The ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis and us

Today brought another news story about the ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis: “A Southern Baptist leader hid decades of abuse. Will his fall doom SBC abuse reforms?” Why should Unitarian Universalists pay attention to this? Because we can learn a great deal from what’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Like the Southern Baptists, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a history of sex abuse. (Nor are we alone: nearly every American institution, from schools to sports to health care to entertainment, has its own history of abuse.) I’ve mostly heard allegations about male UU ministers and lay leaders targeting women over the age of 18. But I’ve also heard allegations about powerful men targeting legal minors.

And like the Southern Baptists, we have a decentralized structure. Each local congregation is theoretically autonomous. If a local congregation wants to hire a minister who’s known to have a history of abuse, there’s no way to stop them.

From today’s news story, it appears that the Southern Baptists have used their decentralized structure to avoid taking responsibility for dealing with their sex abuse crisis:

“…Southern Baptist leaders boast of their power to spread the gospel but take little responsibility when things go wrong. And local congregations have little power to fix things that are broken on a national level. ‘The beauty of SBC is that we’re local and autonomous,’ said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC Executive Committee, recently. ‘The challenge is, we’re local and autonomous.”

A lawsuit against Paul Pressler, one of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders over the past fifty years, alleges that Southern Baptist leaders might talk about local autonomy, but they have also been evading responsibility.

This is what we Unitarian Universalists can learn from the Southern Baptists. We, too, like to talk about the autonomy of local congregations. To what extent do we (and I mean all of us) use local autonomy as an excuse to evade our responsibility to protect against sex abuse?

I think we Unitarian Universalists have made more progress at dealing with sex abuse than have the Southern Baptists. But we have lots more work to do before we really address the problem. At least we can learn from the Southern Baptist debacle that local autonomy is no excuse.

Year in review, pt. 2

In part 1, I reviewed the year in U.S. religion. In this second part, I’ll review they year in Unitarian Universalism.

How non-UUs viewed us

Let’s start with how others perceived us this past year. Unitarian Universalists are a tiny, tiny group, but we made the news with four stories this year. I’ll start with the lesser stories, and save the big one for the end.

1. Religion News Service (RNS) covered the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) back in June, and wrote about two main stories. One story, with the headline “Unitarian Universalism revisits identity, values at 2023 gathering,” talked about the proposed revision to ARticle II of the UUA bylaws. It was the kind of article where you felt the reporter was working pretty hard to make it sound newsworthy. Revising bylaws isn’t going to be of much interest to non-Unitarian Universalists.

2. RNS was much more interested in the fact that the “Unitarian Universalists elect first woman of color, openly queer president,” especially considering the fact that this new president was taking over from the first woman who served as president. They wrote (by my count) four separate articles on this basic story.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 2”

Year in review, pt. 1

It’s been an eventful year, both for U.S. organized religion generally, and for Unitarian Universalism in particular. In this post, I’ll start by reviewing some of the key developments in organized religion in the U.S. In a second post, I’ll review some of the explosive developments within Unitarian Universalism.

1. Culture wars and religion

Religion is right at the center of the ongoing escalation of the culture wars in the United States. And the role of religion in the culture wars has gotten more complex than ever. To try to make sense out of it all, I’ll consider some of the culture wars battlegrounds separately.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 1”

Why we should follow the URJ’s lead

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) is in the middle of a restorative justice effort around various forms of misconduct. They released a message for Yom Kippur this year talking about how they will “make amends for the harms endured by victims/survivors” who have experienced “bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, abuse, and more” in URJ congregations and related programs.

This follows the release and online publication — in full, with no redactions — of a third party investigation into misconduct in the URJ. That report was followed by a restorative justice effort which focused on survivors’ needs. This restorative justice effort began with a written report summarizing a long series of interviews with victims/survivors of misconduct. Additional efforts aimed at meeting the needs of survivors is ongoing through 2023.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should follow the URJ’s lead. Just like the URJ, we need a third party to compile as full a report as possible on the decades of misconduct, especially (but not limited to) sexual misconduct, much of it perpetrated by clergy or other persons in power. A UUA report, like the URJ report, needs to name names. And it needs to be published on the UUA website with no redactions.

Then the UUA should follow the URJ’s lead and carry out restorative justice aimed at meeting the needs of victims/survivors. In the past, the UUA’s efforts to address misconduct have, all too often, minimized the impact on the misconductors at the expense of victims/survivors. To give just one example: when Rev. Jason Shelton was disciplined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he was granted the privilege of writing an explanatory email that was sent by the UUA to all UU ministers and congregations; but the alleged victim was not given that privilege.

The UUA took a baby step towards restorative justice when they finally published a chronological list of ministers removed from fellowship. But soon — in a classic example of how the UUA considers the needs and feelings of alleged misconductors more than the needs and feelings of victims/survivors — the UUA changed the list. Now there are two lists on one webpage, one list for ministers removed from fellowship, and one list for the ministers who resigned from fellowship rather than face charges. The message to misconductors is clear — if you get caught, just resign from fellowship, and you get put on the less damning list. And if you resign from fellowship, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee will drop your case and never adjudicate it. Worse yet, from what I’ve seen, male sexual misconductors in particular are carefully protected from having their misdeeds brought to light, while their victims/survivors are tossed to the curb.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in the hierarchy of the UUA (and it is a hierarchy) has the gumption to propose a process like that the URJ has undertaken. For example, can you imagine the UUA publishing a report that names Saint Forrest Church as an alleged sexual misconductor? Neither can I. Patriarchy is still alive and well in the UUA.

As I read the URJ report of their interviews with survivors/victims, this passage stood out for me: “Again and again [the authors of the URJ report say], we heard that the most harmful institutional betrayal is the disjuncture between the direct and indirect harms that occurred despite the stated values the URJ seeks to uphold. One said, ‘You don’t practice what we [in the URJ] preach’…”

I wish we in the UUA would follow the URJ’s lead. Would that we, too, would attempt to practice what we preach.

Cover of the URJ report

Abuse in school sports

One of the reasons some people give for leaving organized religion is that they’re disgusted by the hypocrisy of organized religions in allowing sexual abuse to go on. But from what I can see, all of our human institutions are open to abuse. Schools, politics, the for-profit world, entertainment, sports — all of these human institutions are capable of harboring and hiding abusers.

I’ve come to believe that the next big abuse scandal is going to erupt in school sports. We’ve seen the beginnings of this in girls’ gymnastics, but I think it’s going to get much bigger than that. School sports often require very little supervision of coaches and other adult leaders, and many coaches and adult leaders don’t get much oversight from any authority that can really hold them accountable. We’ve all heard of those schools where the school principal would lose their job if they dared to criticize a winning football coach. But this lack of accountability and oversight is the perfect environment for sexual predators — which means that there’s a high probability that sexual predators have sought out positions in schools sports in order to have access to victims.

With that in mind, it’s enlightening to read Dan Kennedy’s blog post on how school sports are avoiding scrutiny for racist and homophobic harassment. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) has been stonewalling journalists who are trying to report on school sports harassment. This is classic behavior in situations where legal minors are being abused, where the watchdog is guarding the perpetrators rather than guarding the victims.

Journalists are reporting that the MIAA receives around one new complaint a week. Yet the MIAA is defying state public records law by refusing to make those complaints public. Ironically (or maybe not), the lead journalist working on this story is with the Boston Globe, the newspaper that uncovered the Catholic sexual abuse scandal nearly two decades ago.

Again, speaking from my experience of nearly three decades of youth work, the current situation in school sports may provide the perfect cover for adults who want to abuse kids, whether that abuse involves sexual abuse, humiliation, or some other sick power trip. The solution to the problem is the same as with the church abuse crisis: open and transparent supervision of all adults leading school sports; watchdog groups that don’t engage in cover-ups; expulsion of abusive adults regardless of how charismatic or talented they may be. But at the moment, the school sports juggernaut appears to be even more resistant to reform than the Catholic church hierarchy was twenty years ago.

More on this topic: Presiding judge in the Larry Nassar trial calls for widespread investigation into school sports13% of student athletes have been sexually abused during their participation in sports (see pp. 42 ff.)child athletes appear to face a higher rate of abuse than average.

An interesting development

According to a recent news article, Vermont, Maine, and Maryland have removed time limits for law suits about sex crimes. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Rhode Island are currently considering such legislation.

What this means is that if you were abused by someone as a child in these three states, you have the rest of your life to sue them for damages. This legislation is in response to the fact that many people repress childhood sexual abuse until mid-life; but prior to this legislation, if you recalled childhood sexual abuse the statute of limitations would have ended and you’d be without legal recourse.

So who’s going to be financially vulnerable as a result of this legislation? Any individual who committed sexual abuse, obviously. But also any institution that harbored sexual abusers. The Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America are the two best known such institutions, but there are likely thousands of other institutions that can be held accountable for inadequately protecting children from sexual abuse. This could include local religious organizations, summer camps, and a wide variety of organizations that sponsor youth programs. (Ultimately, I hope this will include sports organizations — I’ve written elsewhere about how sports teams have gotten an easy pass on preventing child abuse, and it’s time we started holding them accountable too.)

Now, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not in the least qualified to give legal advice. But if I were part of an institution where I had good reason to believe there was a history of covering up or glossing over sexual abuse committed in their programs — whether by volunteers, staff, or clergy — I’d be worried right now. I’d be especially worried if my institution owned substantial assets, such as an endowment or real estate, that would make them an attractive target for a law suit.

I’d also say that anyone who runs any kind of youth program should be super focused on abuse prevention right now. If I were part of a youth program that got sued under these new laws, I’d want to be able to say that my youth program had reformed and was following state-of-the-art child protection policies and procedures.

The next frontier

We all know about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church. It continues to get a lot of press, to the point where if you say “child sexual abuse” a lot of people immediately think “Catholic church.” Which isn’t all that fair. While the Catholic sex abuse crisis has gotten the most publicity (and honestly, it deserves all the publicity it has gotten), it’s pretty clear that other institutions have their own sex abuse crises. The Boy Scouts come to mind, again because they’ve gotten a lot of publicity. But I’m willing to bet that the sexual abuse crisis goes beyond religion and scouting….

I suspect the next big frontier for the revelation of sexual abuse could be in sports. I’ve been thinking about this as I read about what’s happening in India. Olympic medalists have accused a politically-connected wrestling coach with child sexual abuse. There’s the usual denial and obfuscation. Eventually the coach has to step down from his coaching duties, but he doesn’t get arrested or prosecuted. The Olympic medalists engage in public protests, and the government arrests them instead of the former coach.

I’m willing to bet that school and youth sports provides many opportunities for sexual predators on the prowl. Many school sports programs have little accountability to anyone outside of the tight little world of sports — too often, coaches are essentially free from oversight by school administrators, and no one else is trying to hold them accountable. Some youth sports leagues might have even less accountability. When you hear coaches screaming and swearing at the kids during practices, you begin to wonder. If I acted like that towards kids in a church program, I’d lose my job — so if coaches can get away with that kind of abusive behavior, I have to wonder.

Sports is even more sacrosanct than religion. I’m not expecting any movement towards reform to come from sporting organizations (remember how everyone covered for Larry Nasser?). We might wish that more athletes blow the whistle, as is happening in India — but look at the price they’re paying.

I now believe the best solution is uniform child protection regulations that cover all youth programs, like California’s Assembly Bill 506, enacted in 2022. AB506 has some major problems — honestly, it’s not a well-written law — but the fact that it applies to all youth programs is really important. Sports programs have to comply, along with churches and schools. Of course, laws like AB506 still doesn’t address sexual abuse of persons over age 18. But it’s a start, a step in the right direction.