Why Paige Patterson’s anti-outsider stance is wrong

If churches are to “act justly” in dealing with clergy sex abuse allegations, outsiders are essential.

By Christa Brown

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson preaches that churches should resolve their conflicts internally and should not take them to “the world of unbelief.”

This means, he explains, that when a person has been “offended … misused and abused” within the church, he should take his complaint to church elders and the congregation, and should not go to the courts or talk to the press. In the final prayer of his sermon, Patterson included even “the government” among those to whom church members should not take their troubles.

This insular sort of anti-outsider stance is dreadfully dangerous. Yet, for decades, it has been a common Baptist teaching, and tragically, it is now being inculcated into still another generation of Baptist pastors.

Outsiders are essential to any organizational system of accountability. They bring objectivity and detachment, and these ingredients are critical for the effectiveness and credibility of an accountability system. Without outsiders, you get cover-ups and cronyism.

Contrary to Patterson’s instruction, whether the outsiders are “believers” or “unbelievers” is irrelevant so long as they are outsiders to the system in which the alleged wrongdoing occurred. In any event, since I don’t credit Patterson or anyone else with mind-reading ability, I doubt that his believer/unbeliever distinction can be readily discerned. There are unbelievers in churches just as surely as there are believers who are not in churches.

As human beings, we are creatures with a natural tendency toward bias. When we already feel as though we know and trust someone, our minds naturally move toward wanting to confirm that trust rather than toward giving equal weight to a person whose dissonant story clashes with our pre-existing belief.

Most organizational accountability structures now recognize this reality of human nature and incorporate safeguards against it. For example, nowadays, when a police officer is accused of abuse, his conduct is reviewed by an independent panel, not by his buddies in the same department.  

In the context of clergy sex abuse, the human tendency toward bias means that, typically, when churches try to handle abuse reports internally, they accept the accused pastor’s word and minimize the word of the person who brings such challenging information to the forefront.    

When churches are confronted with clergy abuse allegations, not only should they go to outsiders, but they must go to outsiders. State laws require that information about allegations of child sex abuse -- or even about suspicions of abuse -- be reported to government officials such as the police or child protective services.

This does not mean that going to the cops is enough. While reporting abuse allegations to law enforcement is essential, the majority of child sex abuse cases cannot actually be criminally prosecuted. Typically, the reasons are procedural and have nothing to do with the merits of the allegations. In these cases in which criminal prosecution is impossible, alternative accountability systems are needed if kids are to be protected.

Alternative systems of accountability are nothing unusual; most other professions use such systems. For example, an attorney need not be convicted of a crime in order to have his conduct reviewed through a professional disciplinary process. That process carries the power to take away the attorney’s mantle of trust and to make known the attorney’s misdeeds.

Southern Baptist ministers need a similar accountability system -- one that carries the power to assess a minister’s conduct and to warn congregants about safety concerns. When it comes to protecting kids, the criminal justice system cannot do it all, and the Southern Baptist Convention abandons moral responsibility in declining any denominational system of accountability. Merely because a man cannot be put in prison does not mean that he should be allowed to continue in a position of high trust as a minister.

Most other major faith groups now have clergy accountability systems. With such systems, those who have been abused may at least have the possibility of reporting the clergy-perpetrator to a panel of people who are outside the minister’s immediate circle of trust -- i.e., who are outside the local church -- and of seeking some process of review.

These denominational systems are far from perfect and often fail in actual practice. But for Southern Baptists, lacking even the bare existence of a denominational accountability system, failure of accountability is virtually assured. If a Southern Baptist pastor isn’t literally sitting in prison, he can probably find a pulpit to stand in. The denomination has no alternative system for stopping him.

You might think the Darrell Gilyard saga would have taught Patterson the danger of what he preaches. An insular approach to multiple claims of abuse and assault is precisely what allowed pastor Gilyard to persist in predatory conduct for two decades.

According to the Dallas Morning News, many of those claims were reported directly to Paige Patterson -- but to no avail. By the time Gilyard was finally convicted on child sex charges in Florida, over 40 young women and underage teens had made allegations against him -- and that’s just the ones we know about.

Thank God a young Florida teen finally went outside Baptists’ insular system and took her report to government officials.

And what about Patterson’s insistence that his anti-outsider stance is somehow biblical? If Patterson needs a biblical basis for doing what’s right, then he should look to the first thing listed by the prophet Micah. “And what does God require of you? To act justly….” (Micah 6:8)

Related article:

Advocate says Baptists ill-equipped to address sexual abuse by clergy

  

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.