominational officials from moral obligation. It is a rationalization that has left a trail of destruction in countless lives, as survivors have pleaded with denominational officials to consider their reports and to help them in trying to protect other kids. But even when it’s too late for criminal prosecution (as it so often is, in part because of church cover-ups in the past), and even when the accused pastor is still in the pulpit, and even when he’s still working with kids, denominational leaders wash their hands of the problem and tell survivors to go to the church of the accused pastor to report him. Not only is this a callous response in terms of care for the wounded -- akin to telling bloody sheep that they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them -- but it’s also an ineffective response in terms of prevention -- local churches necessarily lack the objectivity to responsibly consider abuse reports against their own ministers. This is why Baptist church policies are usually inadequate: Effective accountability systems require the use of outsiders.

The reality of how few cases can be criminally prosecuted and the importance of outsiders in accountability systems are two reasons other faith groups have instituted denominational processes for considering abuse reports and warning congregations. But Baptists refuse to follow this developing standard of care, and their refusal gives rise to a critical safety gap. Less than ten percent of child molesters ever encounter the criminal justice system, and so most won’t have a record that shows up in a criminal background check. So, without denominational record-keeping, most clergy sex predators can easily roam to find new prey.

The simple truth is that Baptist churches are networked in all sorts of ways and they cooperate for all sorts of other endeavors. This is why Baptist ethicist Robert Parham wrote that “Baptist leaders are being disingenuous when they hide behind the shield of local church autonomy to avoid taking needed actions to protect children from predatory preachers.” In effect, by distorting their doctrine of polity, Baptist leaders render faith itself complicit in abuse: “It’s our religion” is the Baptist excuse for denominational inaction against clergy predators.

Like many, I have come to believe that Baptist leaders’ posturing on “local church autonomy” is primarily a risk management strategy. They have weighed the “responsibility and liability issues” and, unlike most of this country’s other major faith groups, Baptists have come down on the side of trying to protect their denominational coffers against liability risks rather than on the side of trying to protect kids against the risk of clergy predators. It is a perverse ordering of priorities and one that, shortsightedly, serves only the corporate structures of the denomination rather than its people.

Without modern systems for accountability and record-keeping, Baptists’ denominational structures enable the secrecy that allows clergy sex abuse to thrive. A church in Florida should be able to readily learn if a new minister from Texas has been credibly accused of sexual abuse. But without denominational systems to facilitate the sharing of such information, it will reside at best, and if at all, in the closed file cabinets of local churches -- churches that are often reluctant to say anything when another church calls for a reference for fear of being sued by the very man who has been accused. So they do little more than to confirm dates of employment. This is such a common practice that it has a name:  “passing the trash.”

Networked churches should rightly carry networked responsibilities and risks. A denominational review board wouldn’t intrude on the autonomy of churches but would instead empower them. Not only could it provide churches with the resource of outside experts to assess abuse reports, but with systematic record-keeping, it could provide churches with better information for better decision-making. In addition, it would allow autonomous churches to pool the risk of speaking out about a minister who has been credibly accused but who has not been criminally convicted.

What’s needed in Baptistland

Here is what Baptistland needs: (1) a denominational “safe place” office to receive reports about clergy sex abuse (particularly for cases that cannot be criminally prosecuted, which is most); (2) the systematic logging of abuse reports within the denomination; (3) the responsible assessment of abuse reports by a trained panel of experts who are outside the church of the accused minister; and (4) an efficient means of assuring that assessment information reaches people in the pews -- i.e., a database. In these ways, not only would Baptist churches be better served with shared information about a minister's fitness, but children and congregants would be better protected.

Someday, change will come even to this most recalcitrant of faith groups, and these sorts of denominational safeguards will seem quite ordinary. People will look back in wonder at why it took Baptists so long.

Thank you

Many thanks to my readers over the course of this past decade. I don't plan to blog further at this site, but I will post a notice here when my next book is released. Survivors: My heart is always with you. Happy trails.