What "Going Public" with Abuse Could Mean in the SBC

Tomorrow, as delegates of the Southern Baptist Convention gather in Birmingham, Alabama, each would do well to pull out a cell phone to listen and read in a nutshell what we SBC survivors of professional sexual abuse want to see changed.

While delegates begin discussing once again what they are going to do about widespread collusion, exposed repeatedly this year by the Houston Chronicle, there are sure to be many questions. Same as  for each of us who has ever gone public with "unspeakable" stories, believing that is what Love would have us do.

"What would notifying the public look like?" Pastor Chris Davis tweeted to me shortly after revelations of cover-ups of abuse by Southern Baptist missionaries were published as Article 4 in the series.

That's a question too technical to be easily answered in a tweet. So, I promised, this blog.

Then and Now

Before 2003, a U. S. citizen who committed abuse against a minor overseas could be accountable for his crimes only in the country where the abuse occurred. Unless the incident(s) occurred on U. S. military or embassy property, there was little recourse for individuals or parents of a child abused by someone else. That was the rule, as my husband and I understood it, when we talked to an attorney.

Meanwhile,the Board was in a tailspin in 1988, the year we were forced to resign. Desperate to protect the institution, it would seem, as they tried to sort out what to do with the second big case in the same area of Africa they were trying to resolve that year, even though one perpetrator was already in prison and the other "in waiting," still hoping to get re-assigned somewhere. The Caribbean would have been far enough away for him to hide, someone suggested.

Ethically, whatever the law, professional people are in positions of power. Missionaries and ministers are public figures, like it or not. In Christian circles, every member is charged with carrying out The Golden Rule. Those in charge are required to protect "the little ones" in their watch-care under the strictest standards. 

Even in the 1980's the abuse of a minor should have been reported to law enforcement in the country where the abuse occurred. Frankly, in that era, I doubt African authorities would have had any more training than Southern Baptist missionaries to handle such a report unless a national was abused. Even then, I doubt justice would have been served. The female victim would most certainly have been blamed.

Just as Malawi Mission considered multiple reports about Gene Kingsley by missionary families, as well as the physical assault of a national, to be "private matters" between victims and perpetrator, law enforcement there would likely have agreed. They would also have agreed that adolescents were "almost adults," same as they are treated in most developing countries and far too many Baptist churches today.

In all cases, regardless of the era of the abuse, a team of outside mental health professionals should be brought in to assist the entire Mission, as well as the national leadership, from the beginning. Prior to that, as soon as the accused missionary is promptly sent back on leave, the reason for him being sent back should be stated in writing.

Once again, this may be needed when charges are determined to be founded. A formal letter, stating  reasons for termination or return to the field, depending on the outcome of the investigation conducted, should be sent to every member of the Mission and the national leadership. Not simply that Joe Blow will not be returning "due to behavior that disqualifies him from mission service." 

Protecting the Stateside Public

Ethically, in every past case involving a minor, the abuse should have been reported first to the Department of Human Services (known in some states as Child Protective Services) in the state where the perpetrator was living, as soon as he was sent back to the States. The IMB did not do this in the Kingsley case, but I did. As a former public health nurse, I knew that I was ethically bound to do so. While they appreciated the report and recorded it, all they could do from that point, considering the laws at that time was to simply keep the name on file, thereby verifying that there had been other reports should a new report come in.

Even today, unless a lawsuit pushes the issue or an arrest is made, allegations of overseas abuse are not likely to hit the newspapers. However, the IMB is required to see that law enforcement is also notified in the States.

Regardless of the age of the reporting victims, the best mechanism I know of currently available within the SBC structure to provide some safeguard for the public, is with Directors of Missions (formerly called Associational Missionaries)  Elected by each local SBC association around the country, these men do not have the authority that bishops do in other denominations, but they have the power and responsibility to advise and distribute information, both formally and informally.

Even without a data base, churches in every association could know if a returning missionary has been terminated and why. They can and should be informed of allegations under investigation. While this is not "going publicly," it certainly could go a long way IF the Director of Missions is wise and well-trained, understanding the need to apply the Golden Rule to protect the public first. Therein lies the problem. Recommendations and training do not insure that safeguards are carried out. So much depends on individuals who, without policies, arbitrarily decide what to do

The Barrier of Magical Thinking

"If this gets out, Gene won't be able to get a church anywhere!" my female colleague exclaimed while defending the need to keep the "secret" from people back in the States.

Deciding to protect the sexual predator against "the evil ones" who might prevent him from going on with his ministry is a gross misunderstanding of The Golden Rule. Equating any form of going outside the closed system with a sin against the offender was far more shocking to my husband and I than being suddenly grabbed and groped by my colleague before he went on to molest my daughter's good friend.

The local press in the Kansas City area, where we live, seems to understand this principle so well that it was explained a few years back on the six-o'clock television newscast. For example, when dealing with law enforcement or educators under investigation, are far less hesitant today to make public announcements than three decades ago. They do the same with clergy, provided they have the information.

What Individuals Can Do

Refusing to cooperate with the rules of collusion was what eventually cost us our careers. Exposing collusion is even more dangerous than exposing abuse, we learned!

As soon as we found out the Kingsley's were in Houston, where he was working in a Filipino Mission and teaching in a Bible School, Ron put his concerns in writing to two pastor friends in Houston whom we knew personally. In fact, we'd seen both since being appointed to Malawi.

Ron recalls getting a letter from Johnny Bisagno, the man who preached Ron's ordination sermon, saying he was not interested in getting involved. Daniel Vestal responded promptly, saying he would be talking to the Director of Missions in the near future to determine what they needed to do. We never heard from Vestal or the DOM again, and did not have the emotional energy to continue pursuing the matter while trying to put our lives back together. Though forever wondering, our conversations have been largely centered on the ecumenical ministry that we accepted, largely as volunteers, writing and speaking out on the topic of Collusion with Abuse in the Faith Community as opportunities have come.

Lord, How Long Shall the Wicked Prosper?

One week ago today, June 3, 2019, is a day I will long remember. Thanks to the Houston Chronicle and a survivor of Kingsley's who saw it, another survivor of his contacted me. We have been in intense dialogue since.

His feet had hardly hit the ground in 1986, after being sent home to Texas for a "medical evaluation," before he found his next long-term teenage victim in Houston. As far as she knew, until her friend saw the Houston Chronicle's article, she believed what a relative had told her: Gene and his wife had been sent home because "some national" made up a story about him that wasn't true." Who knows how many more like that young teen there were before he died in 2016? Perhaps more than in the twenty-five years he was in Africa.

The day may come when this middle-aged victim goes public with her story. Whether she does or not, she has provided a perfect example of why the question tweeted by Chris Davis is so important, whether the perpetrator is a foreign missionary, a pastor, or youth director. What should agency leaders and congregations "going public" look like today?

Will there be a data base? I seriously doubt the SBC has the will to alter itself that much, though it would be a lovely surprise if they do.

Meanwhile, if everyone would get onto the same page. If there was more concern about setting firm boundaries on perpetrators and churches or individuals that protect them than on haphazardly silencing those who understand The Golden Rule as it was intended, we would at least see progress.


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