When former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines uttered his infamous remark that Muhammad was a “demon-possessed pedophile,” some experienced SBC observers took it as a double-entendre–responding directly to comments following 9/11 that Islam was a peaceful religion, while also alluding to the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal that was making daily headlines in the summer of 2002.
At the same meeting Bobby Welch, a future SBC president, addressed a resolution in that context that urged sexual integrity for ministers. “We shouldn’t enjoy this Catholic mess too much,” Welch said. “We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it does, don’t be surprised if there is more and more within our ranks.”
This week survivors of sex abuse by clergy asked the SBC, the nation’s second-largest religious group behind Roman Catholics, to develop a comprehensive, nationwide strategy to rid churches of sexual predators.
Christa Brown, an attorney, wife and mother from Austin, Texas, says she met mostly roadblocks when she tried to alert denominational officials to abuse she suffered at the hands of a Southern Baptist youth minister when she was 16. She wants a denomination-wide policy of zero tolerance for sex offenders and establishment of an independent review board to investigate and educate churches about sexual abuse.
Brown says Southern Baptists’ system of local-church autonomy permits leaders to turn a blind eye when confronted with evidence of criminal abuse. She believes predators are crafty enough to recognize and take advantage of the system.
“What would a good shepherd do?” she asks on Web site. “Recite the mantra of ‘congregational autonomy’ or protect the young?”
A long-time victims’ advocate responded to a Wednesday story in EthicsDaily.com saying she wasn’t going to hold her breath.
“I have yet to see evidence of a single congregation or SBC institution that responded appropriately and truly encouraged people to act in courage to stop this common problem,” said Dee Ann Miller, a former Southern Baptist missionary who has written two books about collusion resulting from efforts for redress after she says she was sexually assaulted by a superior while on the mission field.
Miller has been ministering to sex-abuse survivors for 15 years. In all she has heard from about 2,500 victims of abuse by clergy, and at least 300 were abused by Southern Baptist clergy. Between a third and a half, she says, were abused as minors.
Miller says the real demons aren’t the perpetrators, the colluders, and certainly not the victims, but an acronym she calls “DIM” thinking–denial, ignorance and minimization.
“Behind collusion one will always find some form of DIM Thinking,” she writes. “Ignorance here may refer to one or all of the following: misinformation about the dynamics of abuse, resistance to attempts to provide education or a choice to ignore what one knows. Colluders may be guilty of DIM Thinking about the abuse, about collusion itself or both.”
Miller says collusion can be either passive–as when a church member or leader ignores a possible warning sign–or active, such as saying the accuser is crazy, unforgiving or that the denomination cannot afford money to pay for counseling.
One common game of collusion, Miller says, is “Let’s Make a Deal,” offering a victim or advocate something tangible or intangible to keep them quiet. Examples include, “If you will just go quietly to another congregation, we won’t tell anyone you had an affair with the minister,” or exchanging money in an agreement that the victim will not take the perpetrator or denomination to court.
Brown says any comprehensive plan of attack by the SBC should discourage the use of such “secrecy contracts.” Disapproval, she and other advocates said in a letter to SBC leaders, would “demonstrate a strong commitment to supporting those who reveal such abuse rather than the churches that strive to keep it secret.”
Miller says the Baptist press isn’t particularly interested in printing stories about sexually abusive ministers, judging from a discrepancy between what gets reported in secular media and what is picked up in denominational papers.
“I guess it wouldn’t be Christian?” she surmised. “Or maybe just lousy politics. And it certainly wouldn’t do the reputation of the denomination any good, in the short run.”
Another concern is job security. In 2002 the Illinois Baptist reported that if things had gone as planned, 35-year-old Leslie Mason would have preached the keynote sermon at that year’s annual meeting of the Illinois Baptist State Association.
Instead, the former pastor of Olney Southern Baptist Church faced 10 counts of criminal sexual assault involving two teenage girls who had attended his church.
Mason eventually pleaded guilty to two class-one felonies in exchange for dismissal of the eight remaining counts. The editor of the newspaper, Michael Leathers, was criticized and eventually forced to resign for his decision to report the story.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.