Jan 28, 2014

$12.5 million verdict holds Baptists responsible for pedophile pastors

Douglas W. Myers left his church in Maryland after it came out that he had inappropriately touched middle school boys in the Southern Baptist church and school where he worked. He apologized and left the state.

At his church in Alabama, he surrounded himself with boys between the ages of 10 and 12. He liked to take them swimming in the hot summers, and made a rule that they couldn't wear clothes. The church split over allegations of inappropriate conduct. Myers then left that church and that state too.

In Florida, he started two new churches in the mid- to late-2000s. There were boys there also. He molested one for a period of six months. He drove the boy to school and gave him money. He told him being touched was part of being mentored, part of growing up, something the Baptist pastor had done with "plenty of other kids at other churches."

In Maryland, Alabama, and Florida, children called him "Pastor Doug."

When he was sentenced to seven years in prison for hurting the Lake County, Fla., child, the boy's mother wrote Myers a letter. The prosecutor read it at the sentencing hearing.

"You used the church and God both," she wrote, "for your sick and perverted ways."

There's no question that Myers is a pedophile who used churches and his position as a pastor to gain access to children. His case has raised the issue, though, of those churches and the associations of churches' legal responsibility and liability in letting themselves be used in such "sick and perverted ways." This month, apparently for the first time ever, a jury set a dollar amount on the damage done by a state Southern Baptist convention in failing to prevent a pastor from abusing children.

The state convention could have prevented sexual abuse from happening to one Lake County boy and didn't, according to the unanimous Florida jury. The convention -- which has almost 3,000 congregations in the state, and about 1 million members -- is to be held accountable. Among other failures, despite running a criminal check, credit check and driving-record check, no one at the state convention contacted the Alabama and Maryland churches where Myers had previously worked to ask about his time there.

Now, the Florida Baptists are being ordered to pay $12.5 million.

The state convention is appealing that.

The Baptist group's lawyers have argued that though Myers did get training and a stipend, health insurance and a retirement plan, he was not "hired, employed or supervised" by the convention. The state organization has an advisory role only. The local churches, the individual congregations, have complete authority and are entirely autonomous of the convention, in accordance with Baptist polity.

As the former missions director of the Florida Baptist Convention explained in court, "We did not put him there. We didn't recruit him. We didn't place him."

Baptists do not believe in denominational hierarchy. Unlike in the Catholic Church, where clergy with records of scandals were shuffled around by bishops, Baptists have no bishops. They do not believe there is biblical warrant for such central authority. Even state and the national conventions are only cooperative, rather than authoritative. The Southern Baptist Convention's constitution makes this explicit. It says it "does not claim and will never attempt to exercise authority over any other Baptist body."

This congregationalism is taken very seriously, though it does come at a cost. It has meant that a pastor in Missouri, for example, arrested on felony charges of raping underage women, preached sermons about forgiveness at his church while out on bail. No other church or association of churches could prevent that from happening.

It has meant that the Southern Baptist Convention has rejected calls to establish a database of names of ministers who have been credibly accused of misconduct. Because "Baptists do not recognize any ecclesiastical authority outside the local church," according to an official report, "this precludes the convention from having any authority to require local churches to report instances of alleged sexual abuse."

It meant that Myers' problems in Maryland were not known in Alabama, and his problems in Maryland and Alabama were not known in Florida.

And, the state convention's layers argue, Baptist polity means that the ultimate responsibility for knowing about the pastor's past rested with the now-deduct storefront churches that Myers' himself started.

He didn't work for the Baptist convention, attorney E.T. Fernandez III argued. For all legal intents-and-purposes, Myers was self-employed.

Fernandez compares Baptist polity to the policies of state bar associations. Attorneys are required to belong to the association, which has rules and standards of practice, but the association is not legally liable for all the actions of all the attorneys. The Florida Bar has the power to stop attorneys from practicing, but it cannot be sued for any Florida lawyers' malfeasance.

One jury has rejected that argument, now. In Myers' case, a jury found that while the convention didn't employ the church planter, it was culpable anyway. Along with the county association and a large church that financed the church plant efforts, it's culpable for $12.5 million in damages.

Christa Brown, who runs the web site Stop Baptist Predators, writes that that verdict is "a seismic shift in the terrain of Baptist clergy abuse litigation."

This could be the breach in Baptist defenses that have, according to Brown, allowed for the continuation of a system that covers up clerical child abuse.

Brown considers claims about local church autonomy a ruse to protect everyone from any responsibility. She writes that Baptist polity is being used as a "religious rationalization" that "has amounted to little more than a candy-coating on Baptist leaders' irresponsible inertia, and it has left a trail of destruction in the lives of countless kids."

It doesn't have to be all or nothing, either, she points out. Local churches can have autonomy while still being part of denominational structures that make things more difficult for child predators.

Whether or not Southern Baptist leaders are merely dissembling to protect "denominational dollars," as Brown puts it, or are acting in good faith, may be a matter of interpretation. It would seem difficult to dispute, though, that Baptists' congregational organization has contributed to cases such as Myers', where offenders went unchecked.

It may even be the case that, because it's the system that covers up scandal, rather than individuals in authority, evangelical churches have a worse record of protecting children than American Catholic churches. Boz Tchividjian -- a Liberty University law professor and director of Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) -- has suggested as much.

"I think we're worse," he said. "The Protestant culture is defined by independence."

Tchividjian, who is the grandson of the world's most famous Southern Baptist minister, Billy Graham, wants evangelicals to condemn Christian institutions' instinct of self-protection.

He says,
Too often Christian institutions have been willing to sacrifice the individual human soul in exchange for the protection of their own reputation. What makes such responses even more heinous is that they are often justified in the name of 'protecting the name of Christ.' Such a justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection. It may come as a surprise to some but Jesus does not need us to protect His name! In fact, it was Jesus who sacrificed Himself for the soul of the individual . . . 
[There] is a dark underbelly that the Church would rather ignore because acknowledging it would require being confronted with its own dark and destructive sins. It's much easier and much more glamorous for the Church to invest time and energy into building programs, evangelism techniques, and theological debates. All the while these cesspools are filling with precious human souls who are drowning because they've lost hope -- lost hope in life, lost hope in the Church, and lost hope in God. They have lost all hope because the professing Christian community has either abused them or responded with nothing but silence to their cries for help.
If the Florida court upholds the jury's verdict that state Baptist conventions are financially culpable for crimes committed by Baptist ministers, it would make it harder for Baptist authorities around the country to ignore the Douglas W. Myers who move from state to state, church to church, and child to child.

As it stands today, Myers is still an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He's served seven years in Florida and is registered as a sex offender there. He's currently serving 15 years in Maryland, after taking a plea deal where 30 years of a 45-year sentence were suspended.

Yet, even now, if he were released from prison, there is nothing any Baptist convention could or would do to stop Myer from going to a new Baptist church and telling young boys to call him "Pastor Doug."