The following is a guest post by Dee Miller, former FMB missionary and long-time survivor advocate.
Contrary to popular belief, abuse is not as big a problem as many believe. Never has been. The real problem is collusion with abuse.
If we can persuade folks to stop colluding, and truly holding those accountable who do, we would soon see an end to the chronic pandemic that’s been going on since the beginning of Christianity!
Just do a Google search for “collusion in the Southern Baptist Convention” and you’ll soon be reading my work as it pertains to the SBC, and learn exactly where I’m coming from.
Just Plain Nuts!
“What’s wrong with this organization!” Maureen exclaimed in 1987.
As SBC missionaries, my husband Ron and I had been asking what’s wrong with “these individuals” for months. Quite frankly, we weren’t sure we could trust what we’d heard about this “nutty psychiatrist” either. That’s how she’d been described to me. Yet, I’d turned to her out of desperation only two days earlier, immediately after she and her husband showed up in our living room in eastern Africa for a Sunday evening worship service.
To be honest, I’d now come to check her out. Or myself—as confused as I was that Tuesday morning. In their ineptness, I’d soon learn that leaders of our Mission had elected to judge the experienced clinician months earlier, based on totally false reports.
All coming from Beverly, our colleague, also the wife of the sexual predator who had not only assaulted me, but other women and girls—including a very good friend of our seventeen-year-old daughter. That girl, a frequent guest in our home before both girls went off to boarding school, had been molested by the same man numerous times before finding the courage to tell her parents.
Perhaps the most serious occurrence of all over the last three years was the latest—a young national injured seriously enough in her struggle with the tall, lanky American that she’d ended up in the ER of the best-equipped hospital in the country. “Fortunately,” a female colleague of ours reported the girl was too frightened to tell how she’d been injured, though a medical assistant questioned her repeatedly.
Less than six months later, after consulting with Maureen, Beverly reported to our elected leaders that the psychiatrist was willing to treat her husband on the field, saving the Board the expense of air flights back to the States and thereby allowing them to remain in place with the offender under Beverly’s watch-care for as long as treatment was necessary.
Fortunately, even our naïve leaders didn’t agree—they simply pronounced the psychiatrist “nutty” without ever questioning these “facts.” Tickets were immediately booked to get the couple back to the
States, where they were to get medical exams and a few weeks of “intensive counseling” before returning back to work soon after we left for furlough!
Of course, Maureen was as baffled as I was about the slow-paced responses of board officials who seemed to be treating this violent man like he was suffering from a severe case of pneumonia.
She had indeed agreed to treat him, but only a short time, until whatever was keeping them from getting back to the States, where she was certain he would be terminated from mission service after a complete assessment with a report made to stateside civil authorities.
What had me most flabbergasted was a confession made by my best friend. Even she had followed orders of the head of the Mission Support committee-of-three, thereby destroying my written testimony, the only piece of first-person evidence they had of what they were referring to as “misbehavior” of the oldest colleague in our Mission. Most likely the document had not even been sent through appropriate channels to Richmond!
Maureen explained she was still waiting on an answer from the board’s family counselor in Richmond. She couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t answered after she’d sent in a report advising that a complete investigation be done to determine the extent of Gene Kingsley’s behavior over the last quarter century in Africa.
Her mystery was solved in the same moment a light turned on, restoring my sense of humor.
“Might be related to why I’ve not received answers to two similar letters I sent to the same guy,” I suggested, before leaving with a smile at the poetic justice. It was a great illustration of what two Christians can learn when gathered together to work for the Greater Good.
“Your feelings and expectations are right on target,” Maureen assured me as she walked me to the car where she added, “I will send an evaluation of our visit to the same family counselor—for what it’s worth.
The comic relief was momentarily helpful. Even more comforting was having this “nutty” new friend beside me, affirming what I’d known and been saying to colleagues all along: Transparency, a full investigation, and protection for all the many vulnerable families were imperatives.
As I pulled out of her driveway, my mind still racing, I began planning for the next visit when I’d be bringing Ron. We’d tell her about the small article he’d found on a newsstand on a recent trip to Kenya. A courageous Catholic priest named Tom Doyle had paid a heavy price, losing his career at the Vatican, after daring to call American bishops into account for their complicity in what he was certain would prove to be widespread abuses in their own midst.
If the scampering we were seeing at every level of our organization was any indication of things to come in the larger community of faith, as a public health nurse who would later expand the scope of my work to include community mental health, I already recognized we were dealing with a systemic issue.
Next week I’d be sure to tell Maureen of these things and much more, including the strangest statement made to us yet. A man the two of us so trusted that we’d tracked him down across two borders, at our own expense, seriously doubting that he had all the facts needed to make a decision he most certainly should have already made.
After claiming he knew nothing of this case and was a complete novice on the topic of abuse, this grey-headed fellow we fondly related to as Davis, on a first-name basis, declared, “I know what to do with homosexuality,” but this problem’s different—I can’t decide if it’s a moral issue or not.”
“I’m sorry. We blew it!” was all we needed to hear, according to Maureen the last time we saw her, as she provided a strong piece of reality before placing us on a firm foundation void of unrealistic expectations. If this Christian organization was anything like what she’d seen in school systems, we’d never get it.
Such hypocrisy was rooted in what sociologists would soon be referring to as “the clerical culture,” we’d soon learn. By 1992, Catholics would be referring to abuse “our greatest crisis since the Reformation,” even as Baptists slept.
While Baptists Lay Sleeping
Meanwhile, in 1988, despite the complex grief we both were suffering after losing our mission careers and with not even sure we could trust a soul anymore, Ron chose to attend SBC’s annual meeting in San Antonio only days after he’d buried his father.
Coming home, he was sadder than ever, having witnessed what he saw as the death of “the priesthood of the believers” in the SBC. This being the distinctive principle we’d treasured as Baptists since our childhood.
Naturally, nobody had time to talk about abuse issues at that point, let alone its accompanying collusion act of the SBC.
Learning to Thrive
Two years later, no longer threatening to throw his ordination papers into the nearest river, Ron was back in a stateside pastorate. In the interim, he’d gone back to school to study pastoral counseling in hopes of applying this education in survivor ministries plus any other ventures he might take on while I became the primary breadwinner, working in what I soon recognized to be a new, God-given calling, made possible because of my own license in nursing.
What an immense educational opportunity psychiatric nursing became, even as I grieved. I’m still transferring applications from those years and beyond as I learned to respond to the emotional and spiritual needs of my patients and much later to my own readers.
Yet, nothing was more shocking than discovering the horrific outcomes my patients on those child and adolescent units had from the sexual abuse at least a third had sustained, often with profound collusion that had left them with little support or empathy, often even from their own parents!
In 1993, our horror story in Africa, was released with names disguised (except our own), same as specific locations, without naming the SBC at all. My intentions were not to protect the SBC, yet I was certain that this very first first-person survivor story of collusion in book form should be seen as a gift for the entire community of faith, with no exceptions.
Interest from the ecumenical survivor community, professional counselors, and a few clergy members, mostly female, began coming from all directions, even overseas, where the book had reached into fourteen countries in the first month, thanks to an international conference on women’s issues in the Christian community.
Scores of radio broadcasters picked up the timely story, entitled How Little We Knew, and requested interviews, including Boston’s most popular drive-time radio program. On the air, I often spoke of DIM thinking, my acronym for collusion, suggesting it as a term of common systemic pathology made up of Denial, Ignorance, and Minimization. Ordinary as the common cold, but still pathological and contagious, I explained in an article, picked up much later by the World Council of Churches for a chapter in When Pastors Prey, a sourcebook I highly recommend to all Southern Baptists.
Seldom had the topic of abuse in the SBC made it into state papers. I surveyed each one in 1995, hoping for an entryway directly to people in the pews. Among the thirteen editors who bothered to respond, one provides comic relief to this day: “We get little of this information and print none of it.”
Obviously, I had no choice but to turn to the outcast liberals, same as Christa Brown would find out in another decade.
Jack Harwell exceeded all my expectations. He was now editor of Baptists Today with only 4500 subscribers, after being forced to leave The Christian Index with a circulation beyond 100,000. Not only did he want n the single article I proposed, he requested a series of eight!
In spite of facing major surgery, I set to work eagerly, comparing the “cancer” in the community of faith to the disease that had invaded my body. Then, midway through the series, I made specific challenges to every SBC agency, knowing full well that many SBC leaders were readers of what many saw as the Baptist scandal sheets.
Less than a week after my challenge, The Sunday School Board, without acknowledging my work, they had a new committee. Which might have been a terrific outcome of my work except this committee was not to help churches formulate policies and procedures, as I’d suggested, but to offer “social protection,” among other things, to offenders! On the committee was one woman, the wife of the “expert” who had reportedly treated Kingsley for stress in a three-week program, still operating today in an even more abbreviated form and still taking in minsters who have only abused adults for “treatment!”
The only direct response came from the fledgling Baptist Women in Ministry. The editor of their tiny newsletter desperately wanted an article, estimating at least half its members had been victimized by a male colleague.
Soon after this, a city librarian, who was following my work, casually referred to me as a “dissident writer.”
By the time Christa Brown dropped into my inbox in 2004, I’d given up on the SBC entering a state of readiness to give more than occasional lip service to prevention and early intervention efforts in my lifetime.
How Can This Be?
Eventually, Ron and I came to see collusion as far more complicated than most experts have suggested. Not only rooted in culture and lousy theology, but so well hidden that even I had no idea how many cases of unresolved incest and date rape had occurred in our own extended family until members began reacting to the very public stand I’d made!
Now, after more than three decades of listening to stories with similar elements, we still ask ourselves “What’s wrong here?” Despite all attempts to educate, those we would have expected to be trustworthy and responsive to any true crisis turn out to be like the priest and Levite on the road to Samaria—each lying to others and to self, setting victims up as enemies of the system rather than welcoming their own courageous messengers.
What’s wrong here? I’ve now asked thousands of times, walking alongside individuals in every denomination, using my background in community health, missionary service, and psychiatric nursing. In so doing, I’ve tried to provide emotional and spiritual support laced with Maureen’s realistic expectations to those who understandably have little or no respect left for institutional religion.
In every situation of collusion in every faith group in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary answer is found in the First Commandment. The institution is the idol being protected—whether it’s the institutional church or family. Without even stopping to think, the idol is placed before God. Ironically, in most cases, only the survivor in the healing process has already awakened to this realization. Often with the help of what most in the SBC would see as a “secular counselor.”
And the only way any church or denominational official can be restored in survivors’ eyes is as simple as Maureen’s prescription: “I’m sorry. We blew it.”
Has Anything Really Changed Since 2019?
Today, I’m seeing flashes of light that show change.
- A real change in attitudes, for one, at the IMB.
Dr. Paul Chitwood, has taken on the challenge of setting a model for the remainder of the SBC to follow by calling in outside experts to help. First, opening themselves to the close scrutiny of the law firm Gray Plant Mooty. Their assignment included examining the current setup of the IMB, search through records and enlist the help of survivors or witnesses of past abuses—all to establish a new setup of best practices. How thrilling it was to be able to share what I have experienced in our own case and in some others!
Following their conclusions, the first order of business was to secure a person with expertise to oversee the implementation of the much-needed changes. As a result, Somer Novak, a mature, highly-experienced educator and counselor in the field of forensics came to Richmond one year ago to enthusiastically take on the role of Prevention and Response Administrator.
One of her first ventures was personally reaching out to folks like me, not only to learn but to somehow bind past wounds, including apologies we never expected to receive on behalf of the mission board for the intense trauma caused by the mishandling of cases.
Since then, I’ve turned to her asking questions that call for immense transparency so far as process goes. Each time she’s come through promptly with flying colors
She’s come through with flying colors promptly answering each one to my utmost satisfaction. Among the answers:
- “The IMB strongly encourages any church, entity or other employer who is considering working or partnering with a former IMB personnel to contact the IMB to obtain a reference on that individual. Those people can email us at email@example.com.
- firstname.lastname@example.org is the email any survivor or family member can use to communicate any concerns related to abuse on the mission field.
- “We call on every Southern Baptist entity and every Southern Baptist church to join us” (in using standards far and beyond what’s required by law).
- Male advocates in the SBC are standing up to be counted. I’ve been thrilled to hear many supportive sentiments expressed on SBC Voices. Standing in sharp contrast to what Christa Brown and I frequently heard fifteen years ago, as we attempted to dialogue with SBC members of list-serves. The resistance was so strong that I recall thinking it was like chasing a bunch of rats, which immediately came to mind reading Mike Leake’s message about “hiring a flashlight brigade.”
Back then, I would enter a list-serve and “dirty rats” would literally scamper, one after the other, as soon as they realized who I was. I’d try entering another list-serve on the same website only to discover exactly the same—a bunch of SBC preachers often talking as if survivors were the dirty rats before finding out who had just come in.
- Some DOM’s have been very helpful, though far too many congregations manage to keep secrets from them, too. One DOM I turned to at J. D. Greear’s recommendation swiftly did a remarkable job to address concerns of a victim and her family, himself exposing both perpetrator and his congregation that had protected him for years.
By contrast, the Executive Committee’s setup, without bringing on board a single expert the
Caring Well Conference introduced, reflects DIM thinking with the same dynamics typically seen in autonomous churches.
Such is the case with Jules Woodson, a highly-profile story you likely think you know well. Yet, there’s so much more to be learned.