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When clergy prey, women pray to be heard

By: Tara Dooley
Date: 8 November 1998
Source: Fortworth Star-Telegram
URL: http://www.star-telegram.com/news/doc/1047/1:FRONT77/1:FRONT77110898.html

The first time the pastor of her church made sexual advances, Deborah Dail said no.

"No" was her answer the second and third time the Baptist pastor propositioned her, the Denton mother of two said.

But as her resolve unraveled and her confusion mounted, Dail became sexually involved with the pastor in the county where she lived then.

"I refused and refused and refused until I didn't say `no' anymore," Dail said.

It was a relationship that she now calls "the most horrible experience of my life." Dail, a slender woman, lost 25 pounds and even considered suicide during the five years it continued, she said.

Dail now considers the sexual relationship an abuse of clergy power, and her attempts to confront area, state and national Baptist leaders have left her alienated, angry and ultimately disillusioned, she said.

Dail is not alone in her criticism.

Women who say they have been subjected to abuse by clergy say their complaints are often handled by Baptist church leaders as confessions of adultery, leaving them ostracized from their church friends and their support network.

Unlike other Protestant denominations that have national or regional policies that address clergy sexual misconduct, Baptists do not have policy suggestions for individual churches.

But with growing concern about sexual misconduct complaints, Texas and national Baptist leaders say that may change.

"It's clearly a widespread and growing problem," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "We do not live in a vacuum as Christians and churches. We live in a society in which infidelity is more and more rampant."

At a staff retreat in Nashville, Tenn., next month, Land's commission will formulate suggestions for a possible denominationwide "response" to dealing with ministers who become sexually involved with congregants, Land said.

In addition, the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas formed a Clergy Sexual Abuse Task Force last spring to generate policy suggestions for churches, members of the task force said.

But setting guidelines for dealing with sexual misconduct may be difficult in a denomination that purposefully does not have a national structure. Each Baptist church is autonomous and is responsible for setting its own rules, Baptist leaders say.

Any policies developed nationally or regionally will be suggestions to individual churches. That doesn't mean that leaders of churches wouldn't welcome suggestions on how to handle complaints of sexual misconduct or how to best avoid the misconduct, said Joe E. Trull, a professor of Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the Texas group's task force.

"The church and the denomination are, just by the sheer number on the news, realizing that we are going to have to do more than hope it doesn't come to our doorstep," he said.

The policies in the works by the Texas convention will help churches, pastors and congregations, task force members said. But leaders also hope that the policies will be a way to reach out to women who say they have been abused.

"One of our goals is to heighten awareness of the problem so that women would find strength in dealing with this issue if they have been abused -- to know there are people somewhere that will hear you and believe you," said Nancy Allison, family coordinator for the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Christian Life Commission and a member of the task force.

Accusers want to be heard

Hearing and believing is something that Baptist leaders have not done well, some women say.

Last month, three women and the husband of a fourth sued Harvest Baptist Church in Watauga and pastor Ollin Collins. They contend that Collins has harmed them and their families "by engaging in predatory sexual conduct," according to the lawsuits.

The lawsuits also contend that the church covered up Collins' actions. In interviews, two of the women said they did not approach church leaders with their complaints because of concerns that leaders would not take action.

Collins has been suspended from his duties with pay, pending an investigation, church officials say.

Critics say that church leaders and congregants often rush to the defense of a pastor and sometimes hush complaints.

Rick and Vickie Colson of Brenham, near Houston, said they faced just such a reaction.

When Rick Colson approached the pastor and two deacons of the family's Baptist church in Bellville with a complaint that the pastor had sexually abused Vickie Colson, Rick Colson said his account was discredited.

The couple appealed to the church's deacon board, who voted to support the pastor without an investigation, the Colsons said. Then they wrote letters to at least five executives with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention to apprise leaders of what had happened, they said.

The sexual relationship between Vickie Colson and the pastor of their church began after he visited the family's house and made sexual advances, the couple said. It ended when Vickie Colson suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized in Houston, they said.

Eventually, they sued the Bellville church and the pastor. The lawsuit was settled in 1995.

"We had taken every step we could to hold him accountable, and legal action seemed to be the only other step," said Rick Colson, who will graduate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December and plans to enter a music or youth ministry.

The pastor declined to comment on the case.

Eventually, he moved to another Baptist church in Texas.

Violations of pastoral trust

Some argue that extramarital sexual relationships, especially those that continue for years, require two people willing to overlook moral guidelines that are central to Christian life.

A woman "cannot claim that all the accountability belongs to someone else," said William Merrell, a spokesman for the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention at its headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. "I think one of the worst things that can happen to us is to find someone else to blame."

But Land, with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that for a pastor, sexual misconduct goes beyond immoral actions.

"It is amplified by the fact that it is not only sexual immorality, but it is also a violation of pastoral trust, and in that sense is abuse," he said.

Presbyterian churches take a similar approach to sexual misconduct.

A 1991 policy of the General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) included a definition of "sexual malfeasance" as sexual conduct within a ministerial or professional relationship. It explicitly states that a pastor must assume responsibility for avoiding a sexual relationship.

The policy also sets procedures for a response coordination team, charged with addressing the needs of accusers, clergy, family members and the congregation.

The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist denomination also has a carefully outlined policy on sexual misconduct that includes clergy infractions.

"Sexual misconduct may also take place in sexual behavior between adults who consent, but for whom a sexual relationship is morally inappropriate because of the marital or professional status of one or both of the parties," according to the statement.

As of last year, all United Methodist churches in the area are required to post the policy, which includes an advocacy hot line number.

The Texas Baptist convention's Clergy Sexual Abuse Task Force is currently developing policy suggestions for churches, and Trull has written articles on clergy abuse to be considered by the group at a meeting planned for next week.

Trull's writings deal with the nature and prevalence of sexual misconduct within the clergy; the effect on the church members, the minister and the victims; suggestions for preventing sexual misconduct; and how to develop fair procedures for addressing claims.

The task force is also developing suggested procedures for hiring and screening clergy and writing a ministerial ethics statement or policy that will include sexual behavior, Trull said. The group also may create a response team to relate to all parties involved in a complaint of sexual misconduct, Allison said.

"In many ways, we are behind the curve in dealing with this," Allison said.

A feeling of betrayal

Getting ahead of the curve will help prevent ministerial sexual misconduct from shattering a church and the faith of women who file sexual misconduct complaints, Baptist leaders say.

For Vickie Colson, a loss of trust in "the body of Christ itself" has been one of the lasting effects, she said.

Although she and her husband regularly attend a Baptist church, she said she often feels that she doesn't belong.

"There was no place to talk about it," Colson said. "There was no place to receive any support and still, in this church where we go, I feel very much alone."

For Dail, the relationship put an end to her 15-year marriage. Although she has put her life together, she still struggles to understand what happened.

The pastor of her church could not be reached to comment. He now leads another congregation in Dallas County.

Dail has taken her concerns to Baptist leaders and last spring spoke about her experience to the Texas convention's Clergy Sexual Abuse Task Force.

"It will be with me the rest of my life," Dail said. "I struggle with it on a day-to-day basis, and I always will. It has altered my everyday life."

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