Sunday, February 10, 2019

"A Porous Sieve of a Denomination"

A collection of mugshots of some of the 220 SBC pastors
or other church workers who were convicted of or pleaded guilty
to sexual crimes -- just since 1998.
Compiled by The Houston Chronicle
Because I grew up in the nurturing embrace of Texas Southern Baptists, among other Christian fellow-travelers, and spent untold hours in church being warned about Hell, and went to college at a Texas Southern Baptist institution (where I was actually lucky to be invited to read widely and learn more than I had so far been taught), I have not been able to tear myself away from "Abuse of Faith," an extensive (3-part) investigation into Southern Baptist Church sexual misconduct by its pastoral leaders -- not just in Texas but across the nation -- including highly inappropriate and even criminal activity in the pastor's study, in the choir room, on the pews, and out in the parking lot (or wherever The Spirit leads).

A team of reporters from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News has spent months investigating this sorry history:
1992. A lawyer for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) writes in a court filing that the SBC does not distribute instructions to its member churches on handling sexual abuse claims, and therefore can't be held liable for negligence. Every Baptist church is famously independent, the lawyer argues, "autonomous" (a point of fierce pride), and therefore the Convention has no authority to order churches to track sex offenders.
2007-08. Some Baptist Church victims of sexual predation begin to organize in Texas (the largest concentration of Southern Baptists in the nation) and raise hell and demand a predator-tracking system. "Name names!" In response to the pressure, the Baptist General Convention of Texas publishes eight names of pastors who have been convicted of sex crimes.
2008-18. Baptist Church victims continue to cry out and encounter the stone wall of top SBC leaders who coincidentally include several who have themselves participated in or covered up bad behavior.
2018. A 40-year-old Texas woman, Debbie Vasquez, stands before the Southern Baptist Convention and again requests a tracking system that would identify pastoral personnel who have been creditably accused of abuse or convicted of sexual assault. The Convention rejected her request.
(In "Abuse of Faith," Vasquez reveals that decades earlier she had been sexually exploited by her pastor from the age of 14 until she was pregnant by him at 18. When the leaders of her church discovered the pregnancy, they "forced her to stand in front of the congregation and ask for forgiveness without saying who had fathered the child." Even though Vasquez sued pastor and church in 2006, and the pastor had to acknowledge paternity of her child, he was welcomed to continue pastoring and didn't go to jail.)
The Vasquez case caught the attention of Houston Chronicle reporters who began to search news archives, websites, and databases nationwide to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors and other church officials. They focused the search on the 10 years preceding the victims' first call for a registry (1997-2007) and on the 10-plus years since (2008-2018).

At least 10 SBC churches welcomed pastors, ministers, and volunteers since 1998 who had previously faced charges of sexual misconduct. In some cases, they were registered sex offenders.
In the last 10 years more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes. Since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, leaving behind more than 700 victims, "many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions."

Arriving at this inescapable conclusion: "... All a con artist has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he's been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister. Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power .... It's a porous sieve of a denomination."

All of this rings several bells of memory for me, and I could tell stories. You didn't grow up in the faith and come to an age of reckoning without hearing multiple tales, sometimes from your female friends who had just been pawed and told they were beautiful young instruments of God. It was different then, because nobody did anything. Women were more reluctant to raise a stink because they knew the condemnation would come down on them ... especially in an organized religion that still preaches "Wives, be subject to your husbands" and "the women should keep silence in the churches." 

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