Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Southern Baptist Church Has A Dirty Little Secret

-- by Sara

Kevin Ogle, pastor of Northgate Colonial Baptist Church in Camden, GA, pleaded guilty in May to 15 counts of sexual exploitation on the Internet. A deacon for the church said, "A pastor is human just like everybody else is."

Five years ago, the Catholic Church -- the largest Christian denomination in the country -- was torn apart when it became front-page news that hundreds of its priests, working for decades in parishes across America, had sexually molested thousands of Catholic teenagers while their bishops actively covered up the problem, or simply looked the other way. The lawsuits that followed bankrupted Catholic institutions from coast to coast. Worse, the revelations and subsequent bad publicity shook Catholics' faith in their clergy to the bone, and made their ancient church the punchline of a thousand pedophile jokes in the process. It's going to take a generation or more for the church to recover -- if it ever does.

Jeff Hannah served for at least three years as the youth minister at The First Baptist Church of Romeoville, IL -- even though the church's leaders knew he was a convicted sex predator. He resigned in August when the Chicago Sun-Times revealed his past. "We believe in forgiveness," said one of the deacons who hired Hannah.

Given the huge media circus that surrounded the priest scandal, I'm left wondering why nobody, but nobody, is giving anything like that kind of attention to the almost identical sexual predator scandal that is, right now, rocking the Southern Baptist Church. Since last January, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) -- the same group that finally brought the Catholic Church's ingrained patterns of protecting pedophiles to light -- has filed legal charges against over 50 Southern Baptist ministers (they're bringing in over one a week now), and gotten convictions against 26 of them to date.

On September 13, Pastor John Bonine of the Sierra Heights Baptist Church in Fresno, CA was arrested on felony child molestation charges. "We are looking for any way we can to be supportive of the pastor's family," a church spokesman said.

This should come as no surprise to faithful Orcinus readers, since I've been pointing out for the better part of a year now that the Southern Baptist Church -- the nation's leading promulgator of Dominionist theology -- was starting to look like a broken-down old pickup rolling downhill with no brakes, bucking and wheezing headlong over the rocks toward some kind of spectacular calamity. With 16.8 million members in 43,000 congregations, the SBC is the second-largest Christian church after the Catholics. And those of us who've been sitting on the sidelines with our popcorn, watching that long parade strutting/frog-marching/displaying its wide stance as it gaily trots out of the right wing's vast walk-in closet, had no doubt that the coming SBC calamity would almost certainly involve sexual malfeasance on an epic scale.

On October 17, Steven Haney, former pastor of the Walnut Grove Baptist Church in Memphis, was indicted for sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy from his church over a five-year period. He told the boy that his attentions were "a test from God."

And so here it is -- in the form of hundreds of young women and men coming forward to tell their stories to judges and juries, exposing a decades-long pattern of unchecked predatory behavior on the part of their Baptist pastors. This parade, too, has gone on nearly non-stop and just as fast for nearly a year now -- so where are the reporters, the cameras, the headlines?

A few national papers have picked up on this, as has ABC's 20/20 (which did a report in April). Among bloggers, the perspicacious Pam Spaulding has been on the case. But mostly, the coverage has been confined to the local papers -- each one treating its own hometown pastor scandal as an isolated incident, without putting it in the context of a larger national trend. As long as the dots aren't being connected, this isn't getting anything like the 24/7/365 coverage that the Catholic scandal did.

We have to wonder: why did the Catholic Church get the full media treatment -- but all we hear about this still-exploding scandal is the sound of crickets chirping?

On November 1, SBC Deacon Roy Long of Victorville, CA was charged with molesting two seven-year-old girls over a four-year period. Police and prosecutors are looking for other victims.

I don't know the answer to this. But we do know the SBC has friends in powerful places, and an honored seat at the DC Village table. In the current climate, it's not out of line to wonder if their solid place at the Bush Administration's base might have something to do with the media's resolute determination to keep looking the other way. Or maybe it's just rank sexism at work once again: it's a scandal when priests molest underage boys, but not worth the headline when pastors abuse their authority to commit statutory rape on teenage girls, too. Either way, the national media's relative silence on this story is not only deafening -- it's infuriating.

Last week, SBC youth pastor Marshal Seymour confessed to sexually abusing several teenage boys he met through his church in Lakeland, FL. Police discovered he'd been let go from his previous church in Mobile, AL for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy.

I'll be rolling this story out in short installments over the next few days. There are a lot of details, including my interview with Christa Brown of SNAP about the SBC's abject state of denial; a look at a few of the most interesting and egregious cases; and a case-study view of the SBC that shows how the church's very structure is perfectly optimized to attract and bring out the very worst in high-SDO leaders.

We all understand it so well now that it hardly bears repeating -- but those who stand on the moral high ground and crow the loudest about their own righteousness are the ones we should be watching the most carefully of all. We've seen that lesson writ small over the past few years; but what's happening in the SBC looks like it may turn out to be the Broadway extravaganza version of a very old morality play.

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