Wishful Thinking: Southern Baptists 2008 Plan to Eliminate Child Abuse by Clergy
(plan for adult victims still "pending")

by Dee Ann Miller
How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct and The Truth about Malarkey

Six times applause drowned out the voice of Morris K. Chapman while he made bold statements, at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention. Statements calling for the removal of child predators from ministry. As President of the Executive Committee, he drew a line in the sand, calling for reports to be made to “appropriate civil authorities” and insisting that churches not fail in their duty to protect others by withholding vital information from inquiring pulpit committees.

The pledge to “educate, encourage, and empower” members of the SBC was music to my ears after hearing from thousands of victims throughout the community of faith, as well as this, the denomination of my heritage. Like Christa Brown whose voice was so instrumental in bringing the Convention to this point. All of the voices come from people, mostly women, who have spent years in isolation, even after the abuse ended, finding nobody with the courage to listen and take appropriate action.

Chapman’s words echo the message I’ve been trying to send for fifteen years, especially to the SBC, as a psychosocial nurse-writer with years of professional experience in listening to stories, working with professional mental health teams, and studying the issues of collusion. Fully convinced that only by studying this aspect and teaching the dynamics can we change what I call the DIM thinking (Denial, Ignorance and Minimization) that perpetuates the abuse, rather than addressing it.

Only ten years ago, I would have been more easily convinced that the speech and applause was the start of something earth-shaking. A few workshops by key people within the Convention could be offered to teach procedures for protecting children and what to do when abuse occurs despite procedures, especially by church leaders. Just give them the steps, I might have agreed back then--provided folks were encouraged to talk and to stop feeling guilty for telling others what they know about specific abusers. Today that idealistic thinking is behind me. I'm thoroughly convinced that far more is needed before any of this can be accomplished. I wish it were not so, for I'd love for things to be as simple as so many have tried to convince me that it will be, in a Convention that has no way of mandating training or keeping track of it's perpetrators. A Convention that finds ways to adamantly censor it's "heretical" professors, women, and homosexuals from entering the pulpit--just not put into place any mechanism that will be as active in censoring sexual offenders!

Perhaps if Jesus had been sitting in the audience that June morning, he would have cried out: “You don’t know what you’re asking! This will require you to sell all that you have, including some of your treasured beliefs about things like love, mercy, faith, and power.”

Baptists preachers, if they are going to be able to address the problems in their own profession, need to take an interest in the insights of author James Hillman, who notes in his book Kinds of Power, that ministers have difficulty practicing love and power at the same time. Hillman says that members of the profession tend to see the two--power and love, that is--as mutually exclusive. By stopping with the common definition of power, the tendency is to see power as simply "control." Ironically, this is exactly how abusers see things. There is little hope for change, as I see it, for either non-offending clergy or for abusers unless they are willing to learn that real power isn't about controlling others at all. Rather it's about controlling ourselves so that we are able to use much more effective tools--tools that will be needed in the work of holding perpetrators accountable--like the power of authority, persistence, reputation and decision. As Hillman further explains, the power of decision entails acting in a timely manner, in spite of the ambivalence that always accompanies difficult decisions. And indecision is one of the primary obstacles for anyone facing a case of abuse!

Literally selling things, of course, isn’t something the SBC has had to face in abuse cases. Neither will it need to, thanks to the convenience of congregational polity, though individual congregations have sometimes sustained financial blows. This protection for the Convention stands in sharp contrast to Catholic diocese all across the country, forced to “repent” of their sins of collusion because the hierarchial structure has allowed the courts to open the narrow gates of the Roman Catholic Church to victims, thereby fulfilling prophecies of some very good insiders among the priests--people like Thomas Doyle, who has come to see changes in some policies only after many more lives have been destroyed. Changes that have come as a bittersweet reward for victims and advocates alike.

Ironically, it was through the pressure of SNAP an organization made up largely of Catholic survivors and advocates, that Chapman made his big speech. It was made in response to the cry of victims from www.stopbaptistpredators.org for the Convention to keep a database of perpetrators who are also ordained Southern Baptist ministers. In the speech, Chapman speaks of the sentiment to protect children while explaining why there is not going to be a data base--something that most survivors, understandably, see as incongruent.

Make no mistake about it. Under the present system, persecution for righteousness sake is what will happen in Baptist circles if Chapman and any of those applauding so enthusiastically really do not buckle under the massive wall of collusion. For collusion is what they WILL face if they honestly begin to invest their energies persistently into the task that Chapman has spelled out, rather than putting their heads back in the sand and returning to "business as usual", the mindset that makes collusion thrive and creates bizarre responses whenever most individuals encounter abuse where they least expect it, really close to home.

I doubt that most of the people on the floor of the Convention understand that translating their enthusiasm into action will not just include prevention and early intervention. It will also involve the difficult tasks of talking to the masses of people resistant to holding perpetrators fully accountable now, while offering truly humble apologies to all who have been harmed instead of raving about the tiny steps that have been taken to address child abuse in the church, in general. It will mean finding ways to fix structural problems that make no provision for really heeding the voices of those who, for good reason, have no trust left for anyone in the faith community after seeing abusers go on with their lives and ordinations intact, with easy access to other vulnerable souls.

Women like fifty-nine-year-old Phyllis Gregory, the daughter of a deacon who was sexually abused by her own father: “Now, I trust none of them--especially the Southern Baptist preachers with big hair and loud voices; especially the little ladies who smell like talcum powder and look down their noses at people who are not just like them; especially the Sunday School teachers who teach that their way is the only way....."

Maybe the enthusiasts do not realize that they are not likely to hear the cries from abused children at all. Instead most messages will continue coming from adult women and men, years after they were abused as children. Especially if the abuser is a pastor. Simply because the power differential is too great for children or youth to even begin to understand that they have a right to question someone who so represents God to them, no matter how effective our systems!

Perhaps the delegates also have no idea how many times women who have suffered from childhood abuse show up in pastor’s offices, where men unprepared to respond effectively either patronize or re-injure with words, platitudes, and even scripture choices that re-victimize. Or worse yet, by crossing boundaries creating what most Baptists still prefer to call “affairs!” Resulting in families being destroyed with as much, if not more, likelihood than if the abuse by the pastor had happened in childhood.

So, from where I sit, accomplishing the lofty goals, so eloquently laid out in June, looks like the impossible dream. I recognize that much of the resistance comes from nothing but naivety and idealism, qualities that allow all of us, even with the best of intentions, to sometimes blindly ignore serious dangers or to propose simple, quick solutions to complex problems.

Real solutions will require more creativity than perhaps any task that the Southern Baptist Convention has ever undertaken, along with a lot more commitment than the applause of enthusiasm. For, just as racial oppression has left a huge black spot on the history of this massive denomination, so does the systemic collusion that has been denied for so long. Along with the suppression of women’s voices, in general, even as the suppression is “justified” by theological teaching.

Voices can be welcomed as good ministers in the pulpit start to teach that a call for the cessation of evil in the institutional church is an act of courage and can be viewed as a sign of maturing love, deep conviction, and discipleship, rather than as an act of revenge and hate. Thereby, allowing the challenge to be welcomed and appreciated for what it has to teach the community of faith.

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune of Faith Trust Institute, in a recent blog, addressed the SBC's refusal to have a data base, saying that individual congregations are often just not equipped to take appropriate action.

I fully agree. Yet I know this denomination--the denomination of my heritage--and am convinced that there is no chance this side of heaven that it is going to give up it's sacred-cow belief about the need to maintain the purest form of local church autonomy, based on the notion that "this is the only model acceptable because it represents the way of doing church in the New Testament's earliest churches," which translates into the strong conviction that anyone who does church otherwise is simply not choosing Christ's way of doing church. Just don't ever plan on that getting thrown out in this increasingly rigid and conservative group whose membership is twice the size of the next largest non-Catholic denomination (ie. United Methodists). Neither is there hope for the idea that people of Jesus' day, with simple house churches, might have been in the early stages of learning from their own mistakes about how to do church, and simply on the same steep learning curve that continues to this day. That's way too progressive!

Having spent all sixty-two years of my life as the daughter and wife of Baptist ministers and having served as one of it's career missionaries myself for almost a decade, I probably know the hearts and thinking of this group as much as any woman alive. I know how many very sincere people are undertaking complex tasks in the SBC, often making great sacrifices to do so. I've been there! Yet I can assure you that no challenge is more complex and more taxing than the work I have been doing since 1993, without financial support and very little moral support from anyone in the SBC as I've attempted to support survivors and advocates who insist on change in all faith groups, especially in the SBC, where the layers of collusion are greater than in most mainline groups for reasons I will mention further throughout this article. The laborers are indeed very few, and strong voices like Chapman's are seldom heard or sustained.

Problem is that real change never happens by simply offering training conferences that give facts and figures along with procedures on how to prevent abuse or how to make reports when it happens, though these are important indeed. Especially since training is optional in Baptist systems, unlike in many mainline groups, where decisions are not ultimately made by anxious people with limited education and little or no experience in the massive job of conflict resolution that occurs in any case of abuse, especially if the case involves a minister or church leader! Real change requires heart change and confession. Without these, people only intensify their resistance and fears in spite of training!

Faith Trust Institute is the organization considered by insurance companies to offer the gold standard for preparing ministers and church leaders to take ethical action in cases of clergy sexual abuse. Marie Fortune, the institutes's founder, often warns: "It's never simple, and it's never easy." This is especially true with the smaller, rural, autonomous congregations that are so liberally sprinkled across the United States. For children in rural areas are always more vulnerable, according to attorney Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center, for the same reasons that churches are ill equipped to act wisely--limited exposure to the issues and limited resources for the entire congregation.

I learned, through very painful experience, that isolation is one of the greatest contributing factors to collusion. This education came twenty years ago when my husband Ron and I, as SBC missionaries, found ourselves standing against hurricane-force winds of collusion at every level, so intense that we eventually lost all respect for the organization and most of our co-workers. It caused us to give up the careers we both held so dear. It came as a direct result of our choosing to stand for unwavering accountability, rather than the retention of a missionary colleague whose victims included two adolescent girls! Click here for a summary of the story.

In the SBC, pastors' ordinations, as well as decisions to invalidate those ordinations, are decided solely by the local congregation, which can be as ill-equipped to screen candidates as they are to determine the validity of an allegation of sexual abuse. In desperation, congregations can turn to directors of missions (commonly referred to as "DOM's"). Or a state convention. My experience, having heard from DOM's and leaders of a few concerned personnel in some states, is that it can be extremely dangerous to insist on accountability, especially if the wolf in sheep's clothing is quite charasmatic and popular. The results can be life-altering for years, as my own family has experienced. For anyone whose career is invested in the denomination on any level, taking a stand against a colleague may be perceived as a political or un-Christian act, resulting in being black-listed or even fired before they know it! The denomination offers no protection nor, to my knowledge, support for people who have experienced this.

So the changes will not come easy. They will require much personal sacrifice, and few are going to be willing to take such bold steps when it comes down to actual cases. It's easy to talk. Not easy at all to find the courage to act when one is standing against intense opposition.

It would certainly be a lot simpler if the SBC leadership would agree to encourage some change in treasured beliefs about power (mentioned briefly above), the importance of pastors and church leaders addressing these issues from the pulpit and getting personally involved in the general issues of violence against women and children, and the need to break the pacts of secrecy that are often mislabeled "confidentiality."

It would be a lot easier if the system ceased turning to heavy-handed lawyers to intimidate survivors and those who stand with them. Or started firing lawyers who do this. Of course, it would be a lot easier if the tendency to distrust outsiders could be eliminated, so that the Convention instead invited people like Marie Fortune or a Baptist minister (man, of course!) whom she has trained to teach the guiding principles for reducing re-injuries to victims and those who stand with them. It would be wonderful if the SBC would bring in outsiders without a conflict of interests to sit on panels of experts who would be hired to oversee a thorough and highly valuable plan to approach all of this--a plan similar to what Presbyterians (PCUSA) have implemented in recent years and are using as they continue to experience reform.

As a writer, my focus has been the examination of abusive systems. I have attempted to challenge individual thinking about the systemic collusion, doing it through books, articles, and (for the past decade) my web site. While I continue hoping to reach professionals who are open to change, I find openness to understanding the complexities more like to come from victims. Despite the trauma, victims are often determined to move forward, regardless of what the systems do. By looking at their stories through new eyes, victims begin to reduce their tendency to internalize the trauma of abuse and re-victimization and and start putting the responsibility for change where it should be--with the people who protect perpetrators, for whatever reasons (the very people who would prefer to blame victims!). Yet, over time, victims also cease to have unrealistic expectations about quick fixes or to buy into the magical thinking that has sometimes been encouraged--sometimes encouraged even by well-meaning church leaders. Survivors learn to re-define recovery on their own terms, even without the help of others stuck in denial.

Of course, Baptists certainly aren’t alone nor are they the only ones represented in my crowded inbox these days. Earlier this year, one mother, a minister's wife who tried repeatedly to get her concerns addressed by a United Methodist bishop, wrote that despite the seven years that have lapsed since her son had contact with the abuser, his “past and current tears about the abuse he suffered haunt me, and leave long-term scars for him….I wish the church as a whole insisted that ministers involved in pornography and abuse would stop working with children and stop providing “counseling.” This mother's cries, like so many others, helps to keep hope alive.

The Fears Behind the Resistance

To gain insight for this article, I turned to Nancy Nason-Clark, a renowned expert who has worked diligently to engage the faith community in finding effective ways to respond to another issue of violence against women and children, that of domestic violence. She echoed the sentiments of many shelter leaders who have contacted me from across the country. “What we have learned from our research is that clergy often underestimate the problem, do not know what resources are available in their community and are unlikely to take advantage of training opportunities even when they are presented to them. Only 8% of religious leaders feel well equipped to respond to domestic violence, and many are unclear how to respond to the needs of abuse victims/survivors or the perpetrators of the violence. Yet, when clergy do respond, they have a very important role to play walking alongside someone on their journey towards healing and wholeness.”

I agree with Nancy on the important role that can be played in all areas of abuse. Yet there is no positive contribution made, especially in cases that involve abusive men who are counter-parts to anyone receiving a report, if the person responding shows himself to be impotent in speaking on behalf of the victim. There will also be very little welcome from the treatment community unless the minister is swift in taking on the role of victim advocate, beginning with the reporting phase. Even if the case is decades old and is especially difficult, every avenue that the victim asks be taken must be pursued and not left to her or him to do the work alone. This work of advocacy is part of the “job description” that should be assumed by every minister who wants to see the reputation of the profession improved!

A 2005 study offers insights that validate some of my own observations regarding the reasons for ministers' resistance to either getting adequate training or taking action. David Skiff, already a seminary graduate and professional social worker, and currently a doctoral student at the University of Rochester, designed the project, hoping to find ways pf better engaging clergy to address partner violence. Illustrating the comments of Nancy Nason-Clark, only 6% of those invited chose to participate. Yet those who did revealed that the reluctance of the profession to take appropriate action is about far more than inadequate training and exposure, as important as they recognized these limitations to be. Other reasons that surfaced were matters of church politics, pastoral image, and personal experience with the trauma of domestic violence, to name a few. Among the tensions: “attending to safety versus preserving the sanctity of marriage” in spite of violence. It brings to mind the words of a speaker I heard in 1976, at Glorieta Baptist Assembly, during Christian Home Week: “We do more harm than good when we try to preserve marriages that, obviously, were not made in heaven!”

Attempting to avoid the disruption of relationships that put victims in harm’s way in marriage reminds me of the same twisted reasoning often used to put guilt trips on anyone calling for ordination privileges to be withdrawn from abusive clergy--the idea that once God calls a person into ministry or missions, God doesn’t un-call that person. This commonly-held belief offers nothing but added protection to men who abuse their power and privilege.

The Ignorance Behind the Resistance to Mandatory Reporting

"Simba," asked Pumbaa, "do you like being the Lion King? I mean, isn't it an awful lot of responsibility?"
"Well, sure," answered his friend. "But I like having everyone depend on me to keep them safe. It makes me feel as if I'm doing something that matters."
from Lisa Ann Marsoli's THE LION KING: The Pal Patrol

Some of the greatest resistance to Chapman’s speech, I fear, will come from those who still question the concept of mandatory reporting. Especially when it comes to ministers who would prefer to expand the scope and practice of the profession to include roles that are considered police work, social work, or therapy. Like Rev. Charles P. McGathy, a retired Navy chaplain, now a Baptist pastor in North Carolina, who wrote in Christian Ethics Today just this year, "the confessional between pastor and penitent should remain sacred and absolutely confidential for the greater good of redemption." He made it very clear in the article that he especially felt this needs to be extended to cases of child abuse and domestic violence.

The “privileged communication” is a topic that is as applicable to those of us who have worked in psychiatric nursing, as it is for ministers. A topic of much debate, especially in Catholic circles, even as the coffers of one diocese after another have been seriously depleted because of the tendency to use this “privilege” to protect abusive priests. Especially as applied to the sacrament of confession. Yet it was actually settled in Catholic circles, way back in 1890, according to Patrick Wall, former Benedictine monk (now attorney and author who left the priesthood after studying the collusion problem in the Church). Abuse by clergy, the pope said, was "worse than murder" and must not be kept under the cloak of "privileged communication." He even gave thorough instructions on how to handle the cases. Yet the mandate from Rome was conveniently and systematically ignored for over a century! Interesting how the issue really isn't debated much these days--not anymore, after the courts made it quite clear, with decisions that drained the pocketbooks of diocese across the country! In fact, things began to get updated in policies rather quickly some places.

For instance, in the Des Moines diocese, the code of ethics says: “confidentiality is limited when there is clear and imminent danger to the client or to others. In such cases, personnel must contact the necessary authorities or other professionals.” Considering abusers, past and present, without adequate intervention, are often deemed by experts to be a danger to others. And considering that even experts, knowing how difficult it can be to accurately assess whether there is clear and imminent danger, tend to decide on the side of caution, this mandate covers the question of clergy reporting with a wide blanket!

Even if there are no laws, reporting to civil authorities is “most certainly mandated by moral law to protect the vulnerable and stop the harm,” says Sarah Rieth, a pastoral psychotherapist and Episcopal priest in Charlotte, NC. To take it one step further, I believe that every adult Christian should understand reporting to be a vital part of being a mature disciple! With wives of male ministers fully alert to this responsibility, since we are often the first to hear a victim’s story. When I share these personal opinions with my friend Sarah, she agrees. Clergy have a golden opportunity in these cases, as she sees it. For this profession is “the most likely of any in our culture to see the functioning of the whole family.”

Dale Dorrell, a Quaker chaplain who has faced issues of childhood abuse personally, has had a wide variety of professional experience, as both a pastor and chaplain, in working with troubled families. Dorrell is concerned that many ministers see success as keeping a person safe for a brief period of immediate crisis, failing to see the broader picture. “There is a sense of having had a part of one’s soul stolen,“ he explains. Years later “depression, often rooted in abuse that was never adequately addressed, can result in actual death. From suicide!“ Diane McGee, director of Phoenix House in Council Bluffs, Iowa, agrees as she speaks of the frustration she experiences due to the commonality of “nobody died today” statements.

So what about the hypothetical case often presented to justify not reporting, one that several inexperienced, self-appointed assessors in the profession have tried to convince me they have seen many of? I’m speaking of the chance that someone might come in and offer a “truly genuine confession.” Are those who consider confession to be a sacrament able to claim that such a confession is “privileged information?” Rieth insists that they cannot. Expounding, she says: “I believe that in a proper sacrament of confession, should a child abuser confess, the priest must use it as an opportunity to make a report, even calling the police to come to the church and to stand with the person confessing while he or she takes the next step towards legal accountability.”

To get another perspective, I turned to Presbyterian attorney Craig Dreismeier: “You would think confessing would go hand in hand with holding yourself accountable to legal authorities in addition to religious authorities. If he is going to confess to something, he better be talking to his lawyer,” he continued. “Even attorneys are obligated to report an act if the commission of the same has not occurred but we are under the belief that it will occur.”

The problem may be in the ability and inexperience of the minister to understand the likelihood of being conned. According to Gary Schoener, one of the most highly experienced therapists and writers in the field of professional sexual abuse, most who present themselves as confessors turn out to do so for self-protection, believing they are they are about to caught. Years ago, Schoener made a confession to me, as he wrote of how he himself had been “bamboozled” on several occasions by men who were highly skilled manipulators!

For those who want to see the problems of abusers as primarily spiritual ones that can be treated best by ministers, Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter would disagree. Just as they also agree with the need to limit confidentiality. Seeing the need for ministers to network widely in the larger community in order to identify resource people ahead of crises. “Not every need the minister faces is a spiritual need,” they write in Ministerial Ethics: Being a good minister in a not-so-good world. Trull, a retired Baptist ethics professor, has been one of the most vocal among Baptists about the issues involving abusive clergy.

Of course, for every person involved in resolving a case of abuse, one must take into account the huge spiritual component, something that many “secular“ counselors today do very well themselves. Yet only the “faith healer” decides to single-handedly “treat” cancer. An offender, just like a cancer victim, may come in believing and hoping that this is the case. An enlightened pastor never buys into this, however. This is not a “just get the perpetrator saved” moment. It is not even the right time to offer a quick forgiveness. It is a time to say that recovery will be a long journey out of despair, a time for a new beginning that certainly can be accompanied by appropriate prayer or even a salvation experience. Yet no spiritual counselor allows a perpetrator to walk away without intervention from others, whether the report comes from the offender himself or through another person.

“Confessions” often come in the cycle of abuse. Abusers offer these many times to their victims, over and over again. Only later do victims, along with others who want to believe the best, wake up (if they survive) to realize that the “confession” served as a drug or a temporary “fix” until the stresses returned and the promises flew out the window.


So we report. In spite of our fears and doubts. In spite of any desires to maintain control or “protect” others from facing consequences to “protect” the church from having to go through the deep valleys that may ensue. Valleys that ultimately offer hope of transformation if we are committed to the process. We report because we have the courage, the faith that overcomes fears or acts in spite of them. We report because we cannot live with ourselves if we do not. Because we have the knowledge and the conviction that this is the only ethical thing to do, no matter what the personal cost nor how much others may be upset.

We report, knowing that reporting, too, can itself sometimes bring about less than helpful outcomes for the victim. Reporting involves relinquishing personal control over outcomes, and this is scary in itself. Nobody knows this more than I do, after spending years working with the systems as a community mental health nurse and once even having a child die before the courts decided to act on my cries of advocacy because of what I had seen and heard repeatedly from neighbors! It can be very frustrating to muster the energy to make a report, only to find a less than receptive person assigned to intake on the morning you call. Or to discover that the case is not able to yet be declared as “founded” for reasons that you may not fully understand. It’s so easy to get discouraged, throw up your hands and declare: “What’s the use?” Instead, whenever possible, concerned citizens need to provide added watch care with "unfounded" cases, knowing that abusers often become more skilled than ever at manipulating and isolating their victims after a report that goes unfounded. Repeated calls to make reports, as more information unfolds, may be necessary--sometimes over a period of several years. No matter how thankless the job is, however, it is a responsibility that we must all take seriously.

By reporting, we refuse to be either private investigators or therapists. We refuse to keep the secrets, no matter what the repercussions from church politics. For it is the only stance we can take if we intend to keep our integrity as Christians. For safety sake and as a tough love gesture that is necessary in order to give opportunity for others to have the steady and consistent feedback for the slow process needed to bring about real change.

Every individual and every church has the opportunity to be among the positive exceptions, even as the denomination formulates it’s next strategies. Certainly, Baptists can be more alert and better prepared. Ultimately, however, decisions and outcomes for each church will depend upon a level of consistency and courage that is very difficult to achieve when there is such a wide variation in the members' qualifications to make complex decisions--membership being the sole qualification for being able to vote in a Baptist church. Expecting that autonomous congregations be responsible is simply unrealistic, when members are often too close to perpetrators to be any more objective than members of incestuous families--no matter what training is offered. While “it’s never simple and never easy,” this one is going to be harder than anyone dares imagine! Christa Brown is right: “Until there is a safe place to which the victims themselves can report abuse with some reasonable expectation of being objectively heard … everything else will be window dressing.”


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)