DENVER (ABP) – A victims’ advocate says autonomous Baptist churches are ill-equipped to deal with the problem of sexual abuse by clergy because they lack the objectivity to respond appropriately to allegations against a trusted minister.
Christa Brown, who owns the website StopBaptistPredators.org, says the first sentence of a recent news article about a former youth minister charged in April with two counts of sexual activity with a minor sums up the problem: “Pastor Matthew Ellis’ first urge was to trust his youth minister.”
“For pastors and congregants alike, that's the first instinct for most people when a minister is accused of sexual abuse,” Brown, formerly Baptist outreach leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and now studying for a Ph.D. at Iliff School of Theology, wrote in a blog Oct. 13. “Good people tend to think the best of others, and particularly of others who are in positions of high trust.”
A story published the day before in the Hernando Today edition of the Tampa Tribune said the pastor of First Baptist Church of Brooksville, Fla., took allegations seriously that youth minister Brian Brijbag had sex with a pair of teenage girls, but he was skeptical because he didn’t believe the 35-year-old father of three was capable of cheating on his wife.
It wasn’t until Brijbag turned down a group meeting with his accuser and her father in order to “let sleeping dogs lie” that Ellis began to suspect his guilt.
Ellis, who two years earlier investigated a similar case involving another teenager before concluding with that girl’s father that she had concocted the story about her and Brijbag having a sexual relationship, now wonders if they believed a lie.
Brown, a survivor of sexual abuse by her Southern Baptist youth minister when she was 16, says that if Brijbag had done what accused ministers often do — leave quietly and move on to a new church — Pastor Ellis might never have had second thoughts.
Brown said Brijbag’s excuse for refusing to face his accuser — that he didn’t want his integrity questioned — ironically puts him on common ground with clergy molestation victims.
“Many clergy abuse survivors say that the experience of having been disbelieved and attacked by their faith community is even more painful than the memory of having been sexually molested by a minister,” she said. “It is the community that often causes even more harm than the molesting minister.”
Brown said that is why the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s second largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, needs a denominational panel of trained professionals to assist churches with clergy abuse reports, assess allegations that cannot be criminally prosecuted and ensure that persons with reports of clergy abuse “will at least have their reports received in a responsible and compassionate manner.”
Brown, who shared her testimony in a 2009 book titled This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang, was a G.A. Queen Regent who hadn’t been on a single date and had never held hands with a boy when her married youth and education minister groomed her into having what at the time she regarded an “affair” in 1969.
Overwhelmed by guilt, she broke down during a piano lesson and confessed to another staff member at the same church. Her abuser was confronted and told that unless he resigned the matter would be brought before the church. He moved to a larger church amid accolades about how blessed the church had been to have such a man of God even for a while.
Brown was told never to speak about it, and she didn’t, until her own daughter turned 16. Seeing from an adult perspective how vulnerable she must have been at that age, Brown, by now an attorney, wondered if her abuser was still in the ministry and set out to warn Southern Baptists that a sexual predator might be in their midst.
She contacted a total of 18 Baptist leaders in churches, state conventions and the SBC, and all responded it was not in their job description. SBC leaders told her there was no record to indicate her perpetrator was still a minister, but she discovered through her own efforts that he had served on staff of some high-profile Southern Baptist churches -– including First Baptist Church of Atlanta while Pastor Charles Stanley was SBC president — and presently was on staff at a prominent SBC church in Florida.
After the Orlando Sentinel carried a story about a lawsuit that Brown had filed against her alleged abuser in 2005, he finally left the ministry and began selling real estate. In September 2007 she traveled from her home in Austin, Texas, to Nashville, Tenn., to hand deliver a letter calling on the SBC Executive Committee to establish an independent review board with adequate funding to receive and investigate charges of sexual abuse by clergy, educate churches about its existence and adopt a "zero-tolerance policy" toward churches that shield suspected sex offenders.
The Executive Committee eventually studied the feasibility of the idea in response to a motion at the SBC annual meeting in 2007 that called for a database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.”
After the study, the Executive Committee recommended against the idea, saying the convention lacked authority to investigate local churches, which are responsible for calling their own ministers. Time Magazine ranked the decision as one of the top 10 under-reported news stories in 2008.
Brown says she understands local-church autonomy, but she still believes Southern Baptists should at least look at clergy accountability systems and review processes in other denominations with congregational polity that take into account a congregation’s “normal human instinct” to believe in its minister.
“But Southern Baptists do not,” she said. “So most of the time, in Baptistland, the first instinct is what prevails.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.