"What If's?" about Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention
"What refugees?" the police chief stormed at me, pounding the desk with his fist. "We have NO refugees in this country; and if we ever do, we'll do what we did with a 13-year-old boy last week. We sent him back to where he had seen both of his parents shot! If you find anybody who says they are a refugee, bring them straight to me!" he ordered.
Quietly, on an individual basis, we missionaries did minister to the displaced. Eventually, when the growing number of temporary huts along our adopted country's main highway could no longer be ignored, massive relief from outsiders, including Baptists, was welcomed.The conflict occurred because the official and I had a different set of "What ifs?" He envisioned terror and chaos if the nation acknowledged the growing crisis. By contrast, I dreamed of possible ministry and hope. In the end, his fears proved unfounded. My hopes were fulfilled.
The "refugees," victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence by clergy, are still largely invisible. But they are everywhere. I hear from new ones frequently. Some are Southern Baptists.
Those callers who speak of being abused in conservative circles are more likely to have been children or adolescents at the time of the abuse. This is in sharp contrast to mainline callers, who are more likely to be adult women. The memories for most were not repressed, but have haunted these people for decades. Few have reported their abuse. Those who did report have met with typical status-quo collusion and cover-ups. Most, contrary to popular belief, choose not to bring lawsuits.
In 1995, the exposure of the problem has not yet reached proportions significant enough to produce massive concern and open discussion. But it will come.
To cope with what I know, I occasionally let my mind roam freely through the structures of the Southern Baptist Convention, envisioning a few hopeful (though presently unrealistic) "What ifs?"
I share them, knowing some readers may be more terrified of my apparitions than I am of things remaining the same:
WHAT IF the SBC were to follow the suggestion of Joe Trull, New Orleans seminary’s Professor of Christian Ethics, that a code of ethics for ministers be adopted?
WHAT IF potential seminary students were scrutinized carefully, including psychological screening, before being accepted?
WHAT IF all seminaries required every student to attend a week of training on professional sexual misconduct?
WHAT IF prayer groups were organized throughout the denomination to uphold individuals and churches who have been victimized by clergy malpractice, as well as for the offenders themselves?
WHAT IF all pastors were able to welcome psychotherapy as a part of their preventive health care plan and were willing to seek it freely?
WHAT IF Baptists, after studying the clumsy response of Roman Catholics and mainline denominations, decided not to first run to attorneys to "fix" things?
WHAT IF authorities such as Gary Schoener of Minneapolis, Marie Fortune of Seattle or Tom Economus** of Chicago were consulted for initial guidance instead?
WHAT IF every state organized workshops at least once per year for pastors and church leaders.
WHAT IF the events were publicized as heavily as most Sunday School teacher-training workshops?
WHAT IF those workshops were led by outside consultants such as Micki Esselstyn of Gainesville, FL, trained to assist everyone to deal with this threatening subject?
WHAT IF pastors could get past their fears, understand that the reputation of their own profession is much more at stake than the unlikely (but greatly over-inflated) possibility of false accusations?
WHAT IF Baptist Women's Missionary Union, true to their history of ministering to the oppressed, took on a nationwide project to train volunteers to act as advocates for SBC survivors of clergy sexual and domestic violence?
WHAT IF Baptist Women in Ministry announced openly their intent to band together to support the multitude of victims of clergy sexual misconduct suffering silently in their own ranks?
WHAT IF the Baptist Sunday School Board encouraged every local church and institution of the denomination to formulate policies and procedures, written to lessen the destructive aftermath of a clergy perpetrator; and what if those policies were distributed, rather than hidden?
WHAT IF, every pastor in America began speaking out frequently against sexual abuse and domestic violence from the pulpit, declaring it "a problem which plagues even Christian homes and churches, including the ministerial profession?"
WHAT IF SBC laity insisted that the names of ministers with founded allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse be made public in order to protect the vulnerable?
Suddenly a voice breaks in: "Horrors, lady! We'd never be the same!"
On that we can all agree!
P.S: The recent announcement by the Baptist Sunday School Board of a National Advisory Committee on Sexual Misconduct is welcomed, but full of omissions. Only one woman on the committee? Where are the laity? Its foremost concern is "helping" perpetrators? No mention is made of helping victims. Last fall Neil Knieirim told me that anything done for victims would have to be on the local level. I am confused. Perpetrators can be "helped" on a national level, but not victims? Recovery cost for victims is too great for most local churches to meet; but it is a fraction of the cost incurred in trying to "restore" a perpetrator.
**Tom Economus, a diligent advocate and the executive director of Linkup, died of cancer in 2002.
Other articles in this series:
Article 1: Struggles with Cancer Teach Disciplines of Patience, Hope
Article 2: Churches Must Be Honest to Confront Sexual Abuse
Article 3: Denial and Ignorance Hinder Answers to Severe Problems
Article 4: 'Hold Hands in the Dark' with Victims of Violence
Article 5: The Kingdom Is Not Served by Self-Seeking Secrecy
Article 6: Christians Need Courage to Break the Silence Barrier
Article 8: 'A Mistake of the System' Calls Out for Compassion
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)
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) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)