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Southern Baptist Crash

Johnny Hunt, Southern Baptist big, denounced as one of biggest sex abuse villains by independent report (CNN)

I have been wondering what to say about the catastrophe that has overtaken the Southern Baptist Convention, regarding the tolerance of key leaders of a culture of sexual abuse, and cover up. I understand it less than I did the same thing in the Catholic Church, in part because I was once Catholic, and grasped how the system worked within Catholic ecclesiology. I don’t know nearly as much about the Southern Baptists, aside from the fact that it is far less systematically organized than Catholicism. Each congregation has far more autonomy than Catholic congregations. I don’t understand the degree of responsibility that the SBC’s leaders have, compared to the Catholic system. It is hard for me as an outsider to get a handle on who, precisely, is to blame for what. This is important, because I remember as a Catholic going through the first years of the outbreak of the Catholic scandal, which exploded in early 2002, in the wake of the Geoghan trial in Boston, how the justified rage of all people came down unfairly on many priests who had nothing to do with it. The priest at the parish down the street might have known as little about what was going on as his non-Catholic neighbors, and just as little power to do anything about it. On the other hand, the Catholic Church was full of people who may not have had direct responsibility for protecting abusers, but who had a pretty good idea of what was happening anyway, but said nothing.

If you haven’t been following this story, this CNN report will bring you up to speed:

I just returned from getting together with a friend who is one of the finest men I know. He is a Southern Baptist pastor who moved out of town a couple of years ago, and happened to be back visiting family. We were together for two hours, and though I intended to ask him what he thought of this scandal, it never came up. We spent a long time talking about my ongoing divorce, and about what his life was like in his new city, and about miracles, and all kinds of things. I only remembered that I had wanted his take on the scandal after I got home and read the new David Brooks column, more on which in a moment.

I am sure that this man, my pastor friend, would have expressed disgust with it all. But then, he had left the pastorate suffering from burnout. I know he’s still involved in ministry, but I seem to recall that it’s not in a Southern Baptist context. I could be wrong; I honestly can’t remember. I do remember that when he left town, he was worn out with congregational ministry. Trying to help lead a congregation through the Covid crisis tore him up, plus he was ground down by the politicization of Southern Baptist life. He was, and is, a conservative, both theologically and politically. But he hated what politics had done to the people in his church. The seething hatred folks had for each other, and the expectation that the clergy would take a side. I had two Southern Baptist pastor friends — both conservatives — who quit their congregations because they couldn’t take it anymore. One of them left church work entirely; the other is this man.

I bring him up because he is the face of the Southern Baptist faith too. He is not Paige Patterson, or Johnny Hunt, or any of the other villains whose names have come out in the new independent report about sex abuse and cover up in the denomination. And yet, those men were, and are, part of his denomination. I remember what it was like in the first few years of this decade, when I was writing as a Catholic about the scandal, and struggling intensely with the anger I felt not only at the bishops who had overseen this moral meltdown, and the priests who had participated in it, but also with the priests and ordinary parishioners who compartmentalized it away, and who didn’t want to think about it at all, because it disturbed their peace. As I write this, I’m thinking about how in 2004, I would be standing at mass unable to focus on anything but the rape of children, the crushing of their families, and the systematic cover-up of the abuse — and wondering how in the hell so many people around me at mass could be at peace with it all, in the sense of carrying on as if this had nothing to do with them. They had not molested any children. As far as they knew, their priest was a decent man. If it weren’t for what was being reported in the papers, they wouldn’t know a thing about it. And that’s how they wanted it to be.

As my regular readers know, the anger over the injustice, and the impossibility of justice ever being done, because bishops lie, and most Catholics wanted to be lied to for the sake of protecting their personal peace, finally broke me. I lost my ability to believe in Catholic Christianity. Here was the breaking point: when I discovered that a conservative priest I had come to know and trusted was in fact a liar, and an accused molester. When I broke the news, some of the people at the parish where he ministered, and where my family and I had sought refuge (still believing, naively, that conservatives like us were safe), were furious at me for telling the truth. Eventually we ended up in the Orthodox Church, but I have never regained my trust in clerical authority. It’s not that I expect every priest or bishop I meet to be a bad guy. I certainly don’t. But I have no more ability to trust them naturally than a man whose legs were once mangled in a car crash has the ability to run a mile.

Over the years since, though, I have matured somewhat, and I have learned that the problem that manifested in the Catholic Church is not specific to Catholicism. It is human. One of the reasons my attempt to return to Louisiana and be with my family down here failed is because I warned people I loved about a villain who was trying to take advantage of them, and they refused to believe me, considering me to be a cynical big-city type. Everything I told them was about to happen in fact happened — and the fallout was catastrophic. I haven’t written about this to protect the innocent, but it damn sure happened, and of course there were no apologies forthcoming. It was more important to protect the System — not a church, but a family system — than to acknowledge responsibility for allowing an evildoer to take advantage of the weak. (This does not involve sexual abuse, I hasten to say.)

This plays indirectly into the crisis of divorce that has overtaken me and my wife and children. It would be morally wrong to talk about this in detail; it is not my story to tell. It is important to say, though, that the pride and the arrogance of people who will sacrifice the innocent to protect their own peace of mind, and the system that gives them peace of mind, is a recurrent human trait. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my friend “Alison,” who was molested by family members as a child. She comes from a conservative Christian family. Her folks ought to have known what was going on. The signs were all there. But molesters are dirty people who are Not Like Us. Confronting what those kinfolks were doing to that defenseless little girl would have required challenging the System, and that was not something they were going to do. They sacrificed their child, in a sense, to protect the image of themselves as a Good Christian Family.

Alison ended up becoming an alcoholic in her desperate attempt to deal with the impact of her abuse. She finally hit bottom, and with the love and support of her husband, went to rehab and has been rebuilding her life. Part of the rebuilding has been committing herself to helping, through a charitable organization, other families with children in crisis. It wouldn’t be right to say her story has a happy ending, exactly, but it is a hopeful one, and a beautiful one.

But these crimes have consequences. I have a friend who works for the Catholic institution, for a diocese. He told me the last time we saw each other that his son had been in seminary, but dropped out, discerning that he didn’t really have a vocation. The man, a devout Catholic who had given his life to serving the church in administration, told me that he was secretly relieved. He knew how rotten the system was from the inside, and did not want his idealistic and faithful son to suffer. At the same time, he did not tell his son what he really thought, because he wanted to be a supportive father. Besides, the Church needs good priests. He believed that too — he believes it — with all his divided and broken heart.

What I learned from my own experience of having my heart shattered by the Catholic institution was not to place my faith in religious institutions. Some people quit believing in God. Not me. I came to believe that the same people who proclaim God, and who believe themselves to be His representatives on earth, would crucify His son all over again if it was what they needed to do to protect the System. Caiaphas, the high priest of the Sanhedrin, said of Jesus of Nazareth, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” By this reasoning, it is better that all those abuse victims — Catholic, Southern Baptist, all of them — be crushed than that the whole System come tumbling down.

This is not just a Catholic thing. This is not just a Southern Baptist thing. This is human, all too human. I say this not to excuse any of these evildoers and the systems that upheld them, but only to say that it could happen to anybody. I remember hearing some Protestants — not all, but some — snorting when the Catholics were being torn to bits by the exposure of their own sins, acting as if this was a Roman problem. Well, guess what?

Right now, the spotlight is on the Southern Baptists, as it should be. David Brooks has written a damning column about what the SBC allowed to happen in its midst. Excerpts:

They dedicated their lives to a gospel that says that every human being is made in the image of God. They dedicated their lives to a creed that commands one to look out for the marginalized, the vulnerable. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth.

And yet when allegations of sexual abuse came, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention betrayed it all. Those men — and they seem to have all been men — must have listened to hundreds of hours of pious sermons, read hundreds of high-minded theological books, recited thousands of hours of prayer, and yet all those true teachings and good beliefs had no effect on their actual behavior.

Instead, according to an independently produced report released by the convention this week, those leaders covered up widespread abuse in their denomination and often intimidated and belittled victims. More than 400 people believed to be affiliated with the church, including some church leaders, have been accused of committing abuse.

Preach! More:

How can there be such a chasm between what people “believe” and what they do? Don’t our beliefs matter?

The fact is, moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act — the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.

If you look at people with a detached, emotionless gaze, it doesn’t really matter what your beliefs are, because you have morally disengaged. You have perceived a person not as a full human but as a thing, as a vague entity toward which the rules of morality do not apply.

In 2007 a woman named Christa Brown had the courage to testify before Southern Baptist officials that her youth pastor had repeatedly sexually assaulted her when she was 16. She reported that one official turned his back, literally refusing to look at her, refusing to see her. That is the sort of dehumanization that creates indifference that enables rape, abuse and all the other horrific dehumanizing acts down the road.

Character is not measured by a person’s beliefs but by the ability to see the full humanity of others. It is not automatic. It’s a skill acquired slowly. It’s about being able to focus on what’s going on in your own mind and simultaneously focus on what’s going on in another mind. It’s about learning how to minutely observe, absorb and resonate with other people’s emotions.

How do these leaders get away with it? Cardinal Bernard Law railed publicly against the Boston Globe, saying that they were out to persecute the Church. And you know, there was something to that, regarding the Globe‘s spitefulness towards Catholicism. But the cardinal used that bit of truth to confect a false defense of the indefensible. Brooks writes:

You tell a victimization story: We are under attack. They’re out to get us. They’re monsters. They deserve what they get. You tell a righteousness story: We do the Lord’s work. Our mission is vital. Anybody who interferes is a beast.

Yep. This is what the Black Lives Matter leadership, which is trying to get people to ignore how they spent the white guilt money people showered on them after the George Floyd murder, is doing. Like I said, a human thing. It’s in our character.

Anyway, read it all. 

David ends the column with this punch in the gut: “Where will the forces of re-humanization come from? Apparently not from our religious elites.”

I get that. It’s hard for me to see much hope in any elites, to be honest. Maybe I’m too cynical, but this Twitter exchange captures my mood these days:

And this response from a New Orleanian:

The “rehumanization” will come from people like the pastor I met with tonight. He told me about some people he is helping in counseling — people who are truly in crisis. He couldn’t give me details, for obvious reasons, but was just sharing with me very generally about the kind of brokenness he’s trying to heal. I’m realizing now that if I had asked him about Paige Patterson, Johnny Hunt, and the other Southern Baptist bigs who are now in disgrace, he would have burned up my ears with his harsh opinions of them. That’s my guess, based on what I know of his character. But we never got around to talking about them because he busied himself trying to give me constructive advice on how my wife and I can treat each other going forward through this divorce in ways that can hold our children together, and talking about how he’s helping others deal with brokenness in their lives. It’s funny, but years ago, when I was a grieving and aggrieved Catholic, had I been sitting with a Catholic priest, I would have been able to talk about nothing else other than those good-for-nothing bishops, and did you see that report in the paper today about that pastor, and so forth. Tonight, with this Southern Baptist pastor, there was none of that.

Some of it is because I just don’t know the Southern Baptist world well enough to have informed opinions. But I think most of it is because over the years, I’ve given up on expecting anything from representatives of institutional religion. I have never felt more secure in my Orthodox Christian faith, but that’s probably because I spend almost no time at all thinking of the failures of the bishops and clergy. If I meet a good priest — like those amazing monks I met in Romania last month — I give thanks to God. But I don’t expect it anymore, and that is good for my faith, I think. But that’s me — I’m weak, and find it hard to trust. I mean, look, I trusted in the goodness of Family ten years ago, and moved down to Louisiana with my wife and kids to be a good boy to my folks and my sister’s kids. Now all that is gone, and I’m living through the dismantling of my own marriage, pretty much the direct result of my stupid, naive trust.

If you are struggling to hold on to your faith because of the failures of the clergy or the church, come sit by me. If you are struggling to hold on to your faith in marriage or family because of failures in same, hey, I’m your man. It hurts like hell. But the wise poet tells us to “stagger onward rejoicing” towards the Promised Land, and he is right. It’s not here on this earth, though we can catch glimpses of it that signal to us that it is real, and our ultimate destination. Remember, though, that on this earth, the religious authorities murdered an innocent man, a man who was God himself — and the crowd (people like you and me) clamored for it, as surely as any one of us sat there, or would have sat there, in the pews, protecting our innocence through pious pretense.

Where will the forces of re-humanization come from? Let’s start with our own repentant hearts. Back in 2014, when I was blogging a lot about Dante, I wrote:

Longtime commenter Matt in VA, who is gay and married, put a fascinating comment on the conscience thread:

“…none of it excuses us from individual responsibility. If you go down that path, you will end up in hell, and make life hell for those around you.”

I think straight people generally cannot appreciate how completely devoid of a concept of individual responsibility gay male culture in particular is. Sure, a big part of it is “structural”: no kids and no real obstacles to sex except whatever you carry within you/bring with you from your upbringing or religion or culture or whatever else outside of the gay ghetto. The total disaster that is gay and bi men’s sexual health outcomes (and don’t be fooled by the existence of medicines to mitigate the worst effects of that culture; it remains a disaster) is just one symptom of the overall really fundamental moral vacuum/pit.

It is a rotten deal: you listen to “fag” and “queer” being thrown around all the time as a kid, either at you if you’re effeminate or at other nongenderconforming kids if you can pass for straight…and then you grow up and hope to find acceptance and a place for yourself and get sucked instead into a culture in which you’re encouraged to view yourself as a piece of meat, in which you are socialized to treat your own body and the bodies of others as trash receptacles for incurable viruses, in which drug use and trolling for sex partners night after night on the basis of proximity are normalized, and you end up spit out at some point when your looks fade, fundamentally changed as person, often infected, and no closer to (probably much farther from) finding meaningful love than you were before you came out. And the whole time the culture keeps telling you to keep your ire focused on conservative Christians, they’re the real problem, they’re the ones to blame if you experience any unhappiness.

Gay people who refuse to be the victims of this communal-sewer culture are the ones who retain that concept of individual responsibility from wherever they got it in the first place — their families, their religions, their upbringing, maybe even just from books (I think for me, it’s been books that have helped the most, though I was involved in, and implicated in, that sewer culture for a while). My point is, that idea — of individual responsibility, the Solzhenitsyn bit about the line between good and evil being not between you and some horrible Other but being inside your own heart — that idea, that saving idea is often within individual gay people, but it is not anywhere within Gay Inc. It does not exist there. I am gay-married, but I don’t think that perennial Big Issue, gay marriage, will make much of a difference in the lives of most gay men so long as gay culture remains continues to so completely exclude the truth that *we* are (and all human beings are) our own worst enemies, we are what’s wrong with the world.

That’s powerful.

On the conscience front, as you know, I was bullied in high school, but I can remember plenty of times afterward that I was a bully, in my own way, taking pleasure in coming up with cutting phrases and critiques that tore others down for the sake of appearing clever. For this reason, I think it would be difficult for me to read some of the writing I produced in my twenties, in particular.

Every single one of us, unless we’re a saint (and very few of us are), has the potential to misuse power to serve ourselves — even if we think we are serving a Good Cause. In fact, it’s when we think we’re serving a good cause that the temptation to bully is the worst. Some of the worst bullies of our time were Catholic bishops who covered up for abusive priests. Do I think those bishops enjoyed their de facto bullying of the powerless? Of course not. I think most of them meant well. As one of them of my acquaintance told an abuse victim he threatened with personal ruin if she went public with what she had suffered, “I have to protect the people of God.” I think the bishop really believed that.

But you know what? Those who attack Catholic bishops can be bullies too, precisely because the cause of defending victims is so righteous. I am all too aware of how my righteous anger on this topic got the best of me at times. If you read Dante’s Purgatorio with us, you’ll remember that on the terrace of Wrath, Dante could barely see in front of his face for all the smoke. This is what Wrath does to us: it makes us blind. When I was in a state of wrath at the bishops, nothing mattered more to me than making them pay for the injustices they wrought. I could not see my own capacity for inflicting injustice, which was absolutely there.

This is a hard thing to deal with, in part because it blunts the satisfaction we may feel for being on the Right Side. To be sure, I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the sides in the abuse scandal, or in the history of anti-gay bullying, or racist bullying, or any of that. My point is simply that having been victimized does not obviate your capacity to become a victimizer if you are given the chance. It’s human nature.

The Southern Baptist evildoers, and those who looked the other way and allowed them to get away with it, all face their comeuppance now. This is just. This is right. But be careful. Matt in VA was right to quote Solzhenitsyn: the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart. Bear in mind that every one of us are right this very second probably turning a blind eye to something wicked that we have it in our power to stop, to expose, or to in some way resist, but we are failing to do so because it would cost us too much — even if the price we have to pay is as little as comfort and peace of mind.

UPDATE: Dukeboy comments:

I’ve been waiting to see what our host had to say about this report. I’ve downloaded and been reading it myself. It is 288 pages long.

I was raised Southern Baptist. My father was (and still is) the pastor of SBC churches. I’ve posted my testimony here before and while I’m not currently a member of an SBC church, I do know the system. It was the family business as I was growing up..

Reading through the report, I’m struck by how much the SBC Executive Committee used the fact that SBC churches are self- governing bodies as a shield to avoid claiming any responsibility. The thing is, they’re not wrong. The first thing that members from other churches, particularly the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, have to wrap their minds around is that when the SBC says that each local church is independent, they mean it. There is no Bishop. There is no Council with the power to kick someone out of ministry. The SBC is the loosest possible confederation (an appropriate word, given the founding of the association and split with Yankee Baptists in advance of the Civil War) you could have and still call yourself an organization.

So, in some ways, complaining to the SBC Executive Committee (the EC) about problems in your local church is making an appeal to the wrong jurisdiction. The organization is set up to defer to the local churches. To establish an EC with the power to both anoint and defrock (for lack of a better term) local pastors would be to create a new organization that would no longer be the SBC.

That said, the second thing I was struck by is the lack of any sense or exhortation, even during the recommendations portion of the report, that notification of civil authorities, particularly law enforcement, should be required, particularly when a minor is involved. This is a huge blindspot or failing that I encountered multiple times when I was a detective when dealing with religious institutions. There is this mindset that if the sinner repents, then he has to be forgiven, and any penance that is dished out internally should be punishment enough. Grace covers all.

I reject that, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse of minors. Those are crimes and everyone, even Christians, are required to “Render unto Caesar.” Sometimes what Caesar demands is that you get locked in a cage for 5- 20 years and that you have to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life when you get out. Your offense is not solely an offense against your victim. It is an offense against society as a whole and you should still be held accountable even if your victim and your God forgives.

There was also far too much deference to legal counsel in how to respond. One individual in particular, Mr. Boto, exercised far too much influence in his role as lead counsel for the EC for too many years. Yes, people should always seek legal advice. But in large organizations, it never hurts to occasionally seek second opinions.

There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ve been blowing it up with long posts around here the last few days so I’m going to wrap this up. I will close with this:

I’m retired from law enforcement now and work for my state government in a sort of consultant/ reviewer/ advisor role looking at cold case sexual assaults across the state. (I don’t really want to get too much into exactly what I do. It’s a small group.) A few months ago my former partner from my PD days called me up. He had been approached by a large powerhouse law firm in another state about working for them as an investigator for civil litigation involving class action suits for sexual misconduct against large corporations. They needed help and needed it badly to go through witness statements, victim accounts, etc. It was (to us) high- dollar hourly billable work.

We couldn’t make it work because it would have interfered too much with our day jobs and neither of us were ready to quit them just yet. But the legal sharks are out there and this report is chum in the water. The SBC’s failure to address this issue is going to result in a plethora of lawsuits against various SBC entities, like the seminaries, as well as the local churches. The legal advice that they took to basically stonewall the victims is going to bite their budgets hard in the coming decades.

UPDATE.2: A reader writes:

The SBC is not a denominational governing body, as rightly noted by Dukeboy.
However, it is a coordinating body for many aspects of congregational life that are difficult for the individual contributing congregations to handle alone. Examples: home and foreign missions, camps and retreat centers, Sunday School materials, publishing, involvement with seminaries, etc.
This coordination has long  included an Annuity Board so that ministers had the possibility of contributions being made to a common pension program as they went from congregation to congregation. In fact, the SBC sought to protect that program from taxation based on its being connected to a church:
If SBC could coordinate and oversee a voluntary pension program, there doesn’t seem to be a reason it couldn’t have overseen a voluntary reporting system for paid and volunteer employees of individual congregations who harmed congregants of any age.
Even more could have been done if the SBC’s supporting congregations had chosen to insist on reporting as a requirement for participation in the SBC (of course, mandates are hard to get Baptists to agree upon).
But no need to single out churches. Nothing prevents medical, counseling, and educational associations or accrediting agencies from compiling such lists. Nothing prevents States from requiring public schools and universities to do the same and to refuse to hire anyone on the list.
But many people just don’t want to know. They want an easy way to be rid of a problem employee without a “scandal” and are prepared to hand him on to the next unsuspecting victim(s).
We do outrage better than prevention.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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