My focus in my original post on this topic was entirely on the SBC’s continual mishandling of clergy abuse allegations.
However, questions have been raised about whether this sitation qualifies as being in the same category all together – is it an issue of clergy abuse? Regardless, I think it is another example of the SBC’s negligence and neglect of responsibility. But for the moment, I’m going to focus on a few things about the issue of the accusations against Jeremy Benack.
First of all, in thinking about this for several days it appears to me the original article was written with a definite spin to imply greater guilt than is inherently visible in the situation. The writer assigns motives and assumes a long-term past to the situation when she implies that the sexual history between Benack and Werley goes back approximately 6 years. The reason this matters is that a history going back 6 years is an issue of child sexual abuse. A history going back as little as 2 years from the time of the article’s writing makes it consentual sexual behavior between adult. There is no stated actual sexual activity referenced in the article, though it seems to be implied in the way the article is written.
The thing that made me start to wonder about this was the statement that the police were called to the church and arrest was “discussed” – but no arrest was made. If there was an alleged incidence of child sex abuse an arrest would almost certainly have been made. Which leads me to think there was no such accusation.
If, in fact, this situation escalated to an inappropriate one after Werley was legally an adult, the original article is making this appear to be a child sex abuse issue when it is an issue of sexual misconduct of a pastor and a young adult who could be attempting to turn the focus off her own actions and make the pastor look like a child sex abuser. These are two very different things, particularly legally.
The article also says Benack remains as pastor of the church but I have been told this is not the case. Benack apparently stepped down from the pastorate when the situation was exposed. That also changes the color of the story.
That said, this does not negate pastoral responsibility or minimize the seriousness of admitted pastoral misconduct. At the very least, it is an abuse of the office of pastor, an abuse of trust of church members, and a violation of marital relationship. These are all very serious. It is still an issue of clergy abuse – just not necessarily clergy sex abuse.
Furthermore, my original purpose stands. In either case, this situation highlights why it would be beneficial for the SBC to be proactively involved. The flimsy shield of “autonomy” makes it easy for SBC leadership not to have to get their hands dirty. But accountability is critical. If in this case a young woman is implying that a pastor began an inappropriate relationship with her as a minor, how much better would it be for all concerned if there were a source of external accountability that could determine and speak for the truth in this situation so it’s not just an issue of he said-she said. In today’s climate, with rampant clergy sex abuse, people are more likely to assume there was child abuse involved than not. The SBC would do well to provide a reliable and responsible system of accountability and support — whether it is for victims of clergy sex abuse or for clergy unjustly accused of abuse.
There also needs to be a process of clergy discipline when the office is abused. The local church cannot correctly fill this function. The local church can remove a pastor from office – this is something over which they do have authority. But they cannot discipline and counsel a man who has abused his position of authority over them as their pastor. The church needs to care for its own process of healing. Can the SBC fill this role? I do not know. With their track record, I don’t know who could trust them, which is a sad situation.