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Monday, February 11, 2019

Better Late Than Never?


The interesting thing about the report on the Southern Baptist Convention is that the SBC is, structurally and intentionally, the very opposite of the Roman Catholic Church.  The denomination is strictly  "congregational," meaning every congregation associates with every other congregation through the Southern Baptist Convention, but the SBC has absolutely no authority over those congregations.  So there can't be the active concealing of clergy abuse that the RC engaged in, but there can be the willful blindness to that abuse that the entire culture engaged in.  According to the first report (of three), the SBC didn't keep good records on employees and clergy, even sending employees on to other churches with letters of recommendation.  Well, to be fair, the SBC didn't do that, the churches did; the SBC just never so much as told the churches that might be a bad idea, even as it discarded churches which called gay or lesbian pastors to their pulpits.  Some things the SBC can do something about, you see.

I'm familiar with this phenomenon, not in terms of knowing victims of clergy or church employee abuse, but in terms of shunning, as many victims of abuse who reported it to their congregations were shunned.  I've mentioned before the last funeral I conducted, for a childhood friend who had "come out" in her adult life as a lesbian.  A life-long member of an SBC congregation, the church that knew her from childhood shunned her for being who she was.  That's not a peculiarity of the SBC; congregations are good at turning their backs on church members.  As we will see, sexual orientation is a much more serious issue for the SBC than sexual abuse (which is wrong in so many ways it defies argument).  Such treatment doesn't usually make the newspapers, though.

The other interesting fact here is that the reporter for the Houston Chronicle told NPR this morning they decided to look into allegations of sexual abuse among clergy and employees of SBC churches 10 years after activists pushed the SBC to respond to the allegations of abuse.  That's also acknowledged in the article itself:

In June 2008, [Debbie Vasquez, a victim of abuse 35 years earlier] paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

"Listen to what God has to say," she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. "... All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. ... Please help me and others that will be hurt."

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven't stopped. They've hurt hundreds more.

Most of the stories found by the Chronicle are public records of lawsuits and criminal convictions, not hidden stories tucked away behind SBC authorities (there really aren't any SBC authorities; nothing remotely comparable to any episcopalian form of church hierarchy).  So the question is:  why did the SBC ignore this for so long?  And the other question is:  why did Texas news media ignore this for so long?   It's a terrible thing, but 10 years ago activists confronted the Southern Baptist Convention with the problem and their complicity.  And 10 years later, the press in Texas has finally decided to investigate those allegations.  It only took six months to do the investigation; it only took 10 years to decide to undertake it, even with all the evidence hiding in plain sight.

I mean, the narrative that a free press is a shining light in the darkness and a tower of public moral responsibility is just undercut by a story that took 10 years to finally spark six months of investigation into "thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and,' finally, "conducting hundreds of interviews."  And no, I don't have a lot of sympathy for the SBC's position that it can't do anything because of it's non-episcopal structure:

Other leaders have acknowledged that Baptist churches are troubled by predators but that they could not interfere in local church affairs. Even so, the SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.

In one email to Debbie Vasquez, Augie Boto assured her that "no Baptist I know of is pretending that 'the problem does not exist.'"

"There is no question that some Southern Baptist ministers have done criminal things, including sexual abuse of children," he wrote in a May 2007 email. "It is a sad and tragic truth. Hopefully, the harm emanating from such occurrences will cause the local churches to be more aggressively vigilant."

Gays and lesbians are bad, especially in the pulpit; but child molesters in the pulpit?  Well, waddareyagonna do, except to "preach it round and square?"

The SBC Executive Committee also wrote in 2008 that it "would certainly be justified" to end affiliations with churches that "intentionally employed a known sexual offender or knowingly placed one in a position of leadership over children or other vulnerable participants in its ministries."

Current SBC President J.D. Greear reaffirmed that stance in an email to the Chronicle, writing that any church that "proves a pattern of sinful neglect — regarding abuse or any other matter — should absolutely be removed from fellowship from the broader denomination."
You see the exit there:  "knowingly."  As long as the congregation doesn't know, it's not responsible.  And if no system exists to tell them, then they don't have to know, and they can't be responsible.  It depends, you see, on what the meaning of "is," is (oh, ask your grandfather!).  Or it just depends on not really wanting to cut off churches from the convention who don't hate gays and lesbians (because that's what's really wrong!):

 But the newspapers found at least 10 SBC churches that welcomed pastors, ministers and volunteers since 1998 who had previously faced charges of sexual misconduct. In some cases, they were registered sex offenders.

"Knowingly" is a rather generously defined term, apparently.  And that applies to the newspapers as well:

In 2007, victims of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors 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. That didn't happen; the last time any such list was made public was by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It contained the names of eight sex criminals.

In 2018, as advocates again pressed SBC officials for such a registry, Houston Chronicle reporters began to search news archives, websites and databases nationwide to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors and other church officials. We found complaints made against hundreds of pastors, church officials and volunteers at Southern Baptist churches nationwide.
I don't defend the SBC here; as the article makes clear, the Convention itself, and its individual leaders over the years (including many from Houston), did all they could to distance themselves from allegations made in their congregations, or in congregations associated with the SBC.  The Rev. Ed Young's statement in an affidavit seeking to quash a deposition request states it plainly:

I have no educational training in the area of sexual abuse or the investigation of sexual abuse claims.  I have had no personal experience relative to any claim of sexual abuse among church members of any church of which I have been Pastor since my ordination as a Baptist minister over thirty four years ago.
...
Since 1979, as Pastor of Second Baptist Church of Houston, my sermons have been broadcast locally on a regular basis.  I have appeared on local television and national television regarding religious issues since my arrival in Houston, Texas.  My deposition testimony could unfavorably affect that television ministry, which is now seen on a daily basis in the greater Houston area.

In other words, Pastor Young is just the President (at the time) of the SBC, but that doesn't make him responsible for anything going on in the congregations of the SBC, and imputing any responsibility to him (like making him give a deposition in a lawsuit against the SBC, and other parties) would be damaging to his career.   Real towers of moral probity and authority these guys are.  When there was an allegation against a church employee in 1994, the mother of the victim says Young spoke to her once on the phone, hung up when she said she'd already called the police, and never spoke to her or her family again.  It was several months after that before the employee finally left his position with the church. Was the church concerned with interfering in a police investigation?  Or were they just concerned with appearances?

There's plenty of finger-pointing to go around, here; and certainly issues of sexual impropriety and institutional responses to it seem to depend on one's cultural, even political, persuasion.  Before my daughter was born (so, what, almost 30 years ago now?) my pastor was involved in a local church investigation into his behavior, including his behavior before his marriage (there was no allegation of impropriety in his marriage).  It was very low-level stuff, the major allegation being that he had dated, briefly, a member of the congregation.  No allegations of abuse; just some questions of propriety.  I later knew of another investigation of a UCC pastor, this about 10 years on from the investigation of my pastor, involving again questions of judgment about who he dated; nothing about any allegations of abuse, physical or otherwise.  Such matters nearly lead to loss of standing (i.e., ability to be a minister in the UCC) in both cases.  The UCC took any allegation of impropriety (not even rising to the level of alleged assault, I again emphasize) seriously; too seriously, I thought at the time (and still think).  Then again, the UCC has allowed the ordination and placement of gays and lesbians in its pulpit since the '90's, if memory serves (it may have been a bit later than that, I'm not going to look it up now).  Does this make the UCC 'better' than the SBC?  Hardly; it's just interesting how the culture of institutions shapes the behavior of those institutions.  The UCC is notoriously "liberal," the SBC is notoriously "conservative."  Ed Young is notoriously Republican and conservative in his politics, a position I'm sure that aligns with the majority of his congregation.  There are many reasons Ed Young has a congregation and I don't, and I'm also sure that's one of them.  But churches do have to hold themselves to higher, or perhaps better, standards.  The UCC was purging supposed Al Frankens from its midst 30 years ago, long before the U.S. Senate Democrats caught up.  More concerned with appearances isn't necessarily better than more concerned with gays and lesbians than sexual abuse allegations.  But the SBC has a lot to answer for, even if they can deny any legal liability for the actions of employees of their affiliated congregations.

I just don't want the indifference of the press to be overlooked here, either.  I'm not impressed with Texas news organizations and how they handle local Texas news.  As I've mentioned before, Texas education funding has been a mess for almost 40 years, yet few people in Texas even recognize there is a problem.  Most don't understand their school taxes go, not primarily to their local schools, but to the state's general fund; and a lot of that ignorance is the refusal of the Texas media to cover the story.  Is that because no one is trying to make a public issue of Texas school finance and in general how Texas funds state government?  If so, who finally got the Houston Chronicle to get interested in this story?  Round 2 of the activists trying to engage the SBC, ten years after the first attempt?  So twice in 10 years makes the press think "Hey, is there a story here?"  That's pretty pathetic for a "free press" supposedly so integral to the functioning of government and society it needs special Constitutional protections available to any individual or business entity that calls itself "media".  With great power comes great responsibility, but frankly the responsibility of the press to notice what's going on in the SBC is as great as the responsibility of the SBC to take action.

Is it any wonder our dominant cultural paradigm seems to be pointing fingers at other people while never taking any responsibility ourselves?

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