Prestonwood saga shows clergy abuse database is overdue

COMMENTARY

Most major faith groups in the United States have denominational processes for assessing reports about clergy sex abuse. The Southern Baptist Convention does not. Instead, the SBC has chosen to denominationally do nothing. That choice makes the world a more dangerous place, especially for children.

The danger was revealed most recently in news about a former minister of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. The minister, John Langworthy, admitted to his Mississippi congregation that, while at prior churches, he “had sexual indiscretions with younger males.”

When this “disturbing revelation” made headlines, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, acknowledged that, in 1989, Prestonwood had received an allegation that Langworthy “acted inappropriately with a teenage student.” But Buster claimed Prestonwood officials had acted “firmly and forthrightly” because Langworthy “was dismissed immediately.”

Coming from a top official at one of the SBC’s largest churches, Buster’s statement should cause parents serious concern. Confronted with allegations of clergy sex abuse, Prestonwood got an accused minister off its own turf, but the minister was left free to church-hop to other congregations.

This quiet dismissal served to unleash Langworthy into the larger body of Baptist churches and to place other kids at risk. And to this day, Prestonwood officials seem to think they handled things appropriately.

The ways in which Prestonwood failed will appear obvious to many, but the problem is really much bigger. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, many other churches, big and small, have made the same dreadful mistakes in dealing with reports of clergy sex abuse. When church after church makes the same mistakes, there is something wrong with the system.

A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. That’s why, in 2006, I worked with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in urging Southern Baptist officials to establish an office through which clergy abuse reports could be assessed by trained professionals, and to keep records on ministers determined to be credibly accused.

There was nothing radical in this request. Other major faith groups are already doing more in that their denominational assessments can result in defrocking. But we didn’t ask for that. We simply asked for a denominational system of objective assessments and record-keeping — i.e., a database.

Recently, Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson renewed the call for a denominational database. I pray that people will listen.

Consider the difference such a system could have made in the Langworthy case. Amy Smith was a young staff intern during Langworthy’s tenure at Prestonwood. She knew there had been abuse allegations. In early summer of 2010, Smith started contacting everyone she could think of to try to assure that Mississippi kids would be protected.

She contacted Prestonwood officials, hoping they would work to remediate their earlier mistake and warn Mississippi parents about Langworthy’s past. But Smith didn’t get any help from Prestonwood, and so she persevered on her own for over a year until, finally, Langworthy resigned his ministerial position.

That’s over a year in which more kids were left at risk. If there had been a denominational office to which Smith could have provided her information, kids could have been better protected much sooner.

That office could have assessed the allegations, reported on its assessment to the Mississippi congregation and kept a record if the allegations were found credible. And if a church chose to keep a convicted, admitted or credibly accused minister, the SBC could conceivably choose to disfellowship.

If Southern Baptists provided such an office, and if it were truly a safe and welcoming place, there would be many more clergy molestation survivors who, in adulthood, would bring forward their reports. This could greatly diminish the incidence of clergy sex abuse, because one of the best ways to prevent abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past. But Southern Baptists have no system for even hearing clergy abuse survivors.

“Go to the police,” you say? Of course. But typically, by the time an abuse survivor grows up and is capable of bringing forward a report, it is too late for criminal prosecution. Tell churches to do background checks? Sure. But over 90 percent of active child molesters have never been criminally convicted and so they won’t have criminal records.

Other safeguards are needed, and most other faith groups have realized that by now.

Einstein said “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” For too long, Southern Baptists have done nothing to effectively address clergy sex abuse. A denominational database of convicted, admitted and credibly accused clergy is overdue.

http://tinyurl.com/3d2oyzw

Sexism runs deep in the Church of England

COMMENTARY

I’ve witnessed sexist attitudes in two professions – as an engineer and as a priest.

They have some similarities. In both spheres, one of the arguments is “we have never employed women to do this before” and another is “it isn’t that women are not equal – they just have different roles”.

In both professions, I’ve listened to the reasoning and it often boils down to fear of change.

However, there are some significant differences in the way sexism presents itself in the factory and the church.

In the factory, in the 1990s, sexism took several forms.

The most oppressive was the wall-to-wall pornography, which intimidated me – the women were treated by the men as objects, sub-human.

Then there was the wolf-whistling, which was frightening.

Occasionally, the men in the factory would “down tools” and whistle at me – 100 of them.

Colleagues would tell me that it was inappropriate to be a female engineer – women weren’t made for such jobs, and it interfered with the natural order of things.

Although these events were difficult, it was possible to manage well as a woman in the secular workplace, because the structures were not sexist.

So I knew that the law of the land entitled me to work as an engineer, and that the procedures of our company demanded equality.

Furthermore, almost all of the managers, and especially the managing director, were enthusiastically committed to equality.

When co-workers told me that a woman should not be an engineer I either suggested that they judge me on my work rather than on my gender, or encouraged them to talk to the managing director, knowing that he would give them short shrift.

The Church of England is different, because the sexism is institutionalised, and that makes it more oppressive.

Parishes can vote to opt out of discrimination legislation, and this compromises the whole church, as sexism is seen as tolerable.

In fact, we aren’t meant to call prejudice against women “sexism” at all: it is meant to be called “legitimate theological difference”.

For me, if it walks, swims and quacks like prejudice, then it is prejudice.

Sometimes people think that religion grants us a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to unethical practices.

It allows us to shift the blame – “I’m not sexist – God is: read your Bible” or “I’m not sexist – the Catholic church is, but we can’t change until it does”.

I see this as a perversion of the radical equality that we find in the gospel of Christ. I am grieved that the church, of all institutions, is the one that compromises justice and equality.

When people say that they don’t want a female priest, because it makes them “feel odd”, I can’t respond by saying that the institution of the church supports the equality of women.

It is also difficult to say “judge female priests on what we do, not on our gender”, because “being” rather than “doing” is a large part of priesthood. Fortunately, the vast majority of churchgoers are not sexist and my own bishop couldn’t be more supportive of equality.

In fact, I notice institutional sexism much more frequently than sexist attitudes among individuals.

Other than the obvious bar on women being bishops, there are day-to-day events.

For example, in some places, if a woman presides at the Eucharist, her name is published so that those who wish to avoid her “taint” can do so.

Another example is in appointments: when I was interviewed for a post, some of the interviewers panicked because they hadn’t foreseen the possibility that a woman might interview well.

My experience of secular life is that these things would be utterly unacceptable – illegal, in fact.

A depressing statement that I heard on this topic recently was at the press conference announcing the appointment of the two new “flying bishops” (bishops who oversee those who will not accept the priestly ministry of women).

Rowan Williams said the flying bishops would be a permanent fixture in the Church of England, even though the draft law on women bishops does away with the positions.

Williams said: “I have two new suffragans and General Synod can’t simply take them away. The pastoral need will not go away.”

Imagine if we were talking about black priests and Williams had said: “Racism is a permanent fixture of the Church of England. The pastoral need to care for priests who do not accept the ministry of black people will not go away.”

Not cool.

We need to see sexual discrimination in the same light as racial discrimination – they are both unjust and dehumanising.

I’m afraid sexism runs deep in the Church of England, but I hope it won’t be permanent.

http://tinyurl.com/44g4n28

The Church of England has double standards when it comes to gay bishops

The latest evidence of prejudice against homosexual people in the Church of England has come from the leaked Colin Slee memo and advice that Archbishop Rowan Williams sought in order to get around the Equality Act (2010). This counsel was to ensure that a gay man, ie Jeffrey John, was not appointed as bishop of Southwark. A cunning checklist was devised, consisting of five questions:

• whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity;
• whether he was in a civil partnership;
• whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex relationship;
• whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity; and
• whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.
By my reckoning, Jeffrey John fails on five out of five. One could be forgiven for thinking that this is a list deliberately designed to exclude him.

Recently, Chris Sugden and Colin Coward debated the issue of gay bishops on Radio 4’s Sunday programme. Sugden seemed determined to conflate homosexuality with promiscuity and adultery. However, Jeffrey John is a man in a faithful relationship with his life partner. Normally the church would commend this sort of long-term and committed relationship – but the rules change when the two people in question are the same gender.

I wonder whether the checklist above is remotely just? If these questions are put to homosexual candidates, then I would hope that heterosexual candidates were asked equivalent questions:

• whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on sexual activity being solely within matrimony;

• whether he had expressed repentance for any previous premarital sexual activity.

Of course, these questions seem inappropriate, invasive and irrelevant. The sex life of my bishop is of zero interest to me, as long as it attests to the values of love and faithfulness that we expound in the church. Moreover, I agree with the comments from the Archbishop of York backing William and Kate’s premarital sexual activity when he said that many modern couples want to “test the milk before they buy the cow”.

Please, let us make some attempt to be even-handed and avoid such blatant hypocrisy.

http://tinyurl.com/3khc5v5

True to Episcopal Church’s Past, Bishops Split on Gay Weddings

The Episcopal Church, which has been strained by gay-rights issues since the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire eight years ago, is now divided over how to respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York.
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Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano will let priests in Brooklyn, Queens and on Long Island officiate at same-sex weddings. In some other New York dioceses, bishops will not or are undecided.

As a result, gay and lesbian Episcopalians will be allowed on Sunday to get married by priests in Brooklyn and Queens, but not in the Bronx or Manhattan or on Staten Island; in Syracuse but not in Albany.

That is because the church has not taken a firm position nationally on same-sex marriage, leaving local bishops with wide latitude to decide what priests may do when the law takes effect in New York State. In the state, with six Episcopal dioceses, the bishops are split: two have given the green light for priests to officiate at same-sex marriages, one has said absolutely not, two are undecided and one has staked out a middle ground, allowing priests to bless, but not officiate at, weddings of gay men and lesbians.

The Episcopal Church, known as one of the most welcoming to gay men and lesbians among mainline Protestant denominations, finds itself in an uneasy position on the issue — embracing neither the clear stance against same-sex marriage taken by Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, Mormon and Orthodox Jewish leaders, nor the supportive position of Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and many liberal Protestant leaders. The Episcopal Church is a small denomination — the church claims 172,623 members in New York State — but is also prestigious and influential.

Now, gay and lesbian Episcopalians are finding their joy at the legalization of same-sex marriage tempered by the ambiguity over where they stand in their church.

“The Episcopal Church should really communicate that God loves everybody,” said Roy Kim, 40, who is engaged to an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Clayton Crawley. “The Episcopal Church does do that better than most churches, but it’s a great opportunity now to really, unequivocally say that.”

He and Father Crawley worship at St. Paul’s Chapel, which is part of Trinity Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. In keeping with the local bishop’s directive, Trinity’s priests will not officiate at same-sex marriages, and the parish has not decided whether to allow them to bless such unions.

The Episcopal Church’s rules define marriage as a “union of a man and a woman” but also say the clergy must “conform to the laws of the state” governing marriage. In 2009, the denomination approved a resolution saying that “bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.”

But New York State’s bishops differ over just what a “generous pastoral response” means, and even the bishops most supportive of gay rights are struggling to balance their desire to sanctify the relationships of all of their parishioners with their reluctance to further alienate conservative Anglicans in Africa and even the United States.

The bishops of the Long Island and Central New York Dioceses have authorized priests to preside at same-sex weddings; the bishop of the New York Diocese (which includes three of the city’s five boroughs) is allowing them to bless but not officiate at such rites; the bishop of the Albany Diocese is barring any involvement by priests; and the bishops of the Rochester and Western New York Dioceses remain undeclared.

“It could appear to someone looking from outside the church that this is all we’re talking about, and it isn’t,” said Bishop Lawrence C. Provenzano of the Long Island Diocese. “It finds its place in the larger question of how you minister to the wider world.”

Bishop Provenzano, whose diocese includes Brooklyn and Queens, concluded that a “generous response” allowed presiding over the marriage rite. But Bishop Mark S. Sisk of the New York Diocese found that the “generous response” resolution did not supersede the canon law defining marriage.

“The landscape regarding marriage is still changing across the country, within the church and for gay or lesbian couples themselves,” Bishop Sisk, who supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, said in an interview conducted by e-mail. “The church is still in the process of creating liturgies for these rites and incorporating them into church law.”

A number of gay Episcopalians professed sympathy for what they viewed as Bishop Sisk’s effort to balance competing views.

“That’s a fair middle-of-the road-position,” said Mary O’Shaughnessy, coordinator of the New York metropolitan area chapter of Integrity USA, which advocates equal treatment for gay men and lesbians in the Episcopal Church. “There is nothing that I will call homophobic about that.”

Derek Baker, 46, also expressed understanding for Bishop Sisk’s predicament.

“He’s between a very pointy rock and a very firm hard place,” said Mr. Baker, who plans to have his marriage blessed at the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village, where he has been a parishioner for two decades.

The situation is particularly awkward for gay priests like Father Crawley. Bishop Sisk has said that gay and lesbian priests “living in committed relationships” should marry — even though they cannot do so in church.

“That’s called hypocrisy,” said the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, rector of the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene in Rochester. Father Hopkins is a past president of Integrity USA.

But Bishop Sisk responded, “The expectation that clergy in relationships will marry is not a demand, nor does it come with a specific timeline.” He also said clergy members could be creative in fashioning liturgies that might include a civil marriage conducted in the church but solemnized by a secular official, followed by a pastoral blessing offered by a priest.

Some gay and lesbian Episcopalians said they were content to allow the church to proceed slowly because they believed it was moving in what they viewed as the right direction. The issue of same-sex marriage will most likely be raised again at the church’s next national conference, next summer.

“The bishop might be completely behind gay marriage, but he also understands that unless we have the conversation, and unless we are patient, the church will break,” said Javier Galitó-Cava, a gay Episcopalian and actor who worships at St. Paul’s. “I want to kick and scream and say ‘How dare you, I’m not a second class citizen’ — but if I want this to happen, for myself and for my children, we have to take it one step at a time.”

http://tinyurl.com/3wh6kud

10 out of 10 Church of England Dioceses vote for women bishops

The first ten Dioceses in the Church of England to vote on women bishops have all voted in favour – almost all by an overwhelming majority.

They have all also turned down requests for extra provision for opponents, mostly by huge margins.

In every Diocese there have been separate votes of bishops, clergy and lay members.

Taking the votes of all the Dioceses together, over 80% of lay members, over 80% of clergy and over 80% of bishops have voted for the proposed law, which also makes provision for those opposed to women being ordained as priests and bishops.

Parishes will be allowed to opt for a male bishop and/or a male vicar.

Hilary Cotton, Head of Campaigns for WATCH, said, “Across the country Church members are saying, ‘Please just get on with making women bishops’. They are voting overwhelmingly in support of the legislation that will make that happen, and also creates space within the Church for those who will not accept women bishops. They do not want any more wrangling or delay.”

All 44 Dioceses have to vote on the draft legislation for women bishops by November 2011.

It will then face a final vote in General Synod in York 2012 where there will need to be 66% of members of each of the three Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity, for it to be approved.

It will then proceed to Parliament for final endorsement.

For more detailed figures look HERE!

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