Monday, February 11, 2019

20 years, 700 victims

The blog title comes from part a headline released over the weekend regarding a sweeping investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News into years of sexual abuse perpetrated by hundreds of Southern Baptist church leaders.  The victims were as young as three years old.

According to reports, there were approximately 380 church leaders and volunteers implicated in sexual misconduct allegations over the past twenty years. Their positions ranged from pastor, minister, youth pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, and volunteer.  Of those 380, only around 220 were convicted or took plea deals.  Nearly 100 are still held in prisons.  Many others cut deals and served no time.  Over 100 are registered sex offenders.

The report was able to document that at least 35 perpetrators who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades.  Some of the registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit, including allowing an offender who assaulted a teenager to still work with a nonprofit that works with student organizations.

Several of the past presidents and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling the abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.  And that's the best case scenario.  In many others, the leadership encouraged victims not to report and to even forgive their assailantsOthers have been heard joking at the victim's expense.   I've already written about some of the horrible misogyny and victim shaming and blaming that was raised in light of the #MeToo movement.

In the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church, the hierarchy was identified as a contributing part of the cover up, at least in the eyes of Protestants.  It's the celibacy, it's the church hierarchy and power, it's the seclusion, etc. etc. etc.  The unique features of the Catholic Church were pointed to as examples of why this could not happen in Protestant denominations.  Why it could not happen in the Southern Baptist Convention.

And yet, here we are.  A place that far too many people already knew we were at.  With coverups that go back decades before this current investigation could even imagine.  As Albert Mohler has put it in his entry The Wrath of God Poured Out - The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention, from May 23, 2018, "our humiliation comes as a result of an unorganized conspiracy of silence.  Sadly, the unorganized nature of our problem may make recovery and correction even more difficult and the silence even more dangerous."

Mohler is partly true.  The generally autonomous nature of Southern Baptist Churches makes this into hundreds of individual cover ups and scandals.  Where he errs, is that there have been pushes at the larger Convention level to address this problem that have been ignored.  In 2007, victims of sexual abuse requested creation of a registry containing the names of current and former leaders of Southern Baptist Churches who had been convicted of sex crimes or who had been credibly accused.  It was denied.  It was left up to the local churches to be "more aggressively vigilant." The last time such a list was made available was the list by the Baptist General Convention of Texas containing eight names.

Victims and protesters again lobbied in 2018 for the registry and for mandatory training on domestic abuse and sexual assault for pastors and seminaries.  A resolutions was approved, but the resolution was a nonbinding statement, leaving the individual decision up to local church leaders.

The saddest part of this entire investigative series is that we all know this only covers those cases that were reported.  We all know there are untold multiples of the victims that never raised their voices.  That there are likely ministers, elders, and volunteers that are still serving today because they have never been caught.  That there are leaders who have convinced victims not to report because of the bad light it would bring on the church.  That there are churches that have said nothing when a pastor-search committee called because they were glad to be rid of that problem.  That there are known offenders who have been brought back into ministry because of some misguided notion of forgiveness and repentance should work.

Our church is currently in a series called Church Reimagined.  Yesterday, our pastor called for a second reformation.  He argued the first reformation was about getting the Word of God away from the leadership exclusively and to all people of God.  This second he argued was about getting the Work of God away from the leadership and out to all people of God.  A continual movement demystifying what the pastor or leader does and recognizing a truth of our faith.  We're all ministers and we all have flocks.  Some just have larger ones than others.

I think we need this second reformation as well, to address these scandals in the church.

The first reformation removed the leadership from having a perceived control over your soul and a real control over the knowledge of God that you had.  We see this as part of why the urge to protect the priesthood was so high.  If the priesthood was fallible, then several things fall apart.  Therefore the priesthood must be protected at all costs.  Or so the misguided thinking went.

The first reformation freed us in that it allowed each of us access to God's word and ultimately put our eternal outcome back in God's hands alone.  Without that control, it allows us to see the individual that is leading us and not the power of the "church."

We have a similar notion in Protestant churches that must be dismissed as well.  The idea that the pastor is holier than us, more special than us, more gifted than us.  That the pastor is called to God's work, which makes him unique.   That gets twisted in several ways, including into the idea that the pastor's work must be protected at all costs.  If the pastor is the one doing God's work, then he must be allowed to continue. After all, who else would do it - or so the misguided thinking would go again. I've even heard ludicrous statements like the pastor being subject to God's laws alone and not earthly authorities like the police.

We need the second reformation to really remind us that our pastors are human, just like us.  They are ministers, just like us.  They have a mission, just like us.  And they are going to fall, just like us.

When they fall so egregiously as has been outlined in the investigation and reports, they must be held accountable.  They must be reported to the proper authorities.  And that's just not the church.  That's the police.

Because, as we are seeing, the cover-up done in the name of "protecting the church" only ends up hurting the Church.  We know this, deep down.  Covering up sin only allows it to fester.  But we can also see this in a real way.  About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cited the clergy sex abuse scandal as a reason for leaving the church.  Among former Catholics who now identify as Protestant, 21 percent say the sexual abuse scandals were a reason for the change.

"The scandals make it difficult or even impossible to pass the faith on to our kids...I think about it every hour."  Paul Elie, a writer who lectures at Georgetown University's Berkley Center on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal.

We've got to do better.  Whatever form that takes, we have to do better.  For the 700 victims who spoke up.  And the thousands we know that never will.

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