The Collusion Act of the Southern Baptist Convention and Clergy Sexual Abuse (Updated in 2015)
"I learned a long time ago life just isn't fair, so you better stop expecting it to be." These words of Dana Reeve are a good reminder for all of us. Certainly a good one for any person who dares to stand up against Baptists in a case of sexual abuse, misconduct, or harassment, especially with the largest of Baptist denominations, the SBC, even when a “moderate” organization such as the BGCT (Baptist General Convention of Texas) appears to be presenting itself as willing and able to assist victims of Baptist pastors. There is nothing fair and nothing in the interest of safety (except the safety of perpetrators) when the vast majority of Baptists respond to survivors who are hoping to get some basic assistance and to see their abusers held accountable. Anyone wishing to take Baptists to task, whether on a national, state, or local church level, would do well to read on.
What’s happening in the largest non-Catholic, Christian denomination in the United States when it comes to "sexual misconduct?" WELL…..It appears.....if you talk to the Big Whigs in the Southern Baptist Convention, they have their act all together. In fact, I think they DO.
This denomination of almost 17 million has their Collusion Act together, perhaps more than any other major denomination in the world!
How? By a structure that allows leaders to be irresponsible, getting away with it under the protection of powerful attorneys and escape clauses that have worked well so far. It's difficult to hold a denomination accountable when they have things conveniently set up with congregational polity.
“Congregational polity….what’s that?” some of you are probably asking. Well, it's the exact opposite of what one finds in the Roman Catholic Church, with centralized authorities who can more easily be held responsible for their “sins of omission” in regard to clerical sexual abuse and are far more likely to be exposed by the press.
Here’s how it works. Individual congregations are in charge. This means that a six-year-old child, provided (s)he is baptized, is a voting member of a congregation, thereby technically holding the same voting power as the Chairman of the Deacons! Initially, this looks good to some. After all, it empowers little children even! What it boils down to, however, is that nobody is in charge of really holding ministers accountable within the Southern Baptist Convention. Nobody and no group! Baptists like it this way. It’s all in the name of freedom, under a doctrine, which also can have some fine advantages. It’s called “priesthood of the believer,” which theoretically says that every believer is a priest and does not need to go to anyone to tell him or her what to do on anything. Certainly nobody has the authority to separate any individual from God nor to give absolution.
This exact opposite way from that of Roman Catholicism, this way of doing church, requires that protection of vulnerable people can only be achieved and maintained when every single congregant is trained to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual misconduct. For, you see, the congregation must collectively hold the minister accountable.
What is everybody’s job becomes nobody’s job. “Pass the buck” is a very easy game to play, whether the players are in the Sunday School Board in Nashville, TN or sitting on the pew of a small, rural congregation. National leaders don't seem to feel the obligation to extensively train the members in the pews, and most of the people in the pews don’t know enough to ask for appropriate preventive measures. They often don’t know (or don't believe) that they need policies that are designed to protect the church from anything more than getting sued. Implicit bias is especially hard to overcome for those with limited education; and even those with PhD's may not "get it" without years of voluntary sensitivity training. Mandating training, according to some recent studies, often only galvanizes the resistance.
When journalists have wanted to find out what’s happening in the Southern Baptist Convention, they’ve historically done the logical. They’ve gone to Baptist Press and to leaders of the Convention. In the last two decades, they've realized this doesn't work because of the Collusion Act.
Baptist Press hasn't been interested in printing stories of sexually abusive Baptist ministers, even abuse toward minors, according to the discrepancies I find between what’s been in the newspapers and what is chosen for print in Baptist press releases. I guess it wouldn’t be Christian? Or maybe just lousy politics. And it certainly wouldn’t do the reputation of the denomination any good, in the short run. It might get messy. A few smart people might start asking some good questions. Perpetrators might not find it so easy to move from one congregation to another. (I know of one in a small town in Texas who literally moved a few miles down the road, to another congregation, while the entire town watched in apathy!) Maybe, eventually, a few smart women would start to insist that changes be made. Maybe even Baptist Women, an organization considered by many of the pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention to be a threat, would finally begin speaking out, setting up and funding a genuinely compassionate ministry that would support victims, connect victims, and provide means for victims to tell their stories. Just maybe. Some day.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to speak to anyone who will listen, attempting to be a light in the darkness, in the hopes of providing survivors with these benefits as much as I can without monetary resources. Perhaps that way, by speaking with an independent voice—ironically, the Baptist way—eventually someone will find the courage to do something more. Until I have evidence that there is truly a place to send them within the Baptist system where they will certainly be welcomed and not re-victimized, I cannot recommend that they make reports to any agency.
Right now, the saddest thing is that most victims either don’t know they have been victimized or they don’t know that there is anyone else at all who understands and has resources and insights to share! That's because Baptists, especially Baptist women, are indoctrinated to look only for people within the closed system, especially when the matter involves the Baptist system. Very few understand that the very nature of institutional incest is that it forbids looking for help outside the system, yet help is almost never available in an incestuous institution, just as it is almost never available within the incestuous family!
“Are there no rays of hope?” you may ask. Well, there would appear to be in Texas, where the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has stated its intentions to provide education, keep a roster of perpetrators on file (which would be available to others), and provide assistance to victims. Problem is that training conferences, such as those provided by the FaithTrust Institute, founded by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, have never been attended by any member of this Commission! They seem to be waiting for funding, as they have been for years—an interesting problem, considering the coffers of Southern Baptists, who seem to be able to find plenty of funds for powerful lawyers!
Meanwhile, Marie Fortune, who would be labeled as "a heretic" by most Southern Baptists, used her powerful voice to address the knee-jerk reaction of the nationalConvention in 2008 with a spot-on blog.
Having grown up in the Southern Baptist culture, I have come to understand the meaning of the word hegeomy in the context of the SBC and the South. This certainly applies in Texas, where things get very convoluted when people of the "established church of Texas" begin behaving exactly like their more conservative cousins elsewhere within the SBC, behaving as if the groups is being persecuted when a person comes forward to report a problem with a perpetrator.
It makes complete sense, however, if one stops to consider that closed systems never welcome outside information. It is too threatening, so anyone who attempts to use logic is immediately seen as either crazy or a heretic who has "turned against us."
Ironically, Texas is generally considered to be more the exception among Baptists, when it comes to being more willing to champion the right of women to be free of gender oppression within the Convention. By announcing that they have all of this help available to survivors, however, one is given false hope, at least from all that I’ve observed. Of course, if there are cases out there where one feels otherwise, I would love to have those survivors contact me, whether they come as a referral from the BGCT or find me on their own. I will be delighted to begin writing about the exceptionally positive cases!
Two courageous women have honored me with their stories. Their stories are not finished, of course. How they live their lives and choose to use these stories to work for change remain to be seen. With their permission, I am sharing portions of each woman's individual story as an example of what I have already written.I was first contacted by Deborah Dail in 1995. She was in the process of deciding what to do, if anything, about the double-binds of her own suffering. About a year later, she decided to confront her abuse by going directly to the church where it occurred. Yet she had no idea that the same church had another very old case, involving horrific collusion. Neither did she know that the prime colluder in that case was also still in the church.
Deborah met with extreme collusion. In desperation, after first trying "the Biblical way" that gets the kind of results that Dail got, many survivors turn either to a lawyer or to the press. In 1998, Dail found enough energy to go to the press. The Ft. Worth Star Telegram responded, and her story was written by Tara Dooley, though it still didn't name the perpetrator, something journalists are seldom allowed, by their editors, to do. In the process, Dooley contacted me and I sent a response.
I vividly remember my own dismay when she called me sometime later, having gone to the BGCT for the second time, with my encouragement. Many of the players in 1999 are no longer at the BGCT. Some have died, including the counselor who immediately picked up the phone, as soon as she walked out of his office, and called the man against whom Dail was bringing allegations--another breach of professional ethics, of course!!
What I recall from that 1999 phone call, however, was that Dail had been told not to speak the name of her perpetrator to the group gathered in the offices of the BGCT, for the purpose of better learning how to handle cases in the future. Sitting in that group were lawyers who were being paid to guide the group through this process, lawyers whom, one would assume would be teaching the Convention that to act in the best interest of survivors is to act ethically, in the best interest of the vulnerable people in their congregations. They couldn't have her speak the name of a pastor who still pastored because the BGCT only receives reports with names from the churches where the abuse occurred, and Farmers Branch wasn't about to report their pastor, Rev. Sam Underwood. They had already cleared him in a unanimous vote by the congregation, apparently incapable of seeing that the professional misconduct of their pastor was abusive!
Just five years later C. Brown contacted me. She had also been abused in the same congregation as Dail, by another perpetrator. One had been abused as an adult; the other as a minor. Yet collusion in both cases, as the second case proceeded, looked very much the same as the first. The church had not learned anything. Neither had the BGCT, nor their attorney, Mr. Wakefield who came to assist the church and proceeded to do so by intimidating the survivor.
Looking back, it's no wonder collusion was needed in Dail's earlier case! If they faced the reality about professional abuse of an adult, some of the leaders, one still there after thirty years, would have to face what they already knew about Brown's abuser, a skeleton that had been in the closet a lot longer than the senior pastor!! How could they acknowledge Dail’s abuse when they had not been able to even acknowledge the abuse of a minor?
Remember that it is not at all uncommon for churches to have multiple perpetrators or a string of them on their staff. Churches tend to use the same hiring practices, so this story about Dail and Brown isn't really unusual at all. What is interesting is that the two ladies eventually managed to find one another and to learn from one another while providing lessons for anyone else who cares to take an interest.
Sam Underwood and Farmers Branch Baptist Church had a vested interest in doing all they could to silence both ladies. Yet both voices came from women who were very well-educated professionals, women who could speak from the vantage point of considerable strength, unlike the majority of survivors who do not have the emotional resources nor the collaborating evidence that Brown was able to bring to the picture, to add to what had already transpired.
The pastor, whose own misconduct had been kept "secret," plus the church and the BGCT, if they faced the truth about one case, might certainly find themselves exposed for the other. Thereby, they'd be providing a "perfect" example of the massive collusion in this massive denomination where the cognitive dissonance "needs" to be ignored unless the world begins to see the close similarities between Roman Catholics and the Baptists.
So any person who is concerned about holding perpetrators accountable through the Baptist system better be prepared! Good places to start: Reading books like How Little We Knew, the only first-person account in book form, written by a Southern Baptist survivor, and by reading much more of the story of C. Brown , a survivor who has also paid a high price of emotional suffering for daring to confront abuse and collusion, a survivor who now offers her testimony via this site, as an educational and prophetic voice.
About the assistance to victims......It appears that strings are attached when one seeks assistance from the BGCT. Deborah Dail, told me several years ago that only by agreeing to never again talk to the press nor make her story public.....only then could she receive money from the Baptist General Convention of Texas to help pay her therapy bills! As you will see from reading Brown's story, those tactics are still in place. Hmmm. Sure sounds like the Roman Catholics to me!
I like much of what I see in a 2013 SBC resolution against child abuse in churches. It looks good on paper and serves well as a late-in-coming call for change. Yet without a resolution to address the much more prevalent problem, the abuse of vulnerable women by members of the clergy, the Convention has a LONG way to go just to catch up with what mainline churches accomplished in statements years ago!
If anyone out there has taken a complaint of child molestation to a local church or agency of the Southern Baptist Convention AND gotten a satisfied response, I'd love hear about it. Such a story would be a wonderful exception to the many Christa Brown and I have heard for decades. Until then, I'll have to assume nothing has really changed in this, the denomination of my heritage, the denomination that still towers far above every other Protestant group in the world. And this has me weeping for justice--not for myself, but for a world of others left by the side of the "road to Samaria," wounded and bleeding.
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)