by Dee Ann Miller (updated August, 2015)
from author's home page: takecourage.org
When Christa Brown submitted a written report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) and First Baptist of Farmers Branch, in July of 2004, she wasn't totally broken. Victims who bring forward allegations of sexual abuse never are. That's because a totally broken person can't find the strength to make a report. Her requests were for counseling costs, a written apology, and some symbolic gesture of support--something that would show that the church stood in solidarity with victims of clergy sexual abuse.
She believed, like all of us who have ever made reports to any denomination, that people recognized by the denomination as authorities, would understand her requests. She believed they could and would immediately take action to protect others who could be harmed. It was a selfless act. Taking action looked to Brown like a logical and relatively simple task for people in authority, people who were far more powerful than a local church, as Brown understood it. She wanted the BGCT to provide guidance to Farmers Branch, guidance that she expected would be designed to benefit survivors and protect others. She had a right, as all survivors do, to expect openness and gratitude for her concerns.
When Brown met with leaders of the BGCT four months later, she still was hopeful of being heard. However, her spirits were dampened as we discussed her upcoming meeting. For she'd received a threatening letter a few months earlier. It was from Stephen Wakefield, ironically the attorney for both, the First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch, Texas AND the BGCT. Wakefield suggested that the church might seek "recourse" against Brown if she pursued in trying to expose the abuse and shocking collusion experienced more than a quarter of a century earlier, when she was a teenage girl at the First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch. This tactic of extreme collusion and re-victimization left Brown with the same shock experienced by Roman Catholic survivors. Amazingly, she found the courage and strength, now with the help of her attorney Curt Cukjati, to persist. This Baptist story reverberates the Catholic stories again--in virtually every case, survivors were forced to turn to attorneys when the attorneys for the institutional churches began using strong-arm tactics!
Tommy Gilmore was the youth and education minister who the leaders at Farmers Branch now admit was the reported abuser. Brown's first report was actually made in 1969 to the church's music minister, James A. Moore. Her revelation had come as she broke down crying during a piano lesson with Moore.
She didn't know it then--she wouldn't know it for thirty-five years; but her outcry was not the first knowledge that Moore had concerning Gilmore's abuse of this teenager. Only in 2005, did Moore himself admit that he had already spoken with Gilmore even prior to Brown's distraught revelation. So Moore recognized there was a problem. Yet he probably saw it as "only a personal, moral problem that needed to be addressed privately," (a view that so many people still prefer today) Not until Brown found the strength to talk did he decide to take more drastic action. Her talking most certainly was a sign that "things could get out of hand" unless the victim could be silenced. The best way to get rid of the problem was to get rid of the man who had caused it, without regard to anyone else. Perhaps, Moore reasoned, this would also "cure" the troubled girl. Problem solved!!
So, without considering that there might be other victims at Farmers Branch already and without considering that there would surely be others in the future in other locations, Tommy Gilmore was sent on his way as quietly as possible. As with many other pastors in autonomous congregations, it was probably quite simple for him to find other churches and new "fields of opportunity." Just another example of the "helplessness" of those who claim to be followers of Christ, out to save the world, through the message that the Southern Baptist Convention so proudly carries to the ends of the earth!
While the attitude in regard to sexual abuse of minors seems to have been one of total ignorance and arrogance, the abuse of minors was against the law in 1969. Baptists, even more than many other faiths, seem to have been especially slow to catch up in regard to the law in many social issues. Therefore, Moore's behavior fit the mores of the group, mores that are still extremely common, despite the laws, in many cases that come to my attention. While Baptists are far from the only ones who have trouble understanding these issues, though, especially when an adolescent is the victim, THE IGNORANCE AND SHORT-SIGHTEDNESS OF ADULTS IS NO EXCUSE--Kids expect churches to be the safest places on earth, not places where ignorance abounds!!
Moore's attitude continues to echo. It echoed quite recently in the responses and attitudes of arrogance and ignorance in Moore and others to whom Brown turned at Farmers Branch and at the BGCT in her attempts to have the truth clearly spoken and the issues addressed appropriately. Even in 2004, according to Brown's court filings, Moore asserted that the "relationship" between the adult minister Gilmore and the minor was "consensual." NOT SO, I say!
Sexual abuse is always the work of a successful con artist who depends on others to believe, if ever discovered, that it was consensual. Truth is, it's NEVER consensual!
The inaction of the BGCT was "justified" because the very structure protects ministers from accountability, both the abusers and colluders. And nobody seems to be interested in changing these man-made rules. Yet using attorneys who protect the church from taking actions to promote accountability, while re-victimizing the wounded, is in no way a Christian action. That is not mandated. Baptists don't speak much of "evil." Yet "of the devil" is a common phrase that seems to apply to such tactics.
As far as I know the BGCT still promises to RECEIVE reports and keep the names of the perpetrators on file. Yet ONLY reports that come from churches. In other words, if church leaders are exhibiting DIM thinking , as they almost always do, it's unlikely that an offender's name will even be placed in the files! Even if it does, it may make little difference. Just as the Catholic bishops' files of yesteryear, the BGCT's file is kept SECRET, with names released only to persons within the Good Old Boy System who might come asking, doing a "background check" about a potential staff member for their congregation. It will NEVER be mandatory in the Southern Baptist Convention for church leaders to do a "background check," though insurance companies may someday make it a requirement for individual congregations to get insurance, just as the major ones do now with large mainline denominations. There will never be a central "black list" of ordained men who have been terminated for "sexual misconduct" or abuse.
Why do SBC churches slide by? Because of the wonderful " escape clause of autonomous churches. Mainline congregants often shake their heads in disbelief when they learn that local churches can decide how they are going to go about hiring a new professional staff member. There is no formal communication nor structure nor mandatory training that even ascertains that the members of search committees, looking for new staff members, will even communicate with previous churches where a candidate may have served. Even if they do, there's still a great hesitancy on the part of past congregations to get involved. Past allegations or suspicions are easily best-kept secrets! In denominations where there is nobody in charge, nobody and no institution in a central office can be held accountable. (This makes for an even more tenuous situation than is found in ecclesiastical systems, where the ONE person in charge may be incompetent. Either way, victims have a hard time being heard. In both situations, vulnerable individuals remain vulnerable.)
On October 22, 2005, Mark I Pinsky a staff writer at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida took an interest in Brown's story. See Pinsky's article. By then, Brown had accused Gilmore of the abuse in a lawsuit. Pinsky noted in his first paragraph that the alleged perpetrator had since worked in two Florida churches, which Pinsky named. As a result of Pinsky's help in breaking the silence, another survivor contacted Brown saying that she had been abused by another staff member from one of the named Florida churches. This might seem insignficant to an untrained person, yet it is an important illustration of what experts know--churches who are attracted to one perpetrator often have a tendency to hire others. Yet, ironically, they are prone to blame victims, especially those who end up being victimized repeatedly in their own lives, unable to see the parallel dynamics that allow perpetrators to manipulate and con everyone!!
Finally, on January 18, 2006, after a heart-breaking struggle of more than eighteen months, Brown received a letter from the Chairman of Deacons of First Baptist Church, Farmers Branch, TX. It's a beautiful document, not a perfect one; but it says far more than most victims ever hear, much less have in writing, from anyone associated with any denomination!! This letter, in fact, could be used as an example of the response that every local church in the Southern Baptist Convention could and should send immediately after recognizing that they have an abuser who has left their congregation and gone on, uncurtailed, to join the staff of another congregation.
The greatest travesty of justice that I see, as an advocate, is that this letter came only after the church leaders and the BGCT fought hard to avoid taking action. "Less than compassionate" is surely an understatement in the church's self-serving description of how it treated Brown. Any belief she had that denominational leaders would care about protecting others was a hope completely destroyed. Ultimately, the church's letter became simply the "easiest way out" for the church, an action that most of all protected the colluding bodies from facing tougher consequences of broader exposure and further expense because of the lawsuit that Brown was forced to file before receiving the letter she deserved to get initially! What I want you to know is that this is such a typical story.
What can be done, if anything, to change the way Southern Baptists handle cases of clergy sexual abuse? Probably very little. Brown was fortunate to have an attorney who cared enough about the safety of kids that he was willing to work for nothing to try to bring the truth to light. Others may find an occasional attorney who will take the risk of a case against Baptists if it seems likely to be high-profile and "worth the effort." Certainly the courts offer the only hope, but that hope remains faint in a denomination that circles the wagons so well, with a structure that does not protect the vulnerable. What we need to see is a massive change in the hearts of people in the pews, people who would organize in the same manner as the Catholic group, The Voice of the Faithful. So far, I've not seen any sign of that happening, but this eternal optimist knows that it could be more than fantasy. I'm just not holding my breath.
When Christa Brown first got in touch with me, I'd been beating my head against the walls of power in the SBC for at least a decade. Discouraged, I had invested most of my time where the reception was much greater--working to encourage groups in mainline denominations that were showing clear signs of fully understanding the problems. Mainliners, such as United Methodists, ELCA, Presbyterian Churches USA, and United Church of Christ, had invested megabucks for training and to offer therapy and/or retreats to an increasing number of survivors. I'd not gotten to first base with the denomination of my heritage, to my dismay. So I was thrilled when Christa befriended me, coming on board with a zeal equal to what had been my own within a few years after my husband Ron and I had lost our careers as foreign missionaries after great pressure from powerful institutional leaders to squelch our voices of protest at the great mismanagement of a predator who was a colleague of ours. (See www.takecourage.org for complete story.)
Having spent thousands of dollars and countless hours to carry on a work of advocacy, writing, traveling, and offer solace to hundreds of SBC survivors in addition to many more in mainline circles, I had serious health issues. So did my husband, who had been forced to take total disability five years earlier. So I had no energy left when Christa and SNAP leaders took on the task and expense of going to picket at the Southern Baptists Convention in 2006. She certainly had my blessing, I told her, in a note with enough money to pay for a couple of meals.
I should mention that Christa was also having to put her work as an attorney on hold. What she was doing was a great sacrifice, just as my investment had been.
How thrilled I was when Bob Allen, then editor of EthicsDaily.com wrote an article , later republished by SNAP about this historic happening. Then, he provided coverage for the unfolding events the following year. The boldness that his writing shows, his willingness to step out, is something rarely found among journalists who "need" the support of people within the system. I find his courage most gratifying!
As an attorney, Christa looked at the legal issues closely. She called for a national database to be kept by the SBC, not to include perpetrators who had abused vulnerable adults--just for those who had abused minors. It didn't fly! Of course, it didn't. In 2008, attorney Marci Hamilton wrote an extensive article to show why the SBC claims that their structure could be used as a good excuse were absolutely bogus. I guess folks are still needing to think about that one 'cause, as far as I know, there's been no solid response.
Four national resolutions have been passed. The first in 2002, the last 2013--each stronger than the last. To find these scroll to the bottom of http://www.sbc.net/churchresources/sexabuseprevention.asp. These should make caring people stop and think. They should encourage folks to raise many more questions, like "Why do experts tell us that there is no such thing as a congregant-pastor 'affair'?" The work is FAR from finished. A look at www.stopbaptistpredators.org reflects the discouragement that Christa Brown now feels, though her voice remains strong in her blog in spite of major health problems she has developed.
Like Christa, I'm convinced that the only hope of bringing about big changes is for the public press to understand these dynamics making the Southern Baptist Convention one of the most protected of denominations. Only when many "outsiders" get involved are we going to see sufficient light shed on these problems.
Thank you, Christa! I am sorry for what it has cost you.
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)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)
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)