Sunday, June 09, 2013

You may be seen as fringe.

The Southern Baptist Convention is about to convene their 2013 annual meeting in Houston, Texas, and the Pastor's Conference begins today. In a world where the SBC is becoming more irrelevant by the year, this just might be the headline story from this year's gathering.

Since I don't seem to be able to comment on the ABP site, this is what I'd say to Doug Bischoff's rebuttal to Amy Smith's allegations:

Bischoff said the Smiths misinterpreted the conversations. "When I spoke with Amy and then with Matt, I expressed that we as a church are not -- nor have we ever been -- against them personally, their organization or their mission to protect children," he said. "Houston's First Baptist Church takes very seriously the safety and well-being of the children who attend our church, and we hope and pray that other churches -- of all denominations -- are doing the same. We applaud Amy for her dedication to SNAP and the survivors whom they serve." 

Bischoff said he did not ask them to resign from their position as teachers in the student ministry, but they suggested during conversations that he did. "The resignation from ministry was at Amy's insistence," he said.

"We hope and pray." Before I get into the "meat" of this post, I have to get something off my chest. I do believe that "praying!" is one of the most casually thrown about and overused phrases in our lexicon today, and it's not just Christians who toss it around. I've heard news anchors (who may or may not be Christians) use the phrase "our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims" in the case of natural disasters or crimes such as the Sandy Hook shootings. Really? How many times have you seen someone on Facebook write about some illness or problem in their life and seen all the "praying!" responses which often pop up within minutes? Some are likely sincere (I'm not judging who is or who isn't), but I suspect many never give the person or situation another thought.

I've always been very careful not to tell someone I'm praying for them if I know I probably won't. I always figured that was the kind of thing God might smite me for! Therefore, when I do tell someone I'm praying for them, I mean it.

I admittedly don't know you, Doug, but I have some questions for you if that's okay. Have you really prayed that other churches value the safety and well-being of children attending their churches? Or was it just the "Christian" thing to say? I consider those who sign off with "Blessings!" or "In HIS name" or "Have a Jesus filled day!"... often after professing ignorance of something you know good and well they're hiding or ripping someone a new one and accusing them of having a "Jezebel spirit"... just as disingenuous.

Why, if you weren't under orders to "handle the problem," did you call Amy Smith multiple times with such a sense of urgency? Amy says she had never even met you beyond a passing nod in the halls at FBC a time or two and had never corresponded with you in any way. If you "applaud" what she's doing, then why did you call her? Oh, and why did you call her friend first if your issue was with Amy? Funny she didn't mention anything about you expressing any "support" for her activities except to say something about it being okay to point fingers at the Catholics and Penn State but not at Southern Baptists. Are Southern Baptists somehow immune from this problem? Or from any criticism at all?

When Amy informed you she and her husband were getting ready to go out to celebrate their anniversary, why didn't you do what most reasonable, considerate people would have done (unless it was an emergency) and said something along the lines of, "Oh, sure. No problem. We can talk tomorrow or whenever it's convenient for you. Happy anniversary! I hope y'all have a good time!"? Instead, you started in right then and apparently continued for nearly an hour, struggling to find the right words and, if my own experience is any indication, listening. Lots and lots of listening. I bet you got an earful you weren't bargaining for, Doug!

You asked if she (and later her husband) didn't see her blogging as "a problem." Hardly "applause" for what she's doing. For the record, her husband said no! He fully supports his wife. So much for dividing and conquering, huh, Doug? You obviously were not calling to support her! Why did you call her then, Doug? What in the world was so urgent that you couldn't seem to articulate within the space of almost an hour? As some like to say these days, let's "unpack" this.

The following excerpts are from Amy's blog:

Your comments as quoted by Amy are in italics, Doug. My response follows each.

I saw your blog.

I assume you were directed there at the behest of someone, right? I mean, you weren't just surfing the internet one day and stumbled upon it, did you?

How much of it did you actually read, Doug? Did you read about John Langworthy and how Jack Graham and other staff members at Prestonwood failed to report not only Langworthy but several other alleged (and known) perpetrators to the police? How they fired Langworthy but let him leave the state and another Southern Baptist church hire him without so much as a peep about the reason he was fired? About how that Baptist church, Morrison Heights Baptist in Clinton, MS, knew, perhaps from the beginning, what Langworthy is, and they failed to report him, too?

By the way, Hal Kitchings is a common denominator in all this. He and Langworthy are about the same age, went to Mississippi College at the same time, and Kitchings was youth and activities director at Daniel Memorial Baptist Church in Jackson, MS where Langworthy was on staff during the time he was abusing boys, and Kitchings was senior pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist when Langworthy was hired there after being allowed to quietly leave Prestonwood. Are we to believe that Kitchings knew nothing about Langworthy's "issues" during all those years?

Did you read about Eddie Struble, the former minister of music at your sister church there in Houston, Second Baptist, who was reportedly "let go" for the documented allegations of sexual abuse of a minor? About how he was relieved of his duties at his subsequent position at Humble Area First Baptist where they allegedly knew why he had left Second but had reportedly wanted to "give him another chance"? (All I could think was another chance to do what?!) It would be interesting to know why the victim's father went from seeming to be ready to press charges to... well... crickets.

Eddie Struble information

What about this Fort Bend area minister of music who was accused of assaulting a teenage girl? By the way, there's an interesting article linked at the end of that blog post about how the Florida Baptist Convention was tried and found liable for the actions of a former Southern Baptist pastor serving time in prison for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy.

Or were you just looking for recipes and found her Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake? (It's probably illegal to serve this in New York City.)

I'm confused. You don't see it as a problem? [Amy: speaking out about child sexual abuse by Baptist clergy, about Baptist churches that cover up such abuse, about silence from SBC leaders about this abuse, about the vocal support of another evangelical pastor C.J. Mahaney accused in a lawsuit by 11 plaintiffs of covering up child sex abuse, and planning an awareness event next week at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Houston]

What's so confusing about any of this, Doug? Are you confused (i.e. surprised) by the fact that there is an epidemic of CSA by Baptist clergy? That Baptist churches are covering it up? The silence of SBC leaders and even their denial (such as yours) that there is a problem at all except to express support for the cover-uppers and in some cases even the perpetrators themselves? Or is it just that someone actually had the cojones to draw attention to it? You guys try to convince us you're sooooo smart, and yet when confronted with concepts most 8-year-olds grasp... you go all "duhhh" on us. I'm confused by your confusion, Doug.

What good is it going to do, you standing outside the SBC?

Because that's where the public sidewalks are and they probably would try to have her arrested if she tried to stand inside? As Amy has stated, if she and others can stand peacefully outside the George R. Brown Convention Center during this year's convention, holding signs and talking to people in the hopes of shedding more light on this epidemic, and if their actions cause even a few more people to wake up, or if it gives even one victim the courage to come out of the shadows and break his or her silence and ultimately bring one more abuser to justice, then that is the "good" it will do.

On the other hand, what harm can it do? Amy has never mentioned First Baptist Church on her blog, nor has she accused Gregg Matte or anyone else there of any wrongdoing. Or is the real issue here that it might embarrass Gregg Matte and other SBC "leaders" that someone who happens to be a member of Matte's church, the "host" church for the SBC this year, has the courage to confront them about their silence?

What good will it do if the SBC president did issue a statement on abuse?

Fred Luter

Uh... because he's the president of the SBC? No question it's a figurehead position, but any statement he makes would be covered by the news media.  Just think, Doug. What if the president of the... largest... protestant... denomination... in the United States were to issue a statement condemning the silence and cover-up of clergy sex abuse and say something along the lines of this:

"Once and for all, guys, enough is enough. Stop covering for these perverts, passing them along to other unsuspecting congregations in the middle of the night, and do the right thing! This should not be 'uncharted waters' for us, folks. Most people in 'the world' know exactly what to do when faced with the possibility that a child (or former child) has been sexually abused by someone they know or employ. Why then should we, as a denomination, as churches, and as Christian individuals, not care more about the welfare of 'the least of these' than the 'the world' does? Ladies and gentlemen, have we become so proud, so enamored with our own 'image,' and so desperate to keep the pews warm and the money flowing that we've completely... lost... sight... of what the 'Jesus' we profess to love and follow would do? It is time for us as a denomination, as churches, and as Christians to get our heads out of the sand and to do the right thing regardless of the consequences! As our former president, Charles Stanley, always says, "Obey God and leave the consequences to Him." Folks already see through the image we've worked so hard to maintain and they're leaving our churches in droves. Our numbers are declining every year.  [Insert statistics about baptisms, lost churches, memberships, and the decline in giving.] Just because individual Baptist churches are autonomous doesn't mean we can't cooperate in helping to make it difficult for abusers to easily move from church to church. We cooperate as a convention for missions. We cooperate for disaster relief. We cooperate to support children's homes and seminaries. So why not this?  I propose we immediately appoint a committee (we Baptists like committees) to work to compile and maintain a database of convicted and credibly accused sexual abusers who have been employed by or are currently employed by Southern Baptist churches. I also propose that we invite other denominations and non-denominational churches to contribute their data so as to help increase the chances that a perpetrator doesn't hop in and out of different denominations.  Unlike the do-nothing committee appointed in 2007, this committee will begin work immediately, and this issue will never be allowed to 'die on the vine' again. Anyone who is currently aiding an abuser by covering for him or has let an abuser leave his church's employ without notifying the authorities needs to call the police without delay. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month. Now! The 'church' is NOT equipped, legally or otherwise, to 'investigate' the alleged sexual abuse of a child (or an adult). Sexual abuse is not simply a 'matter for church discipline.' It is a crime. By not reporting cases of abuse or alleged abuse we are breaking the law. Your obligation as pastors is not to investigate. It's to report possible crimes to the proper authorities. It's time for us to do the right thing! We should all pledge this day to do everything in our power to make our churches a safe place for everyone, and the first step is to stop covering for the abusers and supporting those who do. We should encourage victims, not to contact us or to let us 'take care of it,' but to contact the authorities. No longer will we usurp the duties of God-ordained law enforcement agencies. Rather we will recognize and admit that this sort of soul-sucking abuse is indeed epidemic in our convention and churches and do everything in our power to eradicate it, not hide it. I pledge to support the victims of these crimes, not only in word but action. Will you join me?"

I don't know, Doug, but I think something like that (and truly following up on it) would be a good place to start, don't you?  Southern Baptists are already a joke anyway with their infamous boycott of Disney (and the repeal thereof before the convention returned to Orlando), their treatment of women, and their attitudes towards minorities, gays, and other groups.  Electing "the... first... black... SBC... president... ever... " and ensuring that he ran unopposed... wasn't the answer. Was this the only way he was going to have a chance to be elected? By running unopposed? Frankly, if I were Fred Luter, I would have wanted at least one opponent because I would consider it insulting that no one ran against me, thus risking giving some people the impression I couldn't have won otherwise.

Anyway, I believe that such a statement by Fred Luter AND the action of pastors in the convention would go a long way towards raising awareness of the problem of child sex abuse in our churches and that a stern word to those covering up the problem might cause some of them to do the right thing.  Unfortunately, I believe there are some whose pride will never permit them to admit their inaction exposed another whole generation of youth to wolves like John Langworthy. People like that, short of an act of God, will always put image, power, and money above all else. I'd like to think there are many others who are willing to support victims over perpetrators.

Fred Luter also has the power to allow representatives of SNAP to address the convention this week.  Do I think he will?  No.  But he could.  They're asking to speak, but so far no one has responded to them.

We're not like the Methodists. [each Baptist church is locally autonomous]

See above, Doug. Southern Baptists are quick to "cooperate" in missions, disaster relief, etc. And heaven forbid a Southern Baptist church call a female pastorwelcome gay people, hire missionaries who admit they practice a "private prayer language" (key word there should be "private"), fail to condemn drinking alcohol, or accept for membership anyone who hasn't been properly dunked the Baptist way. The Southern Baptists, from the local associations and state conventions to the national convention burst out of their blissful, autonomous bubbles in a hurry to condemn the actions of a non-compliant congregation when faced with scenarios like the above. Why, then, can we not "cooperate" to protect children? Just because you ignore the problem doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Actually, though, the Southern Baptists are a lot like the Methodists in this regard. While the Methodists have set up a website regarding this subject, their very first advice to victims or those who witness or become aware of potential abuse is to "tell your pastor, the Staff-Parish Relations chairperson, or the District Superintendent." No, no, NO!!! The Methodists have it wrong, too! Your first (I would argue your only) obligation is to call the police. Period. Too often we've seen what happens when victims go to the "church" for help. They're frequently intimidated, demonized, ostracized, and believe it or not, even blamed for their perpetrators' crimes, while the "poor" perps are embraced and "loved on."

Wade Burleson had a good take on SBC polity and the issue of autonomy. Apparently Southern Baptists are "autonomous" only when it's convenient.

How can you say that? [that child sexual abuse within Baptist churches is a systemic problem]

When confronted with reams of evidence, how can you say it's not, Doug? Statistics indicate that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by an adult (or another minor) before the age of 18. How many potential victims are there in your church alone? Have you seen Christa Brown's blog and the Stop Baptist Predators website? There's a veritable rogue's gallery of Southern Baptist perverts there, Doug, and you and I both know that's just the tip of the iceberg. You really should take the time to educate yourself a little, Doug. Crimes against children happen everywhere in the world and seem to thrive through a conspiracy of silence and intimidation. The SBC is not immune to this phenomenon, Doug. Oh, no. Check out the statistics.

Sexual Assault Reporting Rates

Sexual Abuse in Social Context: Clergy and Other Professionals (The section on "Ministers" is particularly interesting. Note the stats on Southern Baptist ministers.)

Are you convinced there's a problem yet, Doug?  If not, here are some more resources. Note how old some of them are. Here we are almost halfway through 2013, and nothing has been done beyond a feel-good list of resources issued by the SBC in 2008. (This was a small step in the right direction, but it should not have stopped there.)

News flash! Only about 1% of child sexual abusers make it onto the national sex offender registry. Thankfully, John Langworthy is now one of them, but look what it took to get him there and how many children he victimized before someone finally reported him. It's been estimated that fewer than 10% of cases of child sexual abuse are ever reported.

The Wartburg Watch >> Southern Baptist Pastors Continue Making Headlines for Sex Abuse – Caveat Emptor!

USA Today >> Southern Baptists elect a president, reject sex-abuse database (This was 2008. It's five years later, and not much has changed. If anything it's gotten worse.)

Responding to the Evil of Sexual Abuse, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention 2008

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life (book)

You may be seen as fringe.

Wow, Doug. Is that the reason for your urgent call to Amy? Because you were concerned she "may be seen as fringe"? Or did someone, perhaps someone higher up, say in Nashville, catch wind of Amy's (and SNAP's) plans and alert Gregg Matte that "Houston, we have a problem!"

It really doesn't matter. However high up this thing may have originated, you admitted you were acting on the orders of Gregg Matte. Apparently Matte had a problem with Amy's activities, so why didn't Gregg Matte contact her personally? After all, many of your colleagues like to trot out (and misuse) Matthew 18. I understand the concept of delegation and how in an organization the size yours that's often necessary, but some things don't need to be delegated. This was one of them.

Why, if you wanted to discuss such an apparently sensitive matter, did you not at least invite Amy along with her husband to meet with you in person? I think we all know the answer to that, don't we, Doug? You didn't want her husband present. You thought you, a "manly" man, could intimidate a woman. You wouldn't dare talk to a man the way Amy said you spoke to her!

Let me tell you something about Amy, Doug. This gutsy woman doesn't back down that easily. She didn't let her own parents intimidate her when they cruelly and inexplicably chose John Langworthy, a (more or less) confessed and now CONVICTED CHILD MOLESTER over their own daughter and granddaughters. She didn't let Philip Gunn, an "elder" at Morrison Heights Baptist Church and now speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, propose a "resolution" to the John Langworthy mess.  (It would be interesting to know what he had in mind, but I suspect it involved money.) She's also not married to one of those men who will keep the little woman in line when men like you say "boo!" (if you know what I mean, and I'm sure you do). So she's not about to cave to you, Doug. Quite the contrary. She... no you... you, Doug, have made a fool and a laughingstock out of yourself, your "senior" pastor, and sadly, your church and the SBC. This is one anthill you should have never kicked, Doug.

So... who am I going to believe? Hmmm. A woman I've known for the past two years who has proven herself to be a person of her word? Or some paid staff weenie who was so nervous-acting and awkward that Amy finally told you she was just going to save you the embarrassment and awkwardness of having to verbalize what she knew you were trying to express and said she and her husband would just resign their positions and save you the trouble? I pick... the woman.

It was bad enough, but then you had to make it worse by speaking with the ABP. How dare you say it wasn't our idea, that it was at Amy's "insistence" that they resigned! Surely you could come up with something more believable than that, Doug. Here is Amy's version of your conversation which, interestingly, is almost verbatim the version she told me three days ago.

After almost an hour on the phone with Doug challenging me about my efforts to raise awareness about abuse within the SBC, I was in tears and finally said to him, "I'm going to save you the awkardness of having to ask me to step down and I will step down." His reply was, "Let's take a few weeks.... " The next day in a meeting with my husband Doug brought up the subject about us stepping down and he [Doug] said, "I told Amy I would think about it, but I've thought about it overnight, and I think it's best that she step down."

What a far cry from saying it was "at their insistence."

Amy... 1, paid staff weenie... 0

When I heard Amy didn't wait you out (her one mistake IMO) and force you to "fire" them, I knew you would spin it this way. I just didn't think you'd do it in the national press. You guys are so predictable it's funny. Except that it's so pathetic. It's pathetic that Southern Baptist "leaders" like you, Gregg Matte, Jack Graham, Steve Gaines, and Greg Belser, to name but a few, have, by continuing to ignore the elephant in the room, given all Southern Baptist ministers a black eye. That's sad because there are still good, sincere Southern Baptist pastors out there. But thanks to "manly" men who are more concerned about protecting their "images" and squelching anything they think "the world" might perceive as negative than doing what's right, they've just turned what would have been a small, likely unreported peaceful protest into a national news story. Way to go, boys!

In closing, Doug, I would just like to say if Amy Smith is considered by the likes of men like you "fringe," then I'm proud to stand beside her and identify as "fringe," too! I believe Amy prefers "frilly fringe."