In the wake of the Foley scandal, parents feel more vulnerable about their kids’ cyber-safety. Sales are soaring for software that can track kids’ online activity. As parents, we want to know who the predators are, and we want our kids protected.
But what about the predators in our churches? With more than 100,000 Southern Baptist ministers in this country, you can be certain there are predators among them.
Foleygate has awakened many to the realization that predators do not fit any stereotypical profile. They wear all kinds of masks. That includes the mask of a minister.
In fact, clergy predators start out with a powerful advantage over online predators. They’re men of God. They stand in the pulpit. Everyone in the church respects and trusts them. So kids automatically trust them too.
And like online predators, clergy predators slowly exploit that trust for their own ends. It’s called grooming.
Few start right in with physical contact. Instead, like Foley’s e-mails, they start with sexualized language, and then little by little, they reel the kid in.
A clergy predator might start by sharing some verse from Song of Solomon. What’s the kid to think? It is, after all, a Bible verse. But little by little, the tone shifts and the language advances, and like a frog in slow-heated water, the kid is cooked. And finally, when the worst of it arrives, there remains nothing but a soul-dead numbness.
I remember so well how the youth minister at my childhood church used to pile a bunch of us girls in his stick-shift Mustang to drive us home after some youth event. We didn’t worry about seat-belts, and invariably one of us would have to squeeze into the middle. He would always crack a joke about how he was going to put the stick between our legs.
We all giggled. All of us. None of us ever knew what to say. He was the minister, and we were just giggly girls.
But that’s how it started. As a parent, I look back and see how horribly lurid that was.
As kids, we didn’t see it. If anything, we felt cool.
None of us smoked. None of us drank. We were church kids. So what we did to feel cool was pile in the car with the minister and laugh at his jokes. In hindsight, cigarettes and alcohol would have been safer.
Parents should worry about online predators, but they should worry just as much about clergy predators like the one I encountered. That is because if parents in the pews don’t start worrying about this, it doesn’t appear that anyone else will.
Denominational leaders have made it clear that they’re far more focused on the precise parameters of congregational autonomy than on protecting kids.
When a man can remain in ministry even after 18 church and denominational leaders are informed about a substantiated report involving sexual abuse of a minor, parents should worry quite a lot.
If Southern Baptist leaders don’t take action to stop the predators they’re specifically told about, why should anyone think they’ll be able to stop the predators they don’t yet know about?
Despite another minister’s decades-long knowledge of the abuse, the minister who assaulted me went on to have a very successful career spanning several states. I’ve been told he even served on a church committee for developing policies to protect kids. It’s part of the mask. The same sort of mask that Foley wore when he chaired the House caucus on exploited children.
No amount of software will protect kids against the sort of masked predators who are lurking in your churches. What’s needed is a denomination-wide commitment to transparent accountability procedures, disclosure of abuse reports, and support for those who report abuse rather than those who conceal it. Demand at least this much from your Southern Baptist leaders.
Ninety-five percent of kids who are sexually abused know and trust their attackers. Few are more trusted than ministers. This means a church can be a near-perfect paradise for a predator if protections are not in place.
Don’t let what happened to me happen to your kids–or to any other kids. It’s hell.
A retired appellate attorney, she is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.