We Have No Authority

By now I think we all know how the corruption and unparalleled power of the Catholic Church has led to the sexual assault and rape of an appalling number of children. Because Benny the Rat was responsible for policies that kept priests abusing, it’s easy to point to the top and say that we’ve found the problem.

Of course, that isn’t actually true. The unearned authority of an institution like the Catholic Church means that when a corrupt decision is made, it has far-reaching effects. It doesn’t mean that corruption can’t be a factor in similar cases on a much smaller scale.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.

Instead, authority resides at the local church level. And that’s true even amid allegations of clergy misconduct.

Would anyone care to guess what kind of considerations are being used to decide this?

A deacon at First Baptist Church of Stover said that at its last monthly business meeting no one from the congregation even put forward a motion to dismiss Smith, the first step in a longer process to remove the pastor.

“These are old charges, and if they’re true, why weren’t they brought up when they occurred?” said Phil Marriott. “We’ll wait for the court system to address them and let justice take its course.”

Yeah! Why weren’t those teenaged girls comfortable back then telling people that a pastor had molested and raped them? Doesn’t every teenager talk about these things? Don’t they all expect to be heard when accusing a pastor of wrongdoing?

Oh, wait.

The most recent accusations against Smith, 42, by two different women, stem from alleged incidents in 1998, 1999 and 2005, when the women were minors. Those allegations led to what the Missouri Highway Patrol called a “lengthy investigation.” The Martineau County prosecutor has charged Smith with six felonies, including sexual abuse, second-degree statutory rape and forcible rape.

Smith declined a request to speak with a reporter after Sunday’s service, and his attorney also declined to comment.

Smith “was rough around the edges when he was younger, and that’s where all this comes from,” Marriott said. “But he has a good heart, and he’s good for our church.”

In 2010, according to news reports and law enforcement officials, Smith was arrested after a 14-year-old girl, a friend of his daughter, accused him of molesting her during a fishing trip. Another girl then came forward and said Smith began having sex with her, in 2005, when she was 15. Both girls were members of his congregation.

Last year, Smith was acquitted in one case and the other was dropped. A year later, he was arrested on the current charges, which involve different girls.

Anyone have any idea what “rough around the edges” is supposed to mean in this context? I have a great deal of trouble reading it as anything but, “Well, yeah, maybe he did what he was accused of, but it was, oh, so long ago. I mean, he was a wee lad of 28 or 29, or 35, or 40.”

“This is a delicate situation for our church,” said Marriott, the church deacon. “We could jump to conclusions and dismiss him, but what if we’re wrong? We’re just a bunch of average people trying our best to live by God’s word.”

There is nothing “delicate” about it, particularly the way they’re handling it. Yes/No is not delicate. Delicate would involve consideration for more than just the pastor and the church hierarchy.

Delicate would involve hard questions, like:

  • How do we show the accusers and other potential victims who may not have spoken that we’re not taking sides in this, that we’re not automatically assuming that they’re lying?
  • How do we make sure that, if these allegations are true, we don’t allow this pastor to use our church as an opportunity to molest and rape others?
  • How do we support victims of sexual assault and rape within our church?
  • How do we make sure that, should anything like this ever happen again, potential victims feel safe coming to the rest of the church to report?

Those? Those are delicate questions. Marriott’s reaction is just, “Didn’t happen, wasn’t so bad if it did, and you can’t yell at us for not taking any action anywhere between the extremes!!!”

The problem with that is that, yes, I can. I can point to people making decisions that benefit only them and their church, and I can call it what it is: corruption. And I don’t even have to be able to point to a big conspiracy in order for it to be true.

We Have No Authority

10 thoughts on “We Have No Authority

  1. 1

    Slightly OT:

    Because Benny the Rat was responsible for policies that kept priests abusing, it’s easy to point to the top and say that we’ve found the problem.

    Actually Pope Palpatine was restating what had been Church policy for centuries. He was reminding the bishops that if they told civil authorities about crimes committed by priests there would be repercussions. The offending bishops would have to do some serious grovelling before they’d be allowed to continue bishoping.

  2. 2

    Of course, religion is the source of our morality, as theists keep reminding us.

    It is that mistaken view of morality the leads to pastors, bishops, etc, being considered above suspicion. And this is why it is so hard to have these cases properly investigated.

  3. 3

    This reminds me of a King’s X song, Mission.

    Oh broken body, it’s joints at war
    Religious vipers sucking royal blood
    The price is paid, the final score
    The truth exists even through pious mud
    Who are these people behind the stained glass windows?
    Have they forgotten just what they came here for?
    Was it salvation or scared of hell
    Or an assembly of a social get-together?

    From dudes who where at least half-religious/mystical at the time.

    No, corruption can be grass-roots as well as top-down, or in any form. Normally competing interests can join together in corruption. There are no limits.

  4. 4

    I think a big reason why sexual abuse and rape gets swept under the rug and not treated with appropriate levels of seriousness by religious people comes from the religious way of thinking about sexual ethics. For secular people, we pretty much put acts in two categories – consensual (okay) and not consensual (definitely not okay.) We see a world of difference between these two categories and consider violating people sexually to be a very wrong thing, almost in a category by itself.

    Religious people (particularly Christians) lump things into ‘sexual purity’ (meaning sex with one’s spouse, sometimes also requiring that it be open to procreation) and then ‘impure or sinful sex.’ So they’re throwing things like rape, masturbation and looking at porn all into the same category, which is trivializing sexual assault to begin with. The main concern isn’t that there’s a perpetrator and a victim – the victim is forgotten because the story gets turned into being about a person who breaks god’s rules, in which the victim is barely an extra.

  5. 5

    Booohoooo. I’m paying a child support obligation for a kid that was apparently born stemming from a statutory rape (I wasn’t told for 9 years about this). Now? I’m a single father trying to raise my daughter paying this fraudulent ransom for 8 years until I lost my job. Now these nazis are trying to put me in jail and my daughter into foster care.

    Don’t care about these whinos they got it good.

  6. 10

    The Southern Baptist Convention is being misleading by saying that this is all dealt with at the local level. While the individual congregation gets to decide whether to expel the minister or not, the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole can decide whether or not to expel the *congregation* by declaring it to not be “in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work”.

    If the congregation keeps this minister, then the SBC ought to eject the congregation. Of course it won’t, because the whole SBC is evil; standard-bearers for evil, really. It was organized to defend slavery (splitting from the Triennial Convention which became the Northern Baptists and then the American Baptists), then moved on to defend racism (causing the National Baptists to leave); and now it has fallen back on defending sexism and homophobia. What happens is that congregations with a majority of decent people leave the SBC, a process which has been continuing.

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