Abuse of Faith
July 9, 2019 3:44 PM   Subscribe

"In the past 20 years, a disturbing number of Southern Baptists with formal church roles have engaged in sexual misconduct, a new investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reveals. They were pastors. Deacons. Youth pastors. They left behind more than 700 victims. Read and hear the stories of those victims, and learn the depths of the crimes and misconduct of the church leaders they trusted." Starting in February 2019, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News released a six-part report about widespread sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Churches. (link goes to a landing page) posted by Caduceus (25 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This definitely deserves its own post. So thanks for that.

I don’t have a ton to add here other than that, speaking as a practicing Presbyterian for most of my life, if you think this is germane to just the SBC, or even just the SBC and RCC...you are woefully underestimating the scope of this problem. In my estimation the repression that the Christian church at large has propogated across all things sexual has no other reasonably expected outcome than the rampant and regularly covered up abuse that knows no denominational boundaries.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:00 PM on July 9, 2019 [25 favorites]

I'd kind of assumed I'd just missed the post that'd happened in February, only to discover that there hadn't been anything about this yet. Just as well, there ended up being three more pieces, and the (admittedly snarky, but laugh so you don't cry, right?) analysis of their response at their annual convention is useful additional context from someone who was once part of the culture.
posted by Caduceus at 4:09 PM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Given the general reporting over the years, it seems that almost any organization with a male hierarchy is suspect. As men are in charge, the abuse is covered up. I don’t think that religion is the reason, it’s just men in power. As almost all religious organizations are male dominated then they too will be places of abuse, despite all the moral, spiritual, ethical trappings we assume these kinds of organizations possess. It’s men.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:23 PM on July 9, 2019 [35 favorites]

This is my surprised face
posted by Windopaene at 4:39 PM on July 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

And yet these monsters claim to have a direct line to morality because their magic book tells them so.
posted by Nelson at 4:47 PM on July 9, 2019 [13 favorites]

Gee, no shit. Someone willing to lie about their special relationship to a fictional being is also a scumbag?

I was raised in a religious power structure where everyone knew the leaders were pedophile rapists. It was a running joke. They raped my father. They raped my friends. I got lucky. They sent my teen-aged mother off to give birth to an "unwanted" child...let her bond with it after birth...and then forced her to give it up for adoption.

I especially love the "I hate all government" folks who happily fall for the government with no checks and balances. Because Jesus/Allah/Jehovah/whatever.

"Oh but my family is really religious, and it's hard." Then fucking abandon them. Move the fuck out like every homosexual I've known had to. The God Fathers are evil and they support evil. And don't give me that "but all the charity" bullshit. That's recruiting.

Religion is the OxyContin of the masses. Feels good right up til it ruins you.

Ending rant.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 4:49 PM on July 9, 2019 [54 favorites]

Every denomination has a Catholic-Church-sized reckoning coming. The more proactive ones realized this 20 years ago when the Boston Globe broke the Catholic sex abuse scandal and kept up with best practices as reforms came along and will have most of their dirty laundry from 20+ years ago. Other denominations (like the SBC) have continued to insist it's not a problem, it's just ungodly people, it could never happen here, and theirs are going to be uglier and ongoing.

And the thing is, even if every denomination in the US got actually serious about protecting children, there are so many unaffiliated churches, guys who just move somewhere and set up shop at pastors, and there is NO oversight and NO one they report to and often not even a lay finance committee going over the finances. And if you dig into their backgrounds, they often left their last church with some ugly dispute, and you always wonder ... was it really a dispute over moving the church hall or how much the pastor's car allowance was, or was it really sexual abuse that nobody reported to police as long as the guy agreed to leave?

(I will say, I don't know that it's unique to religion; any place adults have authority over children, there is a problem with child sexual abuse, including in schools. Adults who want to prey on children gravitate towards roles where they will have that opportunity, especially if it's a role that's trusted by the community and given some moral authority -- like teachers and pastors.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:49 PM on July 9, 2019 [50 favorites]

The past 20 years may be what we're able to document, but I would be incredibly surprised to learn that this problem only started 20 years ago.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:52 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Couldn't have happened to a nicer white supremacist, homophobic, misogynist, historically pro-slavery, and all-around stand-up organization.

n.b. for those tuning in from outside the Southern US, as I understand it a huge fraction of global Christian Baptist organizations will not have anything to do with...this entity, because of the SBC's particular history.
posted by bagel at 6:00 PM on July 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

I didn't read this, it's far too triggering to me. My abuse wasn't within the church, but the southern baptist culture definately reenforced that abuse in a variety of systemic ways that it's so hard to explain. It actively had a, role in pertpetuating my abuse and the culture was used as a screen for his behavior.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:58 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't know where to start. Yeah, hierarchy's a problem here. In a larger system like the Catholic church, accountability is at least possible within a larger system. (Independent protestant churches don't really have a boss to report to.) But then there's the The Wire fallacy, the idea that The System is the problem. Which it totally is! Except when not.

Authority figures often hurt people. Abusive people are attracted to positions of authority. Protestant religious authority figures abuse people (one might reckon) about as often as the infamous Catholics. That's all 101 shit. And, Go back in history and like, ban monotheism! Except you can't do that without also becoming a little fascist? Fuck, who knows?

I really don't know how to say what I want to, but here's one way: a Baptist preacher is a person who wanted to be either a bad cop or a bad comedian and was unqualified for both jobs.
posted by Sterros at 8:01 PM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Adults who want to prey on children gravitate towards roles where they will have that opportunity, especially if it's a role that's trusted by the community and given some moral authority -- like teachers and pastors.

Not to say that there have not been teachers who are pedophiles--there have been plenty too many. But they are quite the minority, perhaps partially because, unlike the priesthood, this has been a female-dominated profession. (Hence the sub-par pay.) If you are a teacher, you are under a microscope. One touch or one comment, whether substantiated or not, can get you barred from the profession for life. And maybe worse. One has to be very careful as a teacher. There is no assumption of holiness when you are a (disposable) public school teacher.
posted by kozad at 8:13 PM on July 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

If you want to do some self mind-boggling, just think about how many centuries this type of shit must have been going on, whether it be in Catholic churches, Protestant churches, non-denominational churches, etc.
posted by gtrwolf at 9:24 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

But they are quite the minority, perhaps partially because, unlike the priesthood, this has been a female-dominated profession. (Hence the sub-par pay.) If you are a teacher, you are under a microscope. One touch or one comment, whether substantiated or not, can get you barred from the profession for life.

Ha, no. Authoritarianism, myths of persecution, and rape culture can prompt teachers to perform the same sorts of wagon-circling and trash-passing as clergy and cops.

Gosh, I can't tell you how much I wish a public high school teacher of mine were disposable, as opposed to "going on family leave" for a year and then returning to teach lower grades, so as to avoid instructing as many students who knew the story and despised him for it.
posted by bagel at 10:07 PM on July 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just want to put in a plug for both of these newspapers. I am most familiar with The Houston Chronicle, having read it for years when living in Houston and keeping up with it online from here in Austin. For a business big-money oil-rich town like Houston, the Chronicle is a really well balanced paper. Or so it seems to me.

I don't trust any one paper, I try to read over here, over there, this perspective, that perspective, and then figure all of the things that *no* news outlet is going to cover, and in that fashion attempt to get a sense of what is really going on. So, I don't trust any one news outlet. But for a big city newspaper -- and big business city newspaper -- I think they do real well.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:19 AM on July 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

The article (and some comments above) rightly note that the lack of a strong hierarchy (as one finds in the Catholic Church) makes accountability difficult to enforce. That certainly makes things challenging.

But the truth is, if abuse awareness and accountability were truly something that was a priority for these denominations, there is still plenty they could be doing even without a rigid hierarchy to assist. I’m very confident that a church leader who violated church policy/norms when it comes to hot-button theological topics, whether it’s homosexuality or the existence of the Trinity or infant baptism or anything else, would quickly become persona non grata throughout the denomination. Think about how fast and how thoroughly prominent authors and leaders are shunned when they diverge from theological orthodoxy.

There is a very effective network in these conservative denominations for addressing and punishing theological divergence. If these denominations are serious about the issue, they need to ask themselves why those “accountability networks” don’t seem to extend to actual abuse. (Not that simple shunning from the denomination would be enough, in the case of abuse—but it would be something.)
posted by Byzantine at 7:03 AM on July 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

I’ve always wondered if a significant number of men who become priests don’t do so in an effort to immerse themselves in an environment that promises to constrain them and give them a framework to control their desires which they rightly perceive as transgressive. For all we know about the deep harm that occurs to a child who is sexually abused, we still don’t seem capable of turning toward these men and figuring out some way to help them. Sadly, it’s got to be on men to do that work as it is the structure of men which has fallen down here and allows the continued victimization of the less powerful.
posted by amanda at 7:04 AM on July 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

"I’ve always wondered if a significant number of men who become priests don’t do so in an effort to immerse themselves in an environment that promises to constrain them and give them a framework to control their desires which they rightly perceive as transgressive. "

This is/was DEFINITELY true, and why most major denominations now require fairly extensive psychological testing prior to ordination. It doesn't catch everyone, not by a long shot, but it does catch some of those attempting to flee to the priesthood or pastorate to avoid addressing deep-seated psychological issues. Two of my seminary classmates (that I know of -- there were probably more) were told they were not candidates for ordination after the psychological testing: one was a pathological liar and had what was probably Munchausens syndrome, as a result of an abusive religious upbringing; the other had a sex addiction issue. (I can share more about the process later if people are interested, as I testified in both cases, but right now I'm on my phone so typing is hard.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 AM on July 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

I am definitely interested in hearing more about that Eyebrows McGee.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 7:55 AM on July 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

But the truth is, if abuse awareness and accountability were truly something that was a priority for these denominations, there is still plenty they could be doing even without a rigid hierarchy to assist

When you don't see children as autonomous people, but rather as raw material that is a real person's (i.e. an adult's) to mold and deploy as you please, then you're not going to see child abuse as something that happens to people. Ergo, it's not a priority.

A lot of religious denominations have an extremely limited definition of who gets to be a real person and who does not. Most of the definitions of personhood are predicated on one of two things: adult malehood or the opportunity to control a woman's bodily autonomy (in the case of fetal cells). It's no surprise when abuse is endemic; any culture that systematically dehumanizes all but a few encourages it.
posted by sobell at 9:52 AM on July 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

I was listening to a murder podcast recently, and there was a guy on who heads up a data gathering project to pull together national statistics and data on homicides as there is no national (U.S.) database and reporting is incredibly varied with federal agencies having no reporting requirement at all. Part of this is to facilitate finding serial killers and he noted that overall serial killing seems to be steadily declining and he pointed to increased response to domestic violence and sexual assault both culturally and by our legal systems. So, I’m heartened to hear that this kind of testing and oversight is happening.

I’d love though, for there to be a deeper investigation into child predation. It’s a common experience of girlhood to start getting sexual attention at a very young age. 10-12 seems to be the age range that I have heard most for getting leered at, being talked to sexually by older men (friends of Dad), getting cat-called on the street. It’s very disturbing as a girl to go from being a kid to suddenly having very adult men look to see if you’re getting boobs. And this is the minor, everyday aspects of young girlhood. There is obviously much, much worse.

I remember reading an old book of limericks, maybe published at turn of the century. It had a lot of old English that made no sense to me but I was pretty stunned at the more than a handful that openly referenced priests chasing and having sex with young boys. So, everybody knows. It’s just that seemingly the most effective programs we’ve come up with so far are blaming the victims. Blaming children. Blaming women and girls for their vulnerability. Blaming homosexuals. We are really great at pointing the finger at the hurting while allowing perpetrators to exit stage right.
posted by amanda at 10:02 AM on July 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

Aside from the issues of hierarchy and control (which clearly matter) and even when people mean well (accepting that's not universal), you always have the underlying truth that people trust churches and churches trust people.

By which I mean that churches will usually take at face value everyone who comes in their doors, but congregants tend to assume that everyone connected with a church can be trusted. This is why good safeguarding matters. If you have good processes that protect people and which you are open about, you are less likely to be groomed, and if you are not groomed then your children are less likely to be molested.
posted by plonkee at 12:06 PM on July 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

So, the psychological exams. I was a graduate student in theology (so in the graduate school for an academic degree -- MTS -- but housed in the Divinity School), while 95% of my classmates were seminarians (so in the Divinity School for a professional degree -- M.Div.). So I did not actually have to TAKE the psychological exams myself, and I know some of our members here have done so and could speak more thoroughly about that, but my roommates went through it and many of my friends. I was at a Methodist seminary that was around half Methodist, and then probably 30% Baptist (SBC and ABC), a good chunk of Presbyterians and UCCs, and then miscellaneous Protestants, and then like five of us who were Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and other odd ducks. (My undergraduate degree in theology was in a Catholic program where several of my friends went on to the priesthood and went through THAT pscyhological evaluation process, which I know less about since I wasn't physically there when they went through it, but I know a little. It also varies A LOT by diocese -- Lincoln, Nebraska, will ordain literally anyone who breathes and opposes abortion and was born with a penis; Chicago (as the canard goes) wouldn't ordain Jesus if he came back because he'd be too emotionally unstable.) ANYWAY, my roommates were all Methodist (UMC) and the ordination applications I was asked to provide character references for were all Methodist.

An M.Div. is generally a 3-year degree, and many denominations/groups tack some extra time on top of that (either before or after). There's a whole process of discernment before you can enroll as a "candidate" for ordination, and you'll be interviewed by your local church governing body and they'll have to grant approval. (Any idiot who meets the academic requirements can enroll for an M.Div., but if you want to do it as a candidate for ordination, you have to have your denomination's approval.)

Sometimes in the the 2nd semester of the 2nd year, students begin their psychological evaluation applications. It's SUPER long, the packet was like 40 pages, double-sided, I think it's called the "Personal Data Inventory"? It's SO long and it wants to know EVERYTHING. Plus there's an essay, plus you tell the examiners who your teachers, roommates, family, good friends, employers, etc., are, so they can talk to those people about your fitness for ministry. (I was contacted by ministry boards for a couple friends for whom I happily gave glowing references as to their general awesomeness.) This is all reviewed by their home conference (like a diocese but for Methodists), who give their approval to move forward to the interviews, where there is a face-to-face interview with a psychologist who specializes in ministerial assessment, and then a face-to-face interview with an ordination board. (Then there's a couple excruciating months when nothing happens, then there's often a second interview with the shrink.) DURING THIS PROCESS the churches and seminaries as anyone who knows an impediment to someone entering ministry to prayerfully come forward and tell them, if the church hasn't gotten around to contacting them.

So, the first case I was a part of was actually one of my roommates; over the course of two years it became super-clear to the rest of us that she had a LOT of problems. Her parents had been repressively, abusively religious, told her her menstrual period was dirty and slutty, and her mother forced her into an eating disorder to stop it; her father beat her (basically for being female); she constantly claimed to be sick with exotic diseases and would hospitalize herself with them (plus she legit had some bad complications from the eating disorder). And she was really nice! We all cared about her a lot! And she was really, really good at saying the right thing to the ministry examiners (which, who wouldn't be, after having parents who trained you to lie for survival). But another of my roommates, also Methodist, said, "I think I'm obligated to report this; I don't think she can serve as a pastor in any kind of healthy way, I think she's just trying to prove to her parents that she's holy enough, and she's really, really not healthy, she just lies constantly, about things that don't even matter, I don't see how she can lead a congregation." My roommate asked if I would be a corroborating witness, and I said, yeah, I would do that. So she went to the board of ordination (or whatever they were called) and I sat out in a waiting room while she talked to them, and then they called me in (while she sat in the waiting room), and asked me a bunch of questions and I said I'd seen this, I'd seen that. As I was not Methodist I didn't have to, like, state opinions on her fitness for ministry, just answer factual questions, which I was glad of. My roommate threw up afterwards because it was such a wrenching decision; she knew that it was ruining our other roommate's LIFE (at least for a while), but she felt ethically obligated. We were not the only people who spoke to them about her, but the whole thing was really awful. She was told she might be able to seek ordination in the future but at this time she needed more discernment. (A couple years after leaving seminary, our roommate married a dude and did not magically become mentally healthy but seemed in a better, more stable place.)

The other situation the ministry board contacted me. (And, content warning for this paragraph: sexual assault.) A guy in my circle of friends had been reported to the ministry board as a sex addict. So, I knew he was, like, really shitty about hitting on women and really shitty when he was dating them, but I was already married so it hadn't come up with me personally. So this is mostly second-hand gossip from people who reported him, buuuuut he apparently was constantly trying to convince women he was friends with (who weren't partnered) to give him oral sex or hand jobs, because as it "wasn't sex" it was "totally okay" under the chastity rules they were obligated to (the chastity rules allowed sex in committed relationships, it wasn't monkhood), and he "couldn't think straight" without orgasming. And he apparently rubbed his penis up against some female classmates without their consent to try to, like, come to orgasm via frotteurism. So I guess several of the women reported this, and the ministry board investigated, and they asked me to speak to them (which I wasn't required to do but I was happy to do, I wasn't coerced). I couldn't really speak as to his sexual assaults (although I believed the women), but I did say that I found his conversations about the ethics of sexuality to be obsessive (it was all he wanted to talk about) and to frequently veer into inappropriately personal questions, and that his freelance charity efforts were troubling to me. (He decided to save all the homeless in the city because "nobody else was even trying" (lots of people were) and just started de novo going to "help" them with stuff they did not need help with (it was very "rich white savior") and he got ANGRY and aggressive when people with expertise in working with the homeless tried to suggest better avenues that would actually help.)

So, he was flatly informed he would not be offered ordination now or in the future and he was not an appropriate candidate for ministry. (None of the women were willing to go to the police at the time, which was almost 20 years ago, and I think if they had they wouldn't have been taken seriously, especially on a college campus.) Sooooooooo he met a girl through VERY unclear measures, who was like 20 (he was like 26) and whose parents basically wouldn't let her leave her house because of THE BAD DANGER SEX AND ALL HER BOOBS and had homeschooled her for high school (and wouldn't let her go to college), and they decided to get married, she to escape her parents, and he to have lots of orgasms. Her parents were over the moon because he would protect her from THE BAD DANGER SEX by having the sanctioned married sex and they spent a shit-ton of money on the wedding. So she was Catholic and they were going to have a Mass, and they went to pre-Cana counseling with her priest, and after talking to them, he gently informed them that he could not perform the marriage because it was HELLA FUCKED UP and neither of them was capable of consenting appropriately because she didn't care who she married as long as she got out of her parents' house and he didn't care who he married as long as there was a vagina involved. Soooooo they went to his childhood minister (Methodist), who also refused to perform the ceremony, for similar reasons. Sooooooo her parents paid a few thousand dollars to a defrocked (FOR PEDOPHILIA) Catholic priest to perform the "Mass." His parents refused to attend the wedding, and literally none of his friends attended either (I was invited and declined IN ALARM), and a whole bunch his close friends (i.e., not me) told him they weren't attending because this was AN INCREDIBLY SHIT IDEA and a super-fucked-up situation. The wedding was basically her creepy parents and all her relatives and nobody else went because it was SOOOOOOOO messed up.

Then, figuring as he was married sex was no longer sinful even if he'd sexually assaulted a bunch of people and never repented and gotten married against the advice of not one but two clergy members, he promptly applied for ordination again in the Methodist Church, and was promptly told, "NO DUDE, not now, not ever, this is NOT BETTER."

So then he joined a more fundamentalist denomination and was ordained in that church with basically NO hurdles and has been preaching for them for over a decade and he's divorced now and he has apparently gone full Trump because that's how he keeps a job in the congregation he has. (He claimed to be super-progressive at seminary.) And also I've heard he creeps on women in his congregation although nobody who was friends with him keeps up with him closely anymore because refusing to go to a dude's wedding kinda ends the friendship. But, like, I believe it. I'd be more surprised if he WASN'T creeping on women in his congregation.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:13 PM on July 10, 2019 [21 favorites]

There is a very effective network in these conservative denominations for addressing and punishing theological divergence.

Yes there is. I have a doctorate in ministry and every church I've led has grown while I was there, which is incredibly rare in this era of churches shrinking across the board. I'm also a really, really good public speaker. My other masters degree (besides the M.Div.) is in communication. You'd think I'd be highly in demand as a minister. And yet, I haven't found a position in the last six years of pretty steady searching, because I have an (earned) reputation for being too liberal. And it's maddening to realize that if the black mark on my record was something like an affair with an intern, rather than affirming gay people, I'd already be back in a church.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:47 AM on July 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

Aside from the issues of hierarchy and control (which clearly matter) and even when people mean well (accepting that's not universal), you always have the underlying truth that people trust churches and churches trust people.

Boy, howdy. The tendency of some people to automatically trust anyone who professes the same spiritual beliefs as theirs is really frightening to me. I wish I had a dollar for every time during George W. Bush's presidency that I heard or read someone say, "Well, I don't agree with everything he says, but he's a God-fearing Christian so I know whatever he does is for the best."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:46 PM on July 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

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