On October 16, 1998, following a call from journalist Tara Dooley, I was inspired to write a follow-up letter about my own experiences with collusion, even as Dooley prepared her piece, When Pastors Prey, Women Pray to Be Heard, published three weeks later in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Dear Ms. Dooley:
As a youngster, growing up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister in Texas, I worked hard to "jump through all the hoops" which Southern Baptists consider to be essential for young women. Among the requirements was learning the watchword of the Girls' Auxiliary:
"Knowing that countless people grope in darkness...."
It never entered my mind, until I was forty years old, that the people "groping in darkness" to whom I would be called to speak would be the leadership of the SBC. They were the people I considered to be closest to God.
I never considered myself a radical woman. In fact, I thought my responses to sexual and domestic violence would be typical of people who talked a wonderful talk about reaching out to hurting people. Perhaps there are a lot of other people out there who feel the same as I, but they seem to avoid me like a plague. I guess they know, as I do, that it is very difficult to stand up and be counted when the numbers are so few. I have been told that prophetesses are admired from afar. Well, some days it feels like I'm on Mars!
If the SBC is to really get at the heart of the problem of clergy sexual misconduct, it must first do an about-face. It must start walking in the opposite direction that it now is proceeding on women's issues. I do not ANTICIPATE this happening, but I do EXPECT it. My suspicions are that the chasm which has been created in the SBC over "inerrancy" has been brought primarily because of the fear that women might gain an equal voice. This has been demonstrated very well in what is going on between Southern Baptists and Baptist Women (historically known as the Women's Missionary Union).
In 1995, about a year after "How Little We Knew" was published, I began doing advocacy writing in SBC circles, bracing myself for some angry responses from people in high places. To my surprise, the reaction from leadership was mostly silence. However, three responses came from Convention leaders "groping in darkness."
One of them, from a man whose name I had known and respected since childhood: "Listen," he spoke patronizingly. "I want you to know that I'm no novice at this business. I've dealt with at least fifty cases!" This horrified me because, from what he had already said, I knew he had wounded at least fifty victims and left fifty congregations in shambles. A few minutes later he asked: "Don't you think you are also partially responsible for what happened to you?" At first, I thought he didn't know my story, so I attempted to give him the basic facts of my assault by a Southern Baptist missionary in Africa. He then told me that he considered ALL victims, no matter what the violation, to be partially responsible. Had he said that five years earlier, I would have been devastated-but not in 1996. I was outraged by his Dark Age response, and I told him so. (Months later, after much more dialogue, I believe he gained a respect for what I was saying; but I'm not naïve enough to believe he really "gets it.")
At that point I picked up the phone and called a lady I consider to be one of the most knowledgeable on women's issues in the Southern Baptist Convention. To my amazement, she echoed the sentiments of the man. "I even believe that little children somehow do something to invite the abuse," she told me. She proceeded to tell me how she had "resolved" a case which had come to her attention between a young woman and her pastor. Her response blew the wind out of my sails.
It took a few days to regain my energy. When I did, I placed a call to a clinical psychologist in the eastern U.S. whom I had been told had treated many victims. She expressed appreciation for my work. A few days later, however, I received a note saying (in essence): "Please don't ask me to get involved." (I hadn't.) "I'm too close to retirement right now, and I want to retire in peace." My guess is she will have a hard time doing so!
The issues are those of VIOLENCE vs. SAFETY. Sometimes the cases involve outright physical violence; sometimes they don't. But all involve spiritual violence, which is even more devastating than physical or emotional violence. Both of these words--VIOLENCE and SAFETY--are often missing from the works of writers attempting to address the issues. As I told you on the phone yesterday, I don't think it is safe to be a woman in the Southern Baptist Convention. Neither is it safe to be a child in many situations. As long as secrecy is the order of the day, it will never be safe.
I'm not saying it is easy to take a stand. Yet the leadership must be willing to invest itself heavily in addressing the evil in its own midst at the same time it is working to address what it considers to be the evils of "the world." What we have is a split in attitudes and behaviors: aggression against the evils "out there" and passivity about the internal evils. It must stop, but it will ONLY STOP WHEN LAITY GET UPSET ENOUGH TO HOLD THEIR LEADERS RESPONSIBLE FOR INCOMPETENCY IN STOPPING THE GROSS IMMORALITY WITHIN THE PROFESSION.
This is the largest non-Catholic denomination in the world. What an example it could be! Yet it slides by because of its "escape clause" created by its structure of autonomous churches. This is a denomination which has the resources to clean up its act, but it is full of termites, especially in regard to how it treats women.
My prayer is that more and more ministers who are more interested in being pastors than politicians will find the moral fortitude to join in the tearing down of infrastructures to get to the real work of the Kingdom-following the example of Christ in protecting the vulnerable. Shepherds don't devour their sheep. Neither do shepherds stand by and watch another shepherd devouring sheep. WHERE ARE THE REAL MEN?
Victims of SBC ministers in thirty states have contacted me. Most of these have never made a report to anyone. They are afraid and rightfully so. Almost fifty percent of them were abused as minors. Statistics given at the 4th International Conference on Professional Sexual Misconduct (October, 1998) are that one out of three victims of clergy are minors. My guess is that the more conservative the denomination, the higher the percentage of minors and the higher the degree of outright physical violence will be evidenced. This is certainly true in the hundreds of reports I have gotten from around the world.
My hope was that the SBC, since they have arrived as the late-comers in stepping up to bat on these issues, would be willing to learn from the mistakes of their forerunners in other denominations. So far, I see nothing to give me great hope. The talk, as was evidenced just last week in the Texas Baptist Standard, is that every effort will be made to recycle perpetrators under the guise of "wanderers," as opposed to "predators." The problem is that the people who are saying these things have had limited formal training in evaluation and treatment of offenders. My guess is they are getting the information from books or from pastoral counselors who have set themselves up as "experts" without listening in depth to people like Marie Fortune or working under direction of people like Gary Schoener or Menninger's Glen Gabbard. The tendency among clergy to whom I've talked is to try to be pop psychologists who quickly lump the majority of perpetrators into the category of "wanderer." They do this based on the fact that they only KNOW of one victim. They do this before a specialist in the field of professional sexual misconduct has ever had opportunity to do an evaluation. They do this under the myth that if there were other cases, they would have somehow known about them, despite the secrecy.
Some have suggested a question to be posed to those encouraging pastors to "rehabilitate" and churches to "forgive and hire the rehabilitated" should be: "Would you trust this guy with your wife?"
The question I want them to ask is: "Would every woman in the congregation (or institution) to which this guy is going, knowing this man's history, be comfortable with him visiting her in her hospital room three hours after major surgery?" In cases where the victims have been male, the same question should be asked of the men. If one person answers "No," then we have a problem because at least one woman cannot have the trusting relationship she deserves with her minister. It's as simple as that.
There is a lot of concern these days for pastors who have been terminated unfairly. This is a valid concern. We are living in a world permeated by "corporation thinking," and people in the church are often bringing their issues from the corporate world into the church and taking their unrealistic expectations and anger out on the pastor. To be certain, the church is not a very safe place for ministers, either -- especially those in autonomous congregations. I believe this fact is adding to the mix of confusion in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Yet, in cases of clergy-perpetrated abuse, we must be very clear that the abusers are not the sheep. Neither are we dealing with a problem of masses of wayward sheep, falsely-accusing shepherds. This is clearly a problem of False Shepherding.
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)