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Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse: Did Leaders Learn Anything?

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The Southern Baptist Convention abuse crisis is over.

It was over and done 25 years ago – same as most crises quickly are when professionals ignore unpleasant evidence of matters needing prompt attention.

If anybody should know, it’s me – the mental health nurse, who first alerted readers in 1995 of what was to come, doing so at the request of one of the most popular Baptist editors of the 20th century, the late Jack Harwell.

What we’re seeing now is a catastrophe, with many more victims waiting to come forward before anyone is prepared to act, despite the best of intentions of crowds streaming to Dallas this week for the “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis“ conference, planned by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

As a former SBC foreign missionary, after returning to the states heartbroken, I soon took on a new ministry in 1989.

That’s when I began writing to expose apathy with regard to sexual violence in the community of faith several years before Jeff T. Seat took on clergy sexual misconduct in the SBC, with research, that is – published in 1993, only weeks before my first-person story of encountering massive collusion on the SBC mission field.

In 1994, I knew nothing of Seat’s work. Nor did he know of mine until a Catholic activist brought his to my attention at an international conference, only months after Seat and several other psychotherapists met behind closed doors with top executives in Nashville.

This I managed to learn from his warm letter only days after receiving mine. In it, Seat revealed much about his efforts in Nashville.

The “denominational climate” was the reason he’d been given for guarded leaders’ inability to act, the researcher wrote in his assessment, concluding, “It seems our denomination is slowly addressing this …. and I have faith that we will continue to do so.”

“Baloney!” I exclaimed to myself, standing in my office in the parsonage of the church my husband then pastored.

Though I knew he meant well, I was sick of faith being associated with snail-paced approaches, holding thousands in spiritual hostage while abusers went free as readily in Baptist circles as in Catholic.

I’d first heard “good faith” given as justification for lies and unethical actions by mission executives who, at one time, had a rotten-to-the-core plan to reassign our colleague and missionary-predator Gene Kingsley and his wife to a “hardship case” somewhere in the Caribbean!

Such faith, putting even more adolescents and adult women in harm’s way!

Such a climate, the epitome of abuse, was what led my husband and me to realign ourselves in 1990 with American Baptists at a time when heads of other SBC professionals were still rolling in multiple SBC agencies amid the chaotic system.

Titled “conservative resurgence,” the deplorable atmosphere was crafted by two men, now infamous for the self-made, highly exposed catastrophes Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler and their followers now face!

Still, not once had I singled out the SBC in any of my writing. Nor had I done so in more than 30 requests for interviews by broadcasters.

Partially because I was ashamed to admit I’d ever been associated with the denomination, after hearing of the immense pain caused by its abusive tactics used even on some of my patients.

Yet, of much greater significance was my desire to blow the whistle on the entire community of faith for the common but shocking dynamics this story clearly demonstrated – a suffering with which multitudes of families could identify.

Faith leaders, mostly female, from Church of God to Universalists, were among my readers across 14 countries, now responding with gratitude to my efforts, while the SBC seemed to be on another planet.

With Seat’s valuable input, I knew it was time to shift gears, even if the denomination of my heritage continued ignoring me, same as a larger piece of history – slavery, which was yet to be apologized for.

Out of 13 state SBC editors who bothered to answer an earlier inquiry about their interest in covering the topic, one wrote, “We get little of this information and print none of it.”

Twenty years later, Jack Harwell laughed as I reread that statement I’d often used for comic relief myself when counseling survivors.

“They wouldn’t dare print much after what happened to me!” Jack exclaimed while we reminisced about the “climate” that had cost both of us beloved careers after we dared speak truth about obvious forms of power abuse.

Thanks to Jack, who had still refused to “learn his lesson” seven years after being forced to leave Georgia’s Christian Index with a circulation of 100,000, he was now free to speak his convictions and support voices of folks like me through Baptists Today (now Nurturing Faith), though his audience was only 4,500 in 1995.

How overjoyed I was when he asked for a six-month series, to begin in January that year, rather than the one article I’d proposed weeks before either of us knew that cancer was just around the bend for me, making this project most untimely.

Or so it seemed – same as the climate that had prevented executives in Nashville from addressing what I was about to take on.

Rather than wait months for my own crisis to pass, I decided to kick the series off with a parallel of the two diseases at once.

Suddenly, the SBC’s Sunday School Board (now Lifeway), only three months into the series, decided they must do something.

So, they announced they were forming a committee – not to teach churches how to respond ethically, however, as I’d hoped.

Instead, their entire focus was on provisions for clergy offenders, including “social protection.”

At least, the seeds were planted, I told myself, never dreaming that this series, thanks to the internet, would soon take on a life of its own, as I focused my efforts on more fertile ground.

A quarter century later, has the denominational climate improved sufficiently for these seeds finally to sprout? We shall soon see as the whole world watches.

Editor’s note: Miller’s book, “Enlarging Boston’s SPOTLIGHT: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation,” is available here.

Dee Miller

Dee Ann Miller, a former mental health nurse, at 73, still uses her professional skills to promote change at TakeCourage.org and through her books, the latest being "Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation."