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Comments And Reviews
"A must-read for anyone concerned with the safety of children and the abuse of power in evangelical churches."
The current crisis for the Catholic Church over decades of child sexual abuse has further obscured a similar but less reported story. One of Time magazine’s "Top Ten Underreported Stories of 2008" was the refusal by America’s largest Protestant church, the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), to create a database of those among its 101,000 clergymen who have been convicted or credibly accused of sexually abusing children. That refusal is one of the practices that make the 44,000 churches of the SBC, says Christa Brown, "a perfect paradise for predators". The shocking evidence, expertly marshalled by Ms Brown, a successful appellate lawyer in Austin, in this riveting account of her own victimization, suggests that in the case of the SBC the distinction between predator and clergyman is all too often diaphanous.
In powerful descriptions of her abuse and its aftermath of madness, tainted relationships and loss of faith (years later, writes Brown, "I would sometimes go out alone on moonless nights and scream into the ocean . . . . I didn’t have a clue why I was screaming"), the author demonstrates how her own descent into hell corresponds to a typical scenario for Southern Baptist victims. Under the guise of counselling a child, she says, a pastor rapes her, quoting scripture all the while, but insists that she is the guilty party and enlists his church and the SBC to successfully cover up his crime. Three decades after the incidents, Brown was finally able to put a name to what had happened to her; having become a mother made it urgent to her to file a complaint. Although the SBC claimed to have no record of her aggressor, he was serving in a well-known church when Brown located him in 2004. On January 18, 2006, her former church produced a letter acknowledging the facts of the case, for which Brown agreed to suspend legal proceedings.
The SBC gives two reasons for its refusal to maintain a list of predators: 1) Each of the churches belonging to the SBC is autonomous, so it is powerless to intervene. 2) We can, they claim, simply check to see if our ministers have criminal records. Rebuttals: 1) While the SBC has yet to sever ties with any of the thousands of its churches in which paedophiles are or have been known to occupy the pulpit, its Nashville headquarters keeps very close tabs on what is going on and where. On June 23, 2009, the SBC "disfellowshipped" the Broadway Baptist church of Fort Worth, Texas, because it has one openly gay member. 2) Over 90 per cent of sex offenders have no criminal record.
Data from American insurance companies suggests that Protestant clergy lead Catholics in the sexual abuse of children, with the SBC the worst offender. A combination of suprajudicial procedures (e.g. victims, who are warned not to contact police, may not address the SBC with complaints, which must come to it from the church, in other words, from the pastor or person who committed the crime about which the complaint is being made); hillbilly pilpulism (the SBC’s resident quack "expert" distinguishes between sexual predators, who are first degree felons facing potential life sentences in prison if caught, and who simply, says he, don’t exist in the Baptist clergy, and mere "wanderers"); and systematic persecution of victims who complain means that most of the SBC’s predatory activities remain unprosecuted. The former President of the SBC, Paige Patterson, whose hobbies include "hunting dangerous game" (his website shows him kneeling behind the much-dreaded zebra) shocked other faith group leaders, including Catholics, when he referred to Brown and other victims of confessed rapists as "evil-doers" and "just as reprehensible as sex criminals".
The SBC’s lawyers place their faith in the statute of limitations, which requires that complaints be made by the age of twenty-eight (average age of childhood sex abuse victims: twelve; that of the complainants: forty-two), in the fact that fewer than 10 per cent of clergy sex abuse cases are ever reported, and in the high suicide rate of victims. Alone among faith groups, the tax-exempt SBC, with $10 billion in assets, offers no counselling to victims, yet provides free counselling to clergymen who have been caught raping children.
Both Brown’s story and the data she has gathered on other victims of the SBC in This Little Light and on her website (stopbaptistpredators.org) and blog (stopbaptistpredators.blogspot.com) suggest that legal reform is urgently needed. When the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse disappears, as it inevitably will, the resulting class action will probably spell the end of the SBC.
The SBC has refused to keep a list of its criminal clergymen; Brown has kindly begun to keep one for them, pro bono. They have clearly bullied the wrong woman, and in so doing have awakened both a whistleblower of historic proportions and a writer.
Patrick Lindsay Bowles
London Times Literary Supplement
"Moving, eye-opening, shocking and even suspenseful...Christa Brown does not hold back in this courageous account of her journey from impressionable clergy sex abuse victim to tenacious advocate for the rights and protection of children."
Luci Westphal, filmmaker, All God's Children
"This book should rightly make any honest Christian furious. The smooth-talking, Bible-quoting, God-invoking perpetrator is disgusting enough, but the real anger surges forward as one reads page after page of the twisted, lie-filled and hypocritical response of the Southern Baptist bureaucracy."
Rev. Thomas Doyle, J.C.D., co-author, Sex, Priests and Secret Codes
"Despite the extraordinary recalcitrance of Baptist officials, Christa's story is not one of fatalism and bitterness, but of courage and hope."
David Clohessy, National Director, Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests
"Christa Brown is a courageous, tenacious campaigner against sexual abuse among Southern Baptist clergysome of whom have taken it upon themselves to lecture the nation on personal morality. As this book so ably demonstrates, clergy sex abuse is not confined to the Catholic Church."
Mark I. Pinsky, author, A Jew Among the Evangelicals
Christa Brown's story will likely make you mad. As a naive 16-year-old growing up in a North Texas Baptist church in the 1960s, she was pressured into having a sexual relationship with her youth minister. The married pastor told Brown it was God's will and justified his marital infidelity by citing Bible verses about concubines — then excoriated her as a satanic temptress when his wife found out.
When Brown reported the abuse to another church leader, the minister, like so many Catholic priests we've since heard about, was transferred to another congregation. No police investigation. No announcement to the congregation.
It was difficult hearing Brown's account last year when I wrote in the American-Statesman about the soft-spoken Austin lawyer and her efforts to improve Baptist churches' inadequate system of handling sexually abusive ministers. But I didn't really identify with Brown. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.
My world shifted dramatically when I became a mother in January, and when I picked up Brown's recently published book This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Predator and His Gang a few weeks ago, I saw Brown's story with new eyes. What if someone tried to do this to my daughter?
That very question would ultimately save Brown from a life of denial and pain (more on that in a moment). For me, it sparked a memory of one of my first stories as a religion writer.
In June 2002, I was in Dallas covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting. Hordes of media descended on the Fairmont Hotel to watch the bishops write a sex abuse policy. About six months earlier, the Boston Globe had revealed an elaborate conspiracy among the Boston Archdiocese's leaders to protect priests who sexually abused minors, and similar patterns were emerging in other parts of the country.
Many victims traveled to Dallas to share their stories with the bishops and the press. During an impromptu news conferences in the hotel lobby, one of the best-known activists, David Clohessy of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, critiqued a measure the bishops were proposing to deal with abusive priests.
Determined to fairly represent the church in the article, I pushed Clohessy to acknowledge that the bishops were making a genuine effort to fix the mess. "Don't you think this is the best they can do right now?"
Before he could answer, a woman in the crowd turned and called out to me, "Do you have children?" Annoyed, I tried to brush her off. She repeated the question.
I might have told her it was none of her business or that it had nothing to do with my question. I might have told her to back off. I don't remember exactly, but I'll never forget what she shouted before turning around: "If you had children, you would understand."
I glared at her. I understand just fine, I thought.
But her words haunted me over the years as I wrote about other abuse victims. If you had children, you would understand. And now, of course, I do have a child, and I do understand.
What happened to children at the hands of Catholic priests and bishops was so beyond the pale that no policy could ever make it right.
I see that now because I know what it means to want to protect someone so fiercely. I know what innocence is and the importance of preserving it as long as possible. Molesters don't just ruin childhood, they set their victims up for an adulthood fraught with anxiety and anger, failed relationships and self-loathing — nothing any mother would wish for her child.
I always felt sorry for abuse victims. But as I held my baby and imagined all the wonder and joy that awaited her, I began to understand more clearly what Brown and so many others had stolen from them.
For Brown, the shift in understanding came with motherhood, too. As her daughter became a teenager, the dark memories of her "affair" with the minister began to resurface.
The truth had become so distorted that she didn't even use the right words to describe what had happened to her. Affair rather than abuse. Temptress rather than victim.
If a trusted adult coerced her daughter into a sexual relationship, Brown writes, "I knew I would be outraged. I wouldn't call it an 'affair.' ... Every time I thought about it happening to (my daughter), I started crying. It took me a long time to figure out that I was really crying for myself — for that naive 16-year-old girl that I myself used to be."
The realization set Brown on a journey toward healing, a path that would lead her through anxiety attacks, thoughts of suicide, counseling and eventually activism on behalf of victims.
Like her Catholic friends who tried to effect institutional change, Brown said she encountered hurdles and denial and indifference among Baptist leaders in the national and state conventions. Her abuser, who finally left the ministry after serving different churches, never faced charges. And Baptist leaders have yet to create a national database of abusers or a central reporting point for victims.
But This Little Light should stir Baptist leaders to action. And it should help all of us understand just exactly what's at stake.
The Austin American-Statesman
Eileen Flynn blogs at eileenflynn.wordpress.com
The call of "God's will" led the young, faith-filled Christa Brown straight to hell. In This Little Light, Brown retraces the terrain of that hell as she tells of being sexually abused in the name of God, by a man of God, and in the house of God. Then she tells what she did as an adult to try to assure that other kids might be safer in Baptist churches than she was.
Brown was one of the first to go public with substantiated molestation allegations against a Southern Baptist minister and documentation that others knew. She survived every attempt of the Baptist machine to shut her down and now uses her experience to shine a light into the darkness of Baptist clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.
Though church leaders knew about the minister's molestation, they kept quiet and allowed him to move on. Years later, when ugly memories began to ooze unbidden into her daily consciousness, Brown thought denominational leaders would surely take action. She was incapable of imagining otherwise.
Eighteen Baptist leaders later, Brown finally saw that the worst treachery rested not in the deeds of the predator, but in the damning complicity of so many others. Even while the predator's name sat in a file of "known offenders" at Baptist headquarters in Texas, he was able to continue working in children's ministry in Florida.
Brown does not hold back as she relates her own psychological unraveling. She grappled with both the dehumanizing horror of her past and the do-nothing response of Baptist leaders. Her story is riveting in what it reveals about the betrayal of children in the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Told from the perspective of the church girl, the wife, the mom, and the activist, This Little Light is a story that attempts to speak of the unspeakable and to sort out its impact on mind, body and spirit. It is also a story of institutionalized inertia that cloaks evil behind a veil of denial. And it is a story of survivor empowerment that brings with it the hope for change.
"Christa Brown has been described as 'the public face' of Baptist abuse survivors."
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