|Interview with Christa Brown, Author of " This Little Light: beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang"
By Dr. Jaime Romo
Healing and Spirituality
April 15, 2010
Christa Brown is the author of "This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang" and founder of Stop Baptist Predators. For more information, see http://stopbaptistpredators.org/index.htm
JR: I loved your book, "This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang." What response have you received from Baptists as a result?
CB: From Baptist preachers and leaders, the response has been mostly a big yawn. But from Baptist clergy abuse survivors and other survivors as well, the response has been very positive. People write to me about particular passages parts that triggered some memory for them or that they could relate to and they tell me how much it meant to them. Some have said that reading my book made them feel "not so crazy." Some told me they copied parts and took it to their therapist to try to explain what they were feeling. Some said they showed parts of it to their husband or their wife or their pastor or their mother. They said it put into words something they themselves felt but hadn't yet been able to communicate and something they wanted others to understand. So, I'm very glad that the book has been something others have found helpful in their own journeys.
JR: How long have you been working to bring your abuser and the denomination to accountability and what's the status of the minister who abused you?
CB: I started down this road in the spring of 2004. That was when I actually started trying to take steps to get something done about my perpetrator. But of course I had been trying to deal with it mentally for some months before that trying to minimize it in my own mind trying to put it all back in a tight little box. Those mental tricks never really work in the end, do they?
I was so naïve in the beginning. Another minister knew about the abuse when I was a kid knew about it not only because I myself eventually broke down and told him, but also, as I later found out, because the perpetrator himself had told him. This minister was still working at my same old childhood church, and so I thought it wouldn't be any problem to get something done. This minister knew about it, and he would be older and wiser now, and he would want to help me. That's what I believed. In fact, I actually thought he would be glad to hear from me. Suffice it to say that he wasn't. And 18 Baptist leaders later, I finally figured out that there was literally no one who would help me. Meanwhile, my perpetrator was still working in children's ministry and he had been all along. Finally, after I filed a lawsuit and got publicity, he resigned from his ministerial job, and he now sells real estate in the Orlando, Florida area. But I hear that he's very active and very well-respected in a very prominent Baptist church there. And truth be told, he could easily move to Georgia tomorrow, and start work as a minister at some other Baptist church. He hasn't been criminally convicted of anything, and that's the de facto standard among Southern Baptists. If a minister isn't sitting in prison, he can stand in a pulpit.
Of course, that's the short version of my story. All the steps along the way made me realize how the whole denominational system was rigged to make it virtually impossible to bring information about a Baptist clergy-perpetrator into the light of day. So in 2006, I began to work at seeking denominational action toward the development of accountability systems for Baptist clergy.
I thought they were such simple requests a safe place for people to report clergy abuse, a professionally staffed review board to responsibly assess abuse reports, and a means for assuring that people in the pews can find out about assessments on clergy abuse reports. But so far, none of that has happened.
JR: What has this process taught you about power?
CB: Power protects itself and yields nothing voluntarily. The power of religious authorities is no different. The power of religious institutions is no different. Their primary focus is on protecting might. It's not about principles of right.
JR: What advice would you give to people who are beginning to face their own past abuse?
CB: First things first. Focus on yourself and on figuring out whatever it is you need in order to work toward feeling more whole.
If at all possible, get professional counseling, and try to find a counselor who has prior experience in dealing with the dynamics of clergy sex abuse.
Do not allow your own healing and your own journey forward to be in any way dependent on whatever religious leaders may or may not say and do. We all want to believe that there will be some religious authority somewhere who will actually care. But whether they do or not, we cannot afford to rest any part of our own healing with religious authorities. To do so is to give them a measure of power over us, and we must hold the power of our own selves within ourselves. (Of course, now I'm also preaching to myself. This is one of those lessons that I keep having to re-learn.)
We all take a lot of backward steps. So here's the last of my advice. Know that it's a journey. And sometimes the road is very rough. Keep on keeping on.
JR: What has been encouraging related to ending abuse and promoting healing in your journey?
CB: Seeing the courage of other survivors is always encouraging. But frankly, beyond that, I find very little of anything encouraging in Baptistland, which is the territory I have worked in. Southern Baptists are light years behind the curve in even beginning to systematically deal with clergy sex abuse. And they sure as heck aren't ministering to the wounded.
Most other Baptist groups are the same. However, we have seen just a couple much, much smaller Baptist groups who are at least attempting to institute review board mechanisms for clergy abuse reports.
JR: There have been many revelations in Europe about clergy sexual abuse in the past weeks. How do these revelations relate to Baptist clergy abuse?
CB: It's a two-edged sword. I think it's wonderful that Catholic abuse survivors in Europe are finding their voices and are finding places where their voices can be heard. Did anyone ever really believe that the only priests who abused kids were priests in the U.S.?
At the same time, I know that the recent media coverage of Catholic abuse in Europe has served to make many Baptist abuse survivors in the U.S. feel all the more isolated and ignored.
Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. They have about 3 ½ times the population of the Republic of Ireland. If Southern Baptists were a country, they would be almost exactly the same size in population as the Netherlands. And if you count all the other sorts of Baptists, then Baptists would be about twice as big as the Netherlands.
Within this territory of Baptistland, there are huge numbers of people who have been sexually abused by Baptist clergy. Data gathered from insurance companies would indicate that there are likely just as many people who have been abused in Baptist churches as in Catholic churches. Yet media coverage of Baptist clergy abuse and cover-ups has been relatively sparse.
There are reasons for that. In large part, the reasons have to do with the Congregationalist polity of Baptist churches (which is different from the more obviously hierarchical polity of Catholics) and the fact that Baptists don't keep denominational records on clergy. (Sadly, I suspect that what many Baptist leaders may have learned from the Catholic scandals probably has less to do with the importance of prioritizing the safety of kids and more to do with a fear of record-keeping. They've seen how the record-keeping practices of Catholic dioceses came back to bite them, and so Baptist leaders may become even more entrenched in their resistance to record-keeping. From their perspective, it's "no records no trace no trouble.")
For Baptist survivors, one of the good things to come from the recent coverage of Catholic scandals in Europe is that, in one week's time, several scholars and religion writers published columns articulating the reality that "Catholics and Baptists have similar child abuse scandals." As one columnist said, "The systems, secrecy and spin are similar and shameful." And another: "The Baptist situation may be no better than the Catholic, only shielded more deeply from view." And still another: "Sex-abuse cases also rock Baptist churches. Individually they are just as bad, and collectively we are doing a lot less than the Catholics about resolution."
To see several such columns in a week, and to see them from Baptist writers themselves, would have been virtually unimaginable just a few years ago.
JR: I imagine that this journey has changed your life forever. What would you like to create as a result of your efforts in the United States with respect to clergy sexual abuse?
CB: I would like the largest Protestant denomination in the land to begin offering assistance to provide independent counseling for clergy abuse survivors.
I believe that some of the greatest damage for abuse survivors often derives as much from the hostility, name-calling, shaming, blaming, stone-walling, and duplicity that they encounter when they attempt to report abuse as it does from the abuse itself. This re-wounding process is particularly damaging for the spiritual struggles of abuse survivors and for the efforts many make to try to re-integrate faith into their lives. It's one thing to try to come to terms with the reality that an individual did something truly terrible to you as a kid. But it's quite another thing to try to come to terms with the reality that countless other church and denominational leaders turned their backs on you.
For myself, this is certainly true. It is the blind-eyed do-nothingness of the many that haunts me a great deal more than the dastardly deeds of the one.
This re-wounding process is something that Baptists could and should address as a faith community. If Baptists had some system by which survivors could safely report abuse to people with the training and experience to compassionately hear those reports, so many could be spared from so much greater harm.
In my view, the faith community carries an obligation to exercise compassion for those who have been wounded within the faith community, and at a bare minimum, that compassion should be put into practice by providing counseling.
Hand in hand with that wish is my desire that the largest Protestant denomination in the land should institute review panels for receiving reports from clergy abuse survivors, for assessing clergy abuse reports, and for relaying assessment information to people in the pews.
What's ironic is that, because we have tried to respect what Baptists claim as their polity, we have actually asked Baptist leaders for much less than what many other faith groups are already doing. For example, it would be beyond my wildest dreams to even think of asking Baptist leaders to implement denominational processes for the defrocking of Baptist clergy. That would be like imagining pie-in-the-sky in la-la-land.
JR: What has been your greatest resource in achieving what you've done and learned in promoting healing and ending child sexual abuse?
CB: My greatest resource has been the love, steadiness, constancy, and unwavering support of my husband. He's an extremely hard-headed sort of guy which of course has its down-side sometimes but in this context, the safety of that Rock-of-Gibraltar steadiness gave me the freedom and resilience to keep taking one baby-step after another.
I was also graced to have a couple extraordinary friends who listened relentlessly, who helped to keep me grounded, and who simply walked with me in my journey.
And speaking of walking I walk a lot. Sometimes it's just walking, but sometimes it's also a sort of contemplative thing for me. The simple repetitive physical act of putting one foot in front of another and another and another is something that helps to center me mentally, and so that too is a sort of resource.
I also run several times a week, but I think almost any sort of physical activity is helpful. We all know that negative physical things can have a profound impact on us mentally. Consider the devastation that was wrought in our minds by the sexual abuse of our bodies. By the same token, I think that doing good things for our bodies can have positive effects on our minds.
Finally, I was very fortunate to be able to afford professional counseling and to find an experienced therapist who knew what she was dealing with.
I think different people find different sorts of resources to help them in their journeys. My wish for all abuse survivors is that they may find the resources they need. And of course, I also think that virtually all abuse survivors can benefit from professional counseling.
JR: Can you talk about the state of your spiritual life at this point in your life?
CB: I believe we are all creatures of spirit. That's what makes clergy abuse so uniquely devastating. It attacks the very core of who and what we are. For many of us, it's as though we are eviscerated our very core is rendered hollow. And then, of course, we seek to refill that hollow space.
Nevertheless, I still consider myself to be a spiritually-oriented sort of person. I am often adrift in my spiritual journey no doubt about that. But I have become more comfortable with the vast openness.
I think one of the things that makes the journeys of clergy abuse survivors so difficult is that there is no going back to the familiar. That has certainly been the case for me. Spiritually, all that I once knew and believed is now scorched earth. It's a dead terrain. But as someone once said, "You can't discover new lands without being willing to lose sight of the shore."
I think that's sort of where I'm at nowadays. I've lost sight of the shore. I'm adrift. But on most days, I'm okay with that.
In a similar vein, I liked the guitar analogy in your workbook, "Healing the Sexually Abused Heart." You talked about an old Gibson 12-string guitar with the bridge that was put on backwards. No matter how hard we try, we can't go back to trying to make music with the old backward-strung instrument. We have to find new ways to make music.
Incidentally, my latest news is that I've just been accepted into a Ph.D. program in religious studies at Iliff Theological Seminary (and with a fellowship!). So, I'm very excited about that. And I can't help but see some humor in it. Here I am this person who's been called a heretic, a Jezebel, "spawn of Satan," evil-doer, and a whole lot more . . . and yet I'm also someone who has decided to go to seminary. Funny, huh? My concentration will be in the area of religion and social change.
JR: What would you like readers to know about your mission or vision?
CB: I envision a Baptistland in which there are clergy accountability systems so that kids can be a very great deal safer than I was. I envision a Baptistland in which the faith community will treat with compassion and care those who have been sexually abused by clergy.
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