By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
The Southern Baptist Texan has a full, and lengthy, article in which Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson defends himself against allegations of negligence in the issue of clergy sex abuse reporting. I have not copied it here, simply because of its length.
However, a couple things in the article prompted comment. One was the journalistic “spin” which uses deprecatory implication to denigrate advocates for victims of clergy abuse. I found that attitude alarming, quite frankly. The fact that anyone within church leadership circles, who says they are against clergy abuse, would deliberately seek to defame those who stand for victims of clergy abuse is a little scary. I understand there may be “history” at work here, but let’s keep our eyes on the ball! If there’s nothing for SBC leadership to cover up, why would they position themselves “against” victim advocates? I hope Patterson’s comments, and the writer’s spin, are merely rooted in the personal angst of one influencing the writing style of the other.
Again Patterson reiterates there is nothing the SBC convention can do given local church autonomy. I think it’s very likely he believes what he is saying and perhaps the convention leadership has collectively decided this is a wall they cannot breach. But they are not seeing outside the box they’ve created for themselves. There is more they can do, they are either choosing not to do it or they are not seeing the possibilities because they are viewing church autonomy as the end of the road in their thought processes.
It is not enough for churches to do the “least possible” within their standards. In the article, Patterson says he expelled Gilyard, the student in question, (now charged with clergy abuse in a church not in the SBC convention) and participated in the local church process of removing him from leadership. But does responsibility stop there?
One problem I see here, which is another issue common in the way churches view abusers, is seen in Patterson’s statement about Gilyard’s involvement in future ministry. “I fondly hoped he would walk worthy of his calling in purity of life and heart. He chose not to do that,” Patterson stated. For some reason, church leadership seems to think a slap on the wrist will change the heart of an abuser. If one incidence of alleged abuse is addressed, perhaps even including removal from church leadership, there seems to be a belief that the abuser should 1) have their apparent penitence believed, and 2) be given another chance, since we’re supposed to forgive. A person who is an abuser cannot choose to just quit being an abuser!
There are fundamental mental and spiritual reasons an abuser acts the way he/she does and it cannot be given up like someone might give up drinking sodas. The church has thus far been oblivious to the fact that apparent repentance alone will not change an abuser – even if the abuser wholeheartedly wishes it to be so. Underlying issues must be addressed and, unfortunately, the church is completely unequipped to deal with them. Prayer and determination are utterly ineffective by themselves.
Also, the church seems to overlook the fact that we are under governmental authorities and abuse is a crime. Known abuse must be reported to authorities. While I don’t know whether Patterson reported Gilyard to civil authorities all those years ago, there is no indication in the article that he did.
Known abusers, whether or not they ever do jail time, should be forever barred from church leadership, period. This is a consequence of their actions and churches just don’t want to be that dogmatic. At the very least, a known abuser, even if the abuse is in the past, does not qualify for church leadership under Biblical standards. Even if an abuser does truly change from the inside out, he/she is not qualified to serve in a leadership capacity.
Going back to the article, Patterson makes the point that Gilyard was not serving in an SBC church so there is no direct fault by the SBC convention in him being in leadership in that church. As far as that goes, he has a point. But would Gilyard have been a pastor of this church if better action had been taken years ago? We cannot know. It may have made no difference. But overall, if churches would publically address abuse properly, including criminal prosecution and making identity of substantiated abusers known, the incidence of former abusers reappearing as leaders in other churches would certainly diminish.