More Myths--It's NOT just Catholic Minors and Protestant Adults:
How Playing the Trump Cards Disenfranchises Many in the Faith Community
by Dee Ann Miller, author of How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct
and The Truth about Malarkey.
For more, see takecourage.org
Victims of sexual abuse by Protestant clergy aren’t just adults. Neither are the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy only minors. By ignoring the groups that are not in the majority, we do a disservice to everyone. Including the general public.
Here’s how each of the trump cards work:
TRUMP CARD NO. 1: CATHOLIC MALES, ABUSED AS MINORS
Isn’t it interesting that male survivors, among Catholics, get the most attention? Yet at a Boston meeting of survivors in April, 2002, Mr. Saviano, a leader who has frequently been in the news, says the majority of the victims were female! Women, abused as minors. The homophobia card is never mentioned. Yet it gets played over and over, negating the experiences of females in every denomination, regardless of age and regardless of church affiliation.
TRUMP CARD NO. 2: PROTESTANTS' ABUSE PROBLEMS AREN'T AS SERIOUS AS CATHOLICS HAVE.
This myth is complicated because of a secondary myth that goes like this: Protestants don't have an epidemic of victims abused as minors. Since there are more Protestant women, abused in counseling, than there are minors victimized in the church, "we just need to fix that issue." Don't get me wrong. There are indeed plenty of cases of adult women abused in counseling. And there is no such thing as "an affair" between a congregant and clergy member. The responsibility for holding boundaries is always the professional's. Adult victims should not be made to bear even partial blame anymore than children. However, conventional wisdom still refuses to see it that way, no matter what the courts say.
Yet there are plenty of people who still blame even minors for their abuse, even if they do not verbalize this blame. We also complicate things immensely in protestant groups if, in our conversations, we ignore the many women (and a considerable number of males) who are now reporting their abuse as adolescents, especially by youth ministers? Since members of this group are often legally considered to be past the legal “age of consent,” the tendency is to lump them in with adults. This is the case even if the girls was 14 years old, in places like Texas! Don’t ask me why there are not more journalists noticing the sexism of the vast coverage of male victims of the same age, when abused by Catholic priests. Don’t ask me why more experts aren’t concerned that we need to have an extra set of cautions, considerations, and actions when the victim is a teen. It makes no sense, and the only answer I can give is that we still expect girls to be more responsible at an earlier age than we do their male counterparts. After all, the biases go, “if a girl gets pregnant then she’s the ONE to blame, right?” And “After all, women are responsible for seducing men, you know. It never works the other way around! All of it started with Eve, as all good Christians know.” This is the thinking that abounds in our churches, and it seems to be the thinking that is over-looked when it comes to formulating/not formulating policies to meet the needs of this extra-vulnerable group of young “women.”
TRUMP CARD NO. 3: AUTONOMOUS CHURCHES
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission recently illustrated the playing of this trump card when he said on CNN that there had not been a case involving the abuse of a minor in the Southern Baptist Convention since the mid-80’s (and then there was just one). Well, technically this is true. Why? Because the SBC, like all denominations or groups that have local church autonomy aren’t likely to get sued because they are very hard to hold responsible when it comes to an abusive pastor. This is because the pastors are all ordained, employed, and terminated by local congregations. The larger body, which is powerful enough to have been largely responsible for the election of several Presidents of the United States, sees itself as conveniently powerless. To my knowledge the case to which Land was referring had to do with a situation of incest. It involved the abuse of children of a foreign missionary father by that father himself. The mother, Diana Wade and her children were asking for damages after the father was imprisoned for a twelve-year sentence for abusing his children. Diana rightfully expected the Foreign Mission Board to be held responsible for not informing her nor even requiring her husband to get counseling when leaders of that organization found out that the children were being abused! The result was that the abuse was then extended to other children in their family. What should have been a no-brainer decision was botched up terribly, destroying the family members. Yet the FMB appealed the decision of the courts and succeeded in having the decision overturned! Wade and her children got nothing!!
In the ordinary cases that we encounter in stateside churches, the local congregation does not usually have deep pockets. There are no prevention measures in place to train local congregations about how to respond appropriately. No national registries of perpetrators (What a convenient loophole for the SBC!).
Unless the abuse occurs within a larger institution, such as in the Southern Baptist Sunday School offices, then the chances of getting a settlement in court that is large enough to make big headlines like the Catholics are doing, is VERY slim indeed.
All SBC seminaries, according to Land, train seminarians about how to deal with these issues. Yet, not so, according to retired professor Joe Trull, who did do some teaching along these lines in his required Ethics course at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary several years ago. Trull, who has written a proposed Code of Ethics for Texas pastors to consider signing, says he researched carefully to ascertain this omission in seminary education.
What’s more—seminary education is not even required for SBC churches. Neither is it for many independent congregations in conservative, evangelical circles. It’s possible to pastor without even having a college education! And going to an SBC seminary is certainly not required. So who does Richard Land think he’s fooling? Well, it appears he’s successfully fooling a lot of people, including the average journalist.
Helplessness and powerlessness are not terms that really describe the leaders of this, the denomination which is by far the largest among Protestants. Their ability to train local church leaders to do about anything they wish-—Sunday School training and missions being top priorities—can find the funds and the personal resources to do the work.
Of course, when policies and procedures in mainline churches, where training has abounded for years, just get used against the victims of most cases….well, why should we be hopeful that anything better would come out of a denomination that has been blown apart in the past fifteen years over issues that started when people got scared of the “powerful women” and feminists, a denomination which uses scriptures to spiritually abuse women and keep the majority of their members “in their place.”
Regardless of the polity, it comes down to this: Molesting a child is ALWAYS a crime. Molesting a minor may or may NOT be. Laws need to be updated, even for the general population, to raise the “age of consent.” So do laws addressing the abuse of adults by clerics.
Abuse of anyone at any age, within the church system—-autonomous or not-—is a matter that cannot be handled well, in the vast majority of cases, by church officials. Not any more than familial incest can be handled by the neighbors. Any victim who is contemplating a course of action needs to immediately go outside the church system to report and get help from attorneys professional mental health personnel before going to congregational or denominational authorities.
Churches have shown themselves completely incapable of policing their own leaders. Objectivity is something to which they seem universally immune.
Dee Ann Miller is the
author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)