People speak of hope as if it is this delicate, ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.
— a guy on Twitter called Matthew
I am unapologetically skeptical about the sexual abuse reforms passed by the Southern Baptist Convention last June in Anaheim. It is a skepticism founded on the SBC’s documented “damnable” history in this arena and on the fact that details of the new reforms are deeply troubling.
Some insist I should hold to hope in the SBC. “Things are different this time,” they say.
Maybe. Maybe not. Time will tell, and in the interim, skepticism is well-warranted.
Besides, it is in skepticism itself that I find seeds of hope.
At the very core of my skepticism rests a belief that transformational change may yet be possible within the SBC. If I didn’t believe that, I would not bother with repeatedly voicing my skepticisms and criticisms and would simply walk away, as a great many other SBC clergy sex abuse survivors have very rationally done.
But for me, skepticism holds faith that a future we cannot yet see may still be possible. It holds the seed of an enduring hope in something not yet made manifest but still attainable, and it provides the passion for purposeful behavior oriented toward the fulfillment of that hope.
With my skepticism, I try to do honor to the thousands of clergy sex abuse survivors who, along with their families, have been wounded within this faith group. The human cost of the SBC’s decades-long travesty is enormous, and in the face of a “bare minimum” institutional response, I consider that anything less than honest skepticism would do dishonor to the weight of that cost.
Skepticism engages me in a healthy resistance to the continuing institutional betrayal of the SBC, something that, for many of us, inflicted even greater harm than sexual abuse. And if you’re unsure as to what “institutional betrayal” actually looks like, you need only read the Guidepost report; it is a compendium of institutional betrayal.
“Skepticism is active, not passive. It allows me to exercise my own agency to shape the narrative and to reframe it.”
Skepticism is active, not passive. It allows me to exercise my own agency to shape the narrative and to reframe it from what SBC leaders say they will do to what they have actually done and not done — to expose and name clergy sex abusers, to hold accountable their colleagues who enabled this decades-long travesty, to tangibly care for clergy sex abuse survivors, and to make amends for the massive harms done.
My skepticism stands in recognition of injustice — injustice of the past and continuing injustice in the present. It rests on a refusal to give up the passion for justice and on a belief that, if indeed the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, then it does so only by the effort of human beings who are willing to speak into the face of ugly truths.
And whatever justice ultimately may look like, my skepticism will not let me settle for some mere façade of it sugarcoated with pious words.
We all yearn for happy endings. But if we allow our own yearning to cause us to trust in words without concomitant deeds — to see what is not yet there in reality — then we do a disservice to the countless people who have suffered and sacrificed to try to move this faith group toward accountability and care. And we do a disservice to future generations of church kids as well.
To be clear, my skepticism is not necessarily a reflection on the individuals who comprised the Sexual Abuse Task Force, nor on the individuals who comprise the newly appointed Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.
Rather, it is a reflection on how deeply entrenched these systemic evils are within the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention — the sexual abuse of kids and congregants, the absence of clergy accountability, the cover-ups by churches, the maltreatment and bullying of survivors, and institutional betrayal at all levels.
Not only are these evils deeply entrenched, they are duplicitous. Even as SBC leaders spoke righteously of goodness and God, they were gutting clergy sex abuse survivors. Even as they publicly insisted that no listing of predatory clergy was possible — because of polity — they themselves were keeping a secret list.
“These evils could not have become systemic without thousands of quietly complicit enablers.”
But it would be a mistake to imagine that all of this rests on the shoulders of a few. These evils could not have become systemic without thousands of quietly complicit enablers.
For decades, egregious wrongs have been tolerated and even normalized in the SBC. This has happened not only because SBC leaders allowed the wrongs to happen but also because countless others turned a blind eye.
Consider, for example, that in 2007, SBC messengers voted near unanimously to direct the SBC Executive Committee to conduct a study on creating a database of credibly accused SBC clergy. No legitimate study was done; there never was even a budget allocation for it. Yet, it wasn’t this blatant betrayal of leadership that most stunned me; rather it was that almost no one else in Southern Baptist life raised a peep about it.
Instead, in 2008, when Executive Committee President Morris Chapman preached SBC polity as defense of the denomination’s do-nothing response to predatory clergy, thousands of messengers — many of whom had previously voted for reform — greeted Chapman’s empty words with rousing applause. It was left to a bare handful of skeptical survivors to point out the chasm between words and deeds.
“I am haunted by the reality of how many kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only words and votes had led to meaningful reform back then.”
I am haunted by the reality of how many kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only words and votes had led to meaningful reform back then. Yet, I see little indication the SBC has truly reckoned with its widespread harms or attempted to make amends. The Executive Committee hasn’t even imposed an easy and nominal measure of accountability on Morris Chapman by revoking his “president emeritus” title.
But that’s just one example. The SBC has had many opportunities for reckoning with its sexual abuse problem, and as Jesus and John Wayne author Kristin Kobes Du Mez asked: “How many ‘reckonings’ can one have before we acknowledge that there is, in fact, no real reckoning to be had?”
When an institution has a history like that of the SBC, and when the institution still holds vocal factions who persist in minimizing the problem, then no one owes apology for questioning the institution’s commitment to overturning its reckless, unjust and hurtful practices.
So, yes, I’m deeply skeptical.
And even beyond skepticism, the truth is that I was rendered bereft by Anaheim.
“That the SBC would do so little and then exploit that tiny bit for image-repair efforts plumbed new depths.”
That the SBC would do so alarmingly little — even after a harrowing investigatory report, even after massive media on a global scale, even after the sacrifices of so many clergy sex abuse survivors, even after tens of thousands of names on petitions, and even after countless lives were decimated for decades — seemed unfathomable. That it would do so little and then exploit that tiny bit for image-repair efforts plumbed new depths.
I sometimes fear I must be delusional to persist in any effort at all toward promoting clergy accountability and survivor care within the SBC. After two decades of advocacy work, surely this recalcitrant, trauma-magnifying institution has by now proved itself to be uncaring. Surely fleeing from everything connected to it would make more sense.
And yet, the stakes are high. So, with dirt on my face and blood on my knuckles, I expect I’ll eventually catch my breath, spit a tooth, and rise for another go.
That’s skepticism — and hope.
Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang. She serves on the board of advisers for the Child-Friendly Faith Project and previously served on the board of directors for SNAP. Follow her on Twitter @ChristaBrown777.
Progress on sexual abuse in the SBC? Not so fast | Opinion by David Clohessy and Christa Brown