(RNS) — As the media spotlight focuses its glare on the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention, we who have been dealing with abuse issues for years already see familiar patterns of institutional protection and image management in the Southern Baptist leadership’s response.
To Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors, therefore, we’re offering these tips in your efforts to confront the dysfunction and intransigence you may be encountering in the days ahead.
Know that you aren’t alone. The cruelest lie that clergy abuse survivors can believe is that their experience is unique. It isn’t. Experts say that more kids are likely being abused among Protestants than among Catholics, and the recent Houston Chronicle exposé makes plain that the extent of the Baptist problem is horrific.
Find a trauma therapist. When horrific memories begin to intrude, many survivors make the mistake of thinking, “I can handle it.” But almost without exception, every abuse survivor will be able to “handle it” better with the support of a skilled therapist. Get one sooner rather than later, and make sure she or he is licensed by the state. Faith-based counselors who are typically ill-equipped for dealing with such serious trauma have further wounded countless numbers of survivors.
Contact law enforcement. A crime was committed against you, so you should report it. Short statutes of limitation often preclude the prosecution of child sex crimes, but the fact that a case cannot be criminally prosecuted does not mean that a crime was not committed. As statutes of limitation are changing all the time, you also shouldn’t assume that time has run out.
Reporting the crime will begin a paper trail that can be crucial documentation for yourself or other possible victims. You may also help solidify in your psyche the reality of what was done to you: It was a crime, and you are not at fault. Consider reporting to one of the clergy sex abuse hotlines in states where the attorneys general are pursuing abuse investigations. You might also contact journalists, confidentially if you like, who are investigating Baptist clergy sex abuse.
Find a good lawyer. Many Baptist survivors are reluctant to go to lawyers because they’ve grown up with the religious instruction that a believer shouldn’t sue another believer. But filing a civil lawsuit creates a public document that makes it easier for journalists to report on abuse allegations and thereby helps inform the public about abusive clergy.
Many abuse survivors don’t contact attorneys because the thought of testifying about what was done to them is terrifying. (See #2: A good therapist can help you deal with that fear.) Consulting an attorney doesn’t mean you have to file a lawsuit, and even if you do, it still doesn’t mean you’ll be required to testify in court. But know this: Many church officials have attorneys at the ready with experience in intimidating abuse survivors. You deserve to have the counsel of an attorney who is on your side.
Don’t go to the church. If you talk to anyone from the church about your situation, the odds are excellent that you will be revictimized with shaming tactics, and that little will be done about your perpetrator. Churches cannot investigate themselves. In the rare event that a church does claim to hire an “independent investigator,” it often leaves church officials in the driver’s seat.
Don’t fret over forgiveness. No matter how it is defined, “forgiveness” doesn’t preclude justice. It certainly doesn’t mean that clergy child molesters should be shielded from consequences. Some survivors refer to “forgiveness” as the “f-word” because so many religious bureaucrats have exploited “forgiveness” theology to silence them and enlarge their suffering. Feel free to think of it that way if it helps you fend off those who wield “forgiveness” as a weapon.
Think twice before signing a nondisclosure agreement. SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, has long advocated against the use of nondisclosure agreements with clergy sex abuse survivors. Church officials are trying to buy your silence when they or their attorneys shove one of these immoral pieces of paper in front of you. Such agreements do nothing to protect others, and many survivors have expressed regret about signing them.
Don’t give church leaders the benefit of the doubt. Choosing to protect an institution over the safety of children is a devil’s bargain so incomprehensible that survivors tend to believe that if we make church leaders understand, they will surely take action. Only after decades of confronting Catholic officials did most survivors finally accept that the church’s failures derived not from lack of understanding but lack of will. The Baptist scandal is perhaps 20 years behind, but the patterns already look similar.
Be wary of your desire for a quick fix. In fighting for institutional change, it can be tempting to accept a few easily tossed bones. But if we yield too hastily to our own yearning for a happy ending, we do a disservice to the thousands of clergy sex abuse survivors whose stories remain shrouded in secrecy.
Church officials may make carefully worded apologies, but even if they’re sincere, apologies alone won’t bring about change. Half-hearted responses like weekend workshops on abuse amount to little more than feel-good occasions where church officials publicly pat themselves on the back. Perpetrators must be removed from ministry, but this is a starting point for action, not an end. If kids are to be safer, there must be effective accountability mechanisms put in place for both perpetrators and cover-uppers.
Don’t despair. Never doubt the value, and indeed the sanctity, of your efforts at bringing truth to light. You may never see the sort of justice you yearn for — many survivors don’t — and even if you do, by the time it arrives, it may seem a pyrrhic victory.
But just because church officials choose to do nothing even after you’ve told your truth doesn’t lessen the courage you showed in speaking out. Applaud yourself and keep on keeping on. The work of institutional change is a multi-generational ultra-marathon, and every voice matters. Hope resides in the cumulative power of your stories, and eventually your truth will shine through all the denial and duplicity of Baptist officials.
(Christa Brown is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang” and serves on the board of advisors for the Child-Friendly Faith Project. David Clohessy, the former longtime director of SNAP, currently serves as SNAP’s volunteer director for St. Louis. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)