In 1995 Dee Ann Miller wrote a column for “Baptists Today” offering 16 concrete suggestions about how Baptists could better cope with problems of sexual abuse and misconduct by ministers.
Eleven years later, she says, except for minor editorial changes, the same article could be written today.
“I believe the problems are much bigger and broader than most people can even fathom,” Miller said in an e-mail interview with EthicsDaily.com.
Miller, trained as a psychiatric nurse, has been doing advocacy work on behalf of survivors of clergy sex abuse since 1993. It’s a calling she would never have chosen. It rather chose her.
Miller and her husband, Ron, were missionaries in Africa employed by the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board. In 1988, she says, she was the victim of third-degree sexual assault stemming from unwanted advances by a missionary colleague.
After reporting the offense, she says, she was in essence put on trial. The FMB (later renamed the International Mission Board, as it is known today) was so afraid of her allegations of cover-up and collusion they placed her and her husband on probation, telling them they could return to the field only if they kept quiet.
Two other alleged victims of her perpetrator were minors. He was on leave of absence, with no guarantee he wouldn’t be sent somewhere else. At the time, pursuing the charges seemed the only ethical course of action. Eventually, however, they wore down. Convinced the cause was hopeless, the Millers resigned from a career they had loved.
Her assailant, meanwhile, managed to return to a pastorate and teaching position only months after resigning as a missionary. Today he parades around the Dallas-Fort Worth area as a “retired” missionary, unmonitored and apparently of little concern to the denomination. After all, Miller says she and her husband were led to believe in numerous conversations, he was just one of many.
She told her story in a 1993 book, How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct. Within a year, she says, with very little marketing and before Internet access was widely available, the book had taken on a life of its own. She spent hours every week answering mail and phone calls from all denominations–95 percent of them from victims. The walls of one room of their parsonage were papered with thank-you notes from survivors.
She started advocacy writing in SBC circles, expecting angry responses from high places. To her surprise, what she got was mostly silence.
Miller, who also now has a Web site, supports current efforts of Christa Brown, a sex-abuse survivor who with other representatives of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is calling on the SBC to develop a comprehensive national strategy to battle sex abuse by clergy. But she isn’t optimistic.
“You would be amazed at the people who are even highly respected in CBF circles who have colluded,” she told EthicsDaily.com. “I’m not out to trash or destroy reputations, though–I just believe that people in Good Old Boy systems often do not recognize their own prejudices, just as all of us Caucasians are prone to deny our racial prejudices.”
For example, one respected former agency head told Miller in the mid-1990s he had dealt with at least 50 cases of clergy sexual misconduct, and he considered that victims are always partly responsible, no matter what the circumstances. A woman she considered to be an expert in women’s issues in the Southern Baptist Convention held similar views, telling Miller she believed even small children do something to somehow invite the abuse.
Miller says the Southern Baptist Convention has its “collusion act” together, perhaps more than any denomination. That is because of a structure that allows leaders to be irresponsible, powerful attorneys and laws that protect denominations with congregational polity.
During media coverage of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, one SBC leader played a trump card when he told CNN there had not been a case involving the abuse of a minor in the Southern Baptist Convention since the mid-1980s, and then there was only one.
Miller said that is only technically true and because of a loophole. The SBC is organized around autonomy of the local church. Pastors are ordained, hired and fired by local congregations. That makes it nearly impossible to prove liability by the denomination in lawsuits involving clergy abuse.
“We’ve probably had a dozen of these cases where a plaintiff has undertaken to show that SBC controls a minister,” James Guenther, the SBC’s longtime general counsel, was quoted as saying in a 1992 article about a $10 million lawsuit filed against the convention for sexual assaults by a minister sentenced to 72 years in prison for molesting five boys. Guenther explained that no SBC agency beyond the local congregation has legal or disciplinary authority over pastors.
Miller finds it ironic that a convention “which is powerful enough to have been largely responsible for the election of several presidents of the United States sees itself as conveniently powerless” when it comes to confronting sexual abuse.
Miller said to her knowledge the single case alluded to by the SBC leader involved a situation of incest by a foreign missionary imprisoned 12 years for abusing his own children. Miller worked with the mother, who along with her children filed suit in 1988 seeking damages from the Foreign Mission Board for not informing her or requiring her husband to get counseling when superiors found out the children were being abused.
The woman won her case, but FMB lawyers managed to get the decision overturned in 1993, and the mother and children wound up getting nothing. After that, Miller said she lost contact with the mother, who was living in Alaska but stopped returning phone calls or answering letters. “I’m sure she was devastated,” Miller said.
When Miller wrote How Little We Knew, she didn’t identify the Southern Baptist Convention or country where they worked. That was in part because she wanted to protect the identities of the two minor girls also victimized, but also because she didn’t want the story to be only about Southern Baptists. It’s a problem that affects all religions, she says, but she is especially disturbed by her own denomination’s response.
“I believe that it’s the arrogance of Baptists that makes the collusion so much more offensive to me than what I see in other denominations,” she told EthicsDaily.com. “Collusion is there in all, and the structure is a challenge.”
“However, I know full well that Baptists can do what Baptists want to do, whenever it is in their best interest to do so,” she continued. “It’s quite obvious to me that it is not considered in their best interest–there are just too many guys who have covered up too much, even if they aren’t perpetrators themselves, and they are running around scared of being exposed.”
Efforts by Miller and other advocates haven’t been totally fruitless. The IMB installed a toll-free number in 2004 for people to call to report sexual abuse by missionaries. That was in response to demands by a number of people who reported sexual abuse as children on the mission field in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Miller called the number “an encouraging sign,” but warned that in some other agencies victims who called similar numbers were re-victimized. She advised victims to talk to an attorney specializing in professional sexual abuse before making any report to any institution.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Contact Dee Miller.
Read her 1995 series of articles for Baptists Today.
Order How Little We Knew from Amazon.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.