Save Yourselves

Instead of protecting its followers from sexual predators, Nashville's Southern Baptist Convention leaves churches to fend for themselves

By Elizabeth Ulrich

Nashville Scene

June 19, 2008

Last week, Southern Baptist offcials stood before a sea of church members and representatives more than 7,000 strong and announced a plan to confront the recurring threat of pastoral sexual abuse within the denomination’s churches: They would do nothing at all.

Charged with studying the feasibility of creating a database of known abusers and credibly accused ministers, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee dropped the responsibility of protecting the denomination’s most vulnerable into the laps of local churches themselves. Morris Chapman, president of the executive committee, recycled the old excuse that the autonomous nature of Southern Baptist churches prevents the convention from stepping in.

“Baptists do not recognize any ecclesiastical authority outside the local church,” read a report issued by Southern Baptist leaders. “This precludes the convention from having any authority to require local churches to report instances of alleged sexual abuse....”

It was roughly one year ago that 8,600 church representatives, men and women from around the country who bear the name “messengers,” asked the executive committee to look into creating a denomination-wide database of “Southern Baptist ministers who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.”

It was a sign. The people in the pews wanted offcials of the Nashville-based convention to consider trumping polity and stepping in. Despite their steadfast devotion to local autonomy, even SBC ministers were willing to give a little in the name of protecting the vulnerable. They wanted help flushing out the wolves who infiltrated the flock—some of whom have traveled from church to church with ease.

The idea was simple: By creating a database that would shine light on abusers, most of whom are never criminally charged and convicted, church offcials across the country could run a pastor’s name through the computer to see if he were flagged for sexual impropriety before hiring him. Victims’ advocates proposed establishing an independent panel to investigate claims of abuse, especially those that can no longer be taken to court. In some cases, pastors have copped to detailed allegations of misconduct, which would make it rather easy to add their names to a database.

But instead of documenting known abusers, the executive committee recommended that churches screen prospective volunteers and employees with the Department of Justice’s national sex offender registry. It’s a solution that some victims’ advocates find laughable, especially because few abusers can be successfully tried and convicted because of the statute of limitations. (This is true even when pastors have admitted to sexual misconduct.) Some advocates report that the average victim of pastoral abuse is age 12, but because of the trauma involved, the average age of a person making a report is 42—decades after the statute of limitations has expired.

Still, when Chapman stood at that podium last week and artfully delivered what seemed to be very, very bad news, the throng of messengers, who once pushed for reform, met the pastor’s empty promises with applause.

Christa Brown, a sex abuse survivor and leader of the Baptist arm of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), wasn’t surprised by the messengers’ overwhelming response to Chapman’s rousing speech. “People respond to good preachers,” she says. “I wish that people would look more closely and ask themselves, ‘Are kids in Southern Baptist churches any safer today because of anything that was done?’ ”

Brown says the SBC’s background search solution merely represents the “bare basics” of abuse prevention. “We know from every expert out there, including the FBI, that over 90 percent of active child molesters have never been convicted of anything,” Brown says. “So the failure of the SBC to institute any other measure of accountability...allows a minister to remain in the pulpit unless and until he’s criminally convicted or shows up on a sex offender registry.”

And it’s not uncommon for a predator—even those who have owned up to lascivious acts—to remain in the pulpit. Just ask Debbie Vasquez, a Texas woman who says her pastor, a man who is now affliated with the SBC, forced her into her first sexual experience at age 15.

After winning over a young Vasquez through a bus ministry outreach program, Dale “Dickie” Amyx, had sex with the young girl somewhere between 20 and 40 times—on Texas back roads, in the front seat of his car, even in his apartment when his wife was out of town for Thanksgiving. He admitted as much in a court deposition. Amyx also admitted to impregnating Vasquez when she was 18—though a paternity test had already proved as much.

In 2006, Vasquez filed suit against Amyx and his new church, Bolivar Baptist, 50 miles northwest of Dallas. As part of a settlement agreement, Vasquez dropped the suit earlier this month. According to settlement documents, Amyx paid Vasquez $15,000 while Bolivar Baptist chipped in $7,500. After attorney’s fees and court costs, Vasquez realized a little more than $9,500.

The money doesn’t matter much to Vasquez, who says she only came forward with her story because, as she has said in the lawsuit, Amyx gave her reason to believe that she would not be his last victim. When she shared her story with the Scene earlier this year (“What Would Jesus Say?” Feb. 14), Vasquez wept as she described how her pleas for help—which came in the form of numerous emails and requests to meet face-to-face with the denomination’s leaders—were met with uncaring, and often downright dismissive, responses. “As soon as I found out...he wasn’t hurting just me, it really was so much that I couldn’t take it—and I couldn’t get anyone to help me,” Vasquez said.

All of this from men like Chapman, who, along with the other members of the executive committee, just issued a report on child sex abuse that states that the threat of sexual abuse on the local level “is tragically underappreciated.”

Seeing as how Amyx is still in the pulpit today, that underappreciation is tragic indeed. While the SBC report urges churches “to aggressively undertake adequate steps at the local level to prevent harm and protect victims,” SBC of?cials refuse to create any mandates requiring churches to do so. And churches seemingly face no repercussions for not being vigilante in ridding congregations of the most dangerous within their ranks.

Vasquez’s case now stands as an unsettling testament to why the SBC’s do-nothing approach is so dangerous. Despite its new directive for churches to “be on watch and take immediate action,” as Chapman put it, Amyx has not faced any sanctions—not from his followers at Bolivar Baptist Church, who Vasquez says have stood by his side from the start. Nor from the SBC, which still lists both Amyx and Bolivar Baptist as SBC-af?liates on its online databases, which is as good as having the denomination’s stamp of approval.

At last week’s SBC convention in Indianapolis, Chapman proudly proclaimed that “one sexual predator in our midst is one too many”—again to rousing applause. It’s a valiant claim, but hardly believable. Vasquez tells the Scene that she traveled from Texas to Indianapolis to share her story with the executive committee on the day before it made its recommendation to the messengers. Somehow, Amyx must not count toward Chapman’s “one too many” quota.

It’s not uncommon for churchgoers to rally around a fallen pastor. “The very normal human that people circle the wagons around the person they know and love and trust: their beloved pastor,” Brown says. This doesn’t explain why the SBC’s head honchos are so reticent to rid churches of men such as Amyx.

What exactly did come out the SBC executive committee’s yearlong study? They created a pamphlet about protecting children from abuse and placed a special insert to the same effect in the latest issue of SBC Life, the convention’s journal.

Phrases such as “silence is not always golden” and “stop denying the sin” are sprinkled at liberty throughout the documents. Again, empty words coming from a group seemingly content to sit on the knowledge that somewhere, along the weed-lined dirt roads of a small Texas town, a minister who admitted to having sex with a teenager is prepping next week’s sermon.