Albert Mohler and Church Leaders’ Response to Sex Abuse in Christian Churches
I ran across a blog post that made me shout, “YES!” Blog author, Laura Lowe at Connections and Conundrums, has graciously has allowed me to cross post it here. Thank you, Laura, for speaking out on such an important topic! ~Julie Anne
Sometimes things simmer just under my surface for a while until they erupt and I can’t ignore them anymore. I grew up in the Baptist church (SBC) even though I left that church about two decades ago. My parents are still Baptist, as are many of my friends. I still care about issues within the Baptist church, so when I hear a highly-respected leader within the SBC make a statement that is absolutely false and hurts victims who are still healing from past abuse within churches, my heart breaks, and then I realize that I’m very, very angry.
Dr. Albert Mohler is president of the flagship Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Recently, Dr. Mohler participated in a panel discussion at the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. He has been criticized for supporting the embattled former head of Sovereign Grace Ministries, C.J. Mahaney, under whose leadership at least one pastor admittedly failed to report sexual abuse committed by a fellow pastor. In the panel discussion, Dr. Mohler told pastors to call 911 at the first knowledge of any sexual abuse. Good advice, but he should have stopped while he was ahead.
You can watch Mohler’s comments on a video at this link. The comments on sexual abuse start at 55.50. Even though I find it inconceivable that anyone needs to instruct clergy to call 911 upon learning about child abuse of any kind, I was happy to hear Dr. Mohler make the point so strongly. But then, he kept talking, and I began to wonder what his real motivation was for making that strong statement:
“This [the requirement to call 911] is something that churches have had to learn,” Mohler continued. “You go back 30 years, 20 years, churches didn’t know what to do in this kind of situation. We’re in a different situation now. There’s no excuse right now for not knowing what you’re going to do before you have to do it. It is a gospel ministry stewardship imperative. Be ready to dial 911, and do so before you leave the room.” (Bold and italics are mine.)
Let’s put that in perspective. Dr. Mohler says that as recently as 1994, pastors didn’t know what to do if someone reported an instance of child sexual abuse to them.
I’m sorry, Dr. Mohler… exactly why are we in a different situation now? We knew right from wrong back in 1994 and 1984. The Bible had been in print for, oh, 528 years. Mandated reporting of child abuse by school teachers, health care providers, daycare workers, etc. was the law in all 50 states, and in most states, it was the law for clergy as well. I was a 22-year-old school teacher in 1987. Every teacher in the country was familiar with mandated reporting. Members of the clergy don’t live in some sort of bubble that protects them from the knowledge everyone else in their community possesses. I mean, good grief, how many of their wives are school teachers, nurses, and daycare providers?! No matter what a church’s or religious school’s internal policy might have been, those pastors knew that failure to report abuse was both illegal and immoral. I will allow them no excuse on the basis of some mythical ignorance, nor on the basis of an arrogant belief that their counsel would be more effective than seeing the perpetrator brought to rightful justice. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. Anyone with a conscience knew. Put yourself in the shoes of a child who, 20 or 30 years ago, found him or herself in an abusive situation not knowing how to handle it. To suggest that the church leaders were in some kind of difficult situation that they didn’t know how to handle is more than merely insensitive; it perpetuates the abuse.
Dr. Mohler has certainly made strong statements about the reporting of sexual abuse, particularly after the conviction of Sandusky at Penn State. “The moral and legal responsibility of every Christian – and especially every Christian leader and minister – must be to report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement.” Those are Mohler’s words. So, why did he make this caveat during the panel discussion about the ignorance of church leaders 20 or 30 years ago? Well, unlike his carefully-penned article about reporting abuse after the Sandusky situation, these comments were extemporaneous and as such, a very transparent window into his real state of mind. Fueled by a bit of applause, he seized the opportunity to spin the moment to his advantage.
And why would Dr. Mohler want to spin this issue? There are two reasons.
The first is Mohler’s unfortunate letter of support for C.J. Mahaney. From Wikipedia: “In late 2012, a lawsuit was brought against Sovereign Grace Ministries for allegedly not reporting sex abuse that allegedly occurred 20 to 30 years ago.” I see what you did there, Dr. Mohler. We can all see.
The second reason is during the first 18 years of Mohler’s tenure as president of Southern Seminary, the school’s policy was that sexual abuse be handled in-house – reported to a supervisor, not the police. Mohler made a big deal of changing it right after the Sandusky trial, saying, “Since we update our policies regularly in light of best practices, I had been fairly certain that our Seminary policy, published in our handbook and documents was adequate.” (Really?) “Upon review, we found that it was not.” (Huh! Who’d have thought?) “The very day we discovered this, we changed the policy.” So, we’re supposed to believe that he himself was ignorant of his legal and moral responsibility to report abuse prior to November of 2011, much less 20-30 years ago. Who knows when someone may come up and make a sexual abuse claim and Mohler finds himself involved in a cover-up scandal? I’ll bet he’s really sweating that possibility. No, best to claim that we were all just ignorant about such things until we recently saw the light, conveniently after Sandusky was convicted.
Here’s another extemporaneous quote from that panel session that I believe shines a light on Mohler’s biggest concern: “If you’re not doing that (calling 911), you’re not only putting those children at risk, you’re putting your entire ministry at risk.” Well, then. If the MINISTRY is at risk, we MUST call 911. I’m sorry, Dr. Mohler, but the right advice is that pastors call 911 completely for the sake of rescuing the child, no matter the cost to their ministry. Where are the heroes?
Some people will say that I’m not being fair to Dr. Mohler, but I’m not willing to cut him any slack for these extemporaneous words. He is in the business of communicating – communicating God’s truth, ministering with God’s love, and training students to do the same. He is responsible for every off-the-cuff word and the effect it has. If his words made me furious, and I wasn’t even a direct victim, imagine the effect on a child abused 30 years ago in a Baptist church.
In the late ’80s, the married pastor of my Baptist church was discovered making inappropriate propositions to young male adults in our community, young men in their early 20s. While this was not the same as child molestation, it was still inappropriate sexual conduct and an abuse of his position as a pastor, and at the very least, he was victimizing these young men by expecting them to guard his secret. Twenty-one may be the age of consent, but it’s still just a number. An insecure young man could easily have been unfairly influenced by an older, pastoral figure that he trusted. At least one of those young men blew his cover, but we will likely never know how many others he may have approached who didn’t then and never will speak up. I still consider this abuse, and the pain it can cause is huge. The pastor was already contracted to a new church and would have been moving soon. In our church, there was no cover-up. Our deacons did the right thing – they made the situation known to our congregation once it was discovered. We reported his actions to the church he was moving to. Had our church covered it up, and had he gone on to victimize someone at the next church, our failure to disclose that information would have been inexcusable, no matter the year.
God can raise up ministers from the very rocks. He doesn’t need Southern seminary, or SGM, or any individual church, but those victims need a hero. A ministry has no worth when it values its existence more than rescuing the “least of these.”
Dr. Mohler, when you say that 20 or 30 years ago, churches didn’t know what to do, you insult the intelligence of your fellow SBC members and indeed, your fellow Christians. You insult the victims of abuse within any church if their abuse happened during the “dark ages” 20 or more years ago when you deem people to have been too ignorant to know how to respond. How can you suggest that there was ever a learning curve about this? For clergy?!
Please, Dr. Mohler, use your considerable influence to tell the world that covering up abuse is not just inexcusable now; it was inexcusable 30 years ago or 100 years ago. No caveats. Please restore the faith so many are losing in organized religion. Be one of the heroes.