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The Southern Baptist #MeToo Reckoning

Paige Patterson , ousted president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS/screen grab)

I’ve been out of the house for most of today, working to solve a home maintenance problem that arose. While out and about, I ran into a Southern Baptist friend, a woman, and asked her what she thought about the #MeToo upheaval in the Southern Baptist Convention.

It made me really sad to hear what she had to say. She’s been a churchgoing Southern Baptist all her life, but she’s done. She’s not leaving the SBC, for various personal reasons, but she has no confidence in the denomination anymore. Without going into too much detail here, I’ll share with you that she said that she’s sick and tired of all the pious pretending she sees around her. All the deep and wide brokenness in the church, but nobody wanting to deal with it straightforwardly.

“We don’t want to face it when people are having trouble in their marriages,” she said, “but when they get divorced, we’re real quick to invite them to our ‘divorce care’ ministry.”

(To be clear, I didn’t get the impression that she was talking about her congregation specifically, but the Southern Baptist churches on the whole.)

I pointed out to her that this is not just a Southern Baptist thing. She agreed, generally, but said that there are things specific to Southern Baptist culture that she has in mind. We didn’t have time to talk further, and I don’t know what I would have asked her about that culture if we had. Still, I’ve been thinking all afternoon about our conversation.

It’s not too strong to say that I’m grieving for the Southern Baptists in all this. I take seminary president Albert Mohler at his word — that there needs to be a powerful reckoning within the Southern Baptist Convention for the way women have been treated. Even so, I am worried about all my Baptist friends, men and women both, who are having to face all this. It needs to happen, but it’s going to be rough. Mohler ended his powerful sermon yesterday like this:

The #MeToo moment has come to American evangelicals. This moment has come to some of my friends and brothers in Christ. This moment has come to me, and I am called to deal with it as a Christian, as a minister of the Gospel, as a seminary and college president, and as a public leader. I pray that I will lead rightly.

In Romans 1:18 we are told: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

This is just a foretaste of the wrath of God poured out. This moment requires the very best of us. The Southern Baptist Convention is on trial and our public credibility is at stake. May God have mercy on us all.

I want to speak personally about this. As most of you regular readers know, I left the Roman Catholic Church in 2006 after writing about the sex abuse scandal there for four years. I found that I didn’t have it in me to believe as a Catholic anymore. I had fought intensely for years to hold onto my faith, and lost. I heard in the exhausted voice of my Southern Baptist friend today the same sense of resignation. That sense of just being worn out by it all. My friend is not talking about losing faith in Jesus Christ. She’s talking about the church.

I was thinking later today that for me, it wasn’t the actual sexual abuse of children that broke me as a Catholic. (And I should make clear that nothing like that has been part of the crisis in the SBC now.) It was the way it was handled by bishops, priests, and the Catholic laity.

My God, the stories. You wouldn’t believe. (If you want to drink from that lava firehose, read Catholic writer Leon Podles’s book Sacrilege.) The entire system conspired, consciously and unconsciously, to suppress knowledge of these hideous crimes, to crush victims, to protect the guilty, all the while putting a pious face on themselves. We know about bishops and priests, but it wasn’t only them. It was law enforcement officials (like this guy), it was therapists, it was journalists … and it was the Catholic laity. Don’t for one minute think that all the laity was ignorant. Some were, but many weren’t. People knew that something wasn’t right with Father. They spoke about it in whispers, but only that. Victims and their families suffered in silence and shame.

I remember being in Louisiana visiting family in 2004 when news broke that the late Joseph Sullivan, a former Catholic bishop of Baton Rouge, had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a young man. The current bishop ordered a statement about it read at every mass in the diocese that weekend (here’s what the bishop said to the public; I can’t remember if this is the text he had priests read to congregations). I was in the congregation in the church in my hometown; they had a visiting priest, as the pastor was out of town that weekend. The visiting priest finished reading the bishop’s statement, then, of his own accord, instructed the congregation never to speak of this thing.

I wanted to stand up and walk out. What an outrageous thing to tell the people of the church! They’ve just learned from their bishop that a former bishop was a molester, and now they’re hearing from the pulpit that they are not to speak of it! I didn’t stand up and walk out. I just swallowed my anger, again.

The Catholic laity was the dog that didn’t bark. True, because of the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church, the laity does not have as much power as it does in many Protestant churches. At one point I believed that if the laity had more power, things would be different. At some point, though, I lost that confidence. The truth is, most people don’t want to know that some of their priests are child molesters any more than most people want to confront the fact that some of their Baptist pastors throw sexually and physically abused women under the bus.

In 2004, I discovered by happenstance that a Catholic priest my family was getting close to had lied in a highly manipulative way to us about the circumstances that brought him to Dallas. It turns out that he had been suspended from active ministry in Pennsylvania after an abuse accusation. He moved to Dallas, his hometown, and talked the pastor of a conservative Catholic parish into letting him do ministry work there off the books — without telling the Bishop of Fort Worth. When I learned the truth about the charming Father Clay, I had a decision to make. I explained that in a newspaper column:

Because of my inquiry, the Scranton diocese had already issued a press release about Father Clay. Why not let the Pennsylvania media break the story?

If I do that, I thought, what do I tell my editors when they want to know why I didn’t tell reporters at my own newspaper? The answer would have been: Because I was protecting a parish and a pastor I didn’t want to see hurt. That is, because I am a hypocrite.

I couldn’t be a hypocrite. The protection of children must come first. I wrote down everything I’d learned and sent it to the religion desk. Susan Hogan/Albach worked the story and wrote the article in yesterday’s paper.

Rachel and I feel absolutely horrible about all this. But I have no doubt that we did the right thing. Father Clay had to be stopped. Parishioners looked up to Father Clay, liked him, admired him, trusted him. How ironic that his downfall came out of a conversation in which Rachel and I gushed about what a wonderful priest he is.

Rachel, God bless her, still wants to become a Catholic. I am searching for a new parish for my family, though my wife and I are left wondering if we’ll ever be able to trust the church with the safety of our two young boys.

I am left with two lessons: First, the church’s child-protection rules are only as reliable as those people whose job it is to enforce them. Catholic parents cannot have faith in bureaucratic procedures.

Second, I have more empathy with those I have denounced. I have never been able to understand why bishops and parents of abused kids would try to handle things quietly. Well, I get it now. The only reason I anguished over any of this was not for the sake of Father Clay, but for trouble publicly exposing his deception would cause innocent people.

In the end, though, kids have to be shielded, and the church has to be liberated from this curse of secrets, lies and clerical privilege. I did what I had to do, and am not sorry for it.

The people of that parish had been kept in the dark by their own pastor and parish council. A member of the parish council at that church fired off an e-mail to me denouncing me for my treason. He told me that the parish council had known about Father Clay, but kept it quiet. The Bishop of Fort Worth was furious. Eight years later, the new Bishop of Fort Worth told the public that Father Clay was forbidden to represent himself as a priest, or even to set foot on any Catholic property in the diocese.

In retrospect, I was able to see that the Christopher Clay incident was the end for me and my family as Catholics. We had trusted him so completely, and we had trusted the priest and the parish that had given him shelter. We knew after that that we couldn’t trust, period. We still went to mass — the Bishop Sullivan statement that made me so mad happened months after the Clay disaster — but we were just going through the motions. Finally, by the mercy of God, we found Orthodoxy.

But the inability to trust is still there, at least with me. It would be if I were a Southern Baptist, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, or anything else. I will never let my guard down again.

I tell you all this not to dredge up bad old memories, but to issue a warning to Southern Baptist pastors, leaders, and laity as you all deal with your own self-made problems: Do not lie, do not sugar-coat, do not shift blame, and do not avoid the truth. Your inability to deal with these things straightforwardly got you into this mess. You will only prolong the agony if you don’t face the truth now, and accept just consequences, no matter who loses power and status.

For Southern Baptists in the pews, now is the time to be honest. A brave and good Catholic priest friend told me back when the abuse scandal broke that you couldn’t understand it unless you grasped that it was only one part of a broader systemic crisis in Catholic life. The idea that the Catholic catastrophe was only a crisis of the clergy, and only had to be with sexual abuse, is dangerously wrong. Dangerously, because unless you confront the roots of the crisis, it will never end.

Given that the Southern Baptist laity have more power than the Catholic laity to change things, they need to be unsparingly honest with themselves. A sad fact of human nature:People don’t want to know because to know is to be responsible. When I heard my Southern Baptist friend say today that the treatment of women in the church is only one facet of a much broader crisis, it sounded very, very familiar.

This could turn out very bad for you Southern Baptists — but it doesn’t have to. You can learn from the mistakes many of the rest of us have made. Along those lines, please do your very best not to let your righteous anger overwhelm you. Seek justice, absolutely, but take care not to allow anger to consume you. I wish I had handled that better in my own life when I was put to the test.  God brought good out of it: from the shipwreck of my faith, I found Orthodoxy. I wish, though, that there had been another way. Now I know my weaknesses better, and will not allow myself to get into that same position again. That’s why the kind of Orthodox Christian I am has a lot to do with the kind of Catholic I wish I had been.

UPDATE: Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson writes about how the alleged rape victim in the Paige Patterson case came to him for advice before she went public. Excerpts:

In 2003, she was an M.Div student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She told us that one night, she was sexually and brutally attacked. Screaming and fighting the attacker means its nonconsensual.

I was determined not to ask specifics of the attack, so it was only hours later after several follow-up emails that the full scope of the sexual assault was clear. When my wife finally understood what had actually happened, she struggled to comprehend President Paige Patterson’s response to the assault.

The rape victim reported the assault to Dr. Alan Mosely (see Washington Post article). Dr. Mosely worked in an administration that required all matters like this to be directed to the President’s Office. Why? Listen to Paige Patterson’s own words from a message he preached in 2013:

  • Patterson suggested women who have had “a problem in your home” should not bring their case to a judge because it could get in the way of that judge becoming a Christian.
  • Settle it within the church of God,” he said. “And if you suffer for it, and if you were misused, and if you were abused, and if you’re not represented properly, it’s okay. You can trust it to the God who judges justly.”
  • He then prayed, “Lord, may we make up our minds that we won’t take our troubles to the press, we won’t take our troubles to the government, we won’t take our troubles anywhere except to the people of God and beyond that to the Lord Jesus.”

Within an hour of reporting the assault, Paige Patterson contacted the woman and asked her to “come to my office.” If you’ve ever been in Paige Patterson’s office, you know that there are a lot of trophy game, dead animals that are displayed. As the rape victim recounted to us her story, I had a visual in my mind of this 23-year-old walking into the den of death.

I asked her, “Did anybody go with you?

“No,” she told my wife and me over the speakerphone, “I went by myself.”

When the rape victim arrived, Paige Patterson introduced the traumatized woman to three men in the office, men Patterson introduced as “my proteges.”

I am reserving details about that interrogation until I am able to speak with the other men in the room.  What I can say is that this woman, after being traumatized to reveal every sordid detail of the assault to four men, was told by Dr. Paige Patterson not to go to legal authorities.

I believed her story immediately.

Dr. Patterson practices what he preaches. He keeps everything in the church.


The goal of this rape victim coming forward was not to sue anyone. She didn’t even want law enforcement involved. Ironically, the perpetrator had sought her out over a decade after the assault and sought her forgiveness, which she granted. I explained to her that there is a difference between forgiveness of the perpetrator and accountability for the perpetrator. I told her if the perpetrator’s name comes out in the media, don’t feel bad. I truly admired her ability to forgive.

Here’s what’s interesting (ladies, don’t be offended). This rape victim is not a fan of the MeToo movement. She is as biblically conservative as they come. She loves Jesus. She understands grace. She’s married to a strong, loving man. Before she began making private contact with SBC officials, she sat down with her husband and revealed to him she’d been raped when in seminary. As you might imagine, that was difficult. But her husband’s response of comfort, encouragement, and acceptance only confirmed to her how deep true love can be.

And this:

I want every Southern Baptist to listen carefully to what this woman said next.

“Again, Wade, I don’t want to sue. I don’t want law enforcement involved. I should have gone to the authorities back when it happened, and it’s my fault that I didn’t.”

Your fault? I thought to myself. “Dr. Patterson told you not to go.”

“I know. But I should have been stronger. I guess at 23, sitting in the office with those four men, which included the President of the school, a man I looked up to as my authority, I trusted their counsel. Looking back, I guess I didn’t know any better.”

She regrets she didn’t go to the police. They would have obtained physical evidence that the assault had occurred.  For the first few years after the rape, she struggled with guilt, depression, and shame. She would eventually drop out of seminary.

I said to her, “Some people are going to say, ‘Why Paige Patterson?’ Why is your focus on him? Why not the man who raped you.” [Note from Rod: the alleged rapist contacted her and asked forgiveness.]

She responded:

“Dr. Patterson doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.” 

This rape victim is brighter than many of our Southern Baptist pastors. In spite of her heartache and pain over the past fifteen years, she understands that you can’t excise a tumor unless you know you have one; you can’t get treatment unless you know you’re sick.

This, folks. This. Read all of Wade Burleson’s post, including further details about Paige Patterson’s leadership. It is a scandal that the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees gave Patterson a golden parachute. It is the Southern Baptist Convention equivalent of allowing disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law to land gently in a plum position as archpriest of an important Roman basilica.

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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