I was saddened–but not surprised–by reports from the Houston Chronicle that 380 clergy and other staff in Southern Baptist churches sexually abused 700 children and adults in the last 20 years.
Many people have faulted the congregational polity of Southern Baptists–which says that each congregation governs itself–for creating the circumstances in which this sexual abuse could flourish. That argument falls flat, though, when you consider the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. As, by far, the most hierarchical structure of any religious group, that oversight didn’t help prevent abuse. To the contrary, the hierarchical structure enabled the abuse to continue for decades.
Laying the blame for insidious patterns of sexual abuse on church structure–either hierarchical or congregational–is too easy an answer. Any institutional structure can be manipulated by abusers if the structure becomes unhealthy. I suspect at the root of the sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church lies in a theology that values men over women.
I went to seminary in the 1980s to become a children’s minister. Feeling drawn to church work, I pursued the only job I’d seen women do in churches. Thanks to two professors–Molly Marshall, who called me a theologian, and, Chuck Bugg, who invited me to take a preaching class–I was able to discern my true calling to pastoral ministry.
I remain grateful to these two professors who saw something deeper in me than I could see in myself at that point, and who gently accompanied me as I connected with my true calling. Because of their mentoring, I am now in a profession and job that are deeply satisfying.
Sadly, my theology and preaching professors were not my only teachers at seminary. Halfway through my degree, fundamentalists took over the school. The issue on which these particular fundamentalists focused was women in ministry. By the time I graduated, I heard literally every day, “Women can’t preach. Women can’t pastor.”
Just opening up to my call to preach and to pastor, I knew in my head the fundamentalists’ words weren’t true. But deep inside, their words took root.
A couple of years later, my husband and I watched a documentary that told the story of the seminary’s take-over, “Battle for the Minds.” After the film was over, we didn’t say a word. We simply turned off the TV and went to sleep.
A couple of hours later, a poem woke me up. At the desk in my study, words poured unbidden onto the pages of my journal. The imagery that emerged? Rape.
The next morning, when I read my midnight scribbles, the image shocked me. Rape? Is that really what seminary had felt like to me? The longer I sat with the image, though, the more accurate it seemed. With their words, those men had whittled away at my personhood and that of other women. They had sought to negate God’s call to me and to other women. Proving Mary Daly’s assertion that “when God is male, males are God,” the fundamentalists who took over the seminary had sought to supplant the divine role. I left seminary deeply wounded. Violated.
Though my experience of seminary was traumatizing, I was fortunate to have had professors who believed in me and who taught me to think critically and theologically about what was happening in the denomination and in my life. I also have been blessed with some good therapists who have accompanied me on my healing journey and with a husband who honors me as a woman and who profoundly respects my pastoral authority.
As I list these resources, I recognize just how privileged I am. It took a long time to heal from seminary, but because of the resources at my disposal, I have been able to do the healing that was needed.
Young people, teenagers, children… A three year old child doesn’t have access to those resources. A three year old child only knows that church is a good place, a safe place. A three year old child only knows that church is where God lives. And who does she see at church? The pastor. Who is a man.
While the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church are opposite in structure, they are alike in this: both have exclusively male clergy. I appreciate the strides the Catholic Church–finally–is taking to address the epidemic of clergy sexual abuse. For the Pope to be hosting a conference on the topic this week in Rome is an important step. And I appreciate the formation of a Southern Baptist study group tasked with addressing the sexual abuse crisis in its churches. I’m especially heartened that at least three members of that group are women.
I suspect, though, that as long as ordination belongs only to men, efforts at reform in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church will remain superficial. As long as God is male, as long as only men are clergy, men will be more God-like than women or teenagers or children. At the heart of the sexual abuse crisis–particularly in the practice of covering it up–is the valuing of one group of human beings over others. As long as that inequality continues, true reform will not be possible.