The overwhelming response of competent Southern Baptist ministers following the Houston Chronicle’s bombshell three-part series on clergy sexual abuse has been encouraging. SBC President J.D. Greear put the Baptist doctrine of church autonomy — which has been used in the past by some leaders to justify inaction — into a proper framework when he tweeted:
Southern Seminary president Al Mohler wrote a lengthy essay that properly places compassionate care for victims as the top priority:
“Our first concern must be for the victims. The dark reality of this kind of abuse leads many victims to hide their trauma—they sit silent in their pews while their abusers publicly preach God’s Word. Southern Baptists, indeed, all denominations, must ensure that denominational structures and policies promote safe places for victims to make their abuse known.”
Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of the late Billy Graham, tweeted:
Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor and leader of the Founders ministries pulled no punches in diagnosing the root problem: many Southern Baptists simply are not even Christian:
“An honest examination of Southern Baptist churches reveals a much deeper problem than even sexual abuse. The real problem is spiritual before it is moral. That is, Southern Baptists have a problem with God. They trumpet their affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture and unhesitatingly call it the written Word of God. Yet, at the same time the overwhelming majority of their churches blatantly defy the God of that Word.”
And one of Southern Baptists sharper theologians, Dr. Keith Whitfield, laid bare the soul of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in an essay published by First Things:
As Southern Baptists, we have to come to face reality: These reports show a systemic problem spanning decades of neglect in handling abuse cases in our local churches and through our cooperative structures. While some of these same issues may be present in churches outside the SBC, this is the moment the Lord has appointed for us to deal with them in our cooperative family of churches. The SBC faces a moral crisis as big (if not bigger) than the theological crisis we faced over the “battle for the Bible” in the 1970s–1980s. The theological crisis called us to protect the faith; this challenge calls us to live it.
Indeed, Southern Baptists are taking a deep look into the darkened mirror of their own shame. For the past forty years, leaders of the so-called Conservative Resurgence have championed an epistemological panacea for all the denomination’s ills. “The Bible is without error,” became the rallying cry for upending the convention’s power structures, yet recent months have revealed the degree to which men who led that effort were abusing power themselves. In some cases, they were actively concealing the sexual abuse of women and children.
We were curious, given all the determination to end the cycle of abuse and dismantle structures that have nurtured grievous perversions of Southern Baptist faith and practice, what are Southern Baptist seminaries teaching the next generation of church ministers — this very semester — about ministry to and support for victims?
What we discovered reveals how deep the problem runs.
On the Fort Worth campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary this Spring, a graduate level course entitled “Grief and Crisis Counseling” is being offered on Wednesdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. It appears to be the only course offered this semester that deals comprehensively with the issue.
Here’s the course description from the seminary’s class list:
The course is taught by Dr. Frank Catanzaro, a New Orleans seminary graduate and former music minister who has held professorships at both Southeastern and now Southwestern Seminary. He was recruited for both posts by the school’s former president, Paige Patterson. Today, he occupies the Hope for the Heart Chair of Biblical Counseling, which is named for the non-profit organization led by longtime Southwestern donor and Dallas-based ministry leader, June Hunt.
Last year, as the Washington Post reported on the Patterson rape cover-up scandal, a young mother named Megan Cox wrote an open letter to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the Post reporter who covered the story. Cox, who now leads a ministry called “Give Her Wings,” had gone to Frank Catanzaro on behalf of a female seminary student whose child was being physically abused by her husband. According to Cox’s letter:
“I then went to the counseling department (Dr. Frank Catanzaro, who is now working under Patterson in Texas), and told him about the abuse of my friend. I had obtained permission from this woman to speak on her behalf. She was so scared. Her child had recently suffered a broken hand at the hands of her father. Dr. Catanzaro said, “This happens all the time. There’s nothing we can do.”
On other occasions, Cox went to Catanzaro for counseling in light of the abuse she was herself receiving by her then-husband, who was a student at Southeastern Seminary. What she reports next is more than troubling, it is sickening:
“Dr. Catanzaro also remarked, “There is nothing we can do.” His casual demeanor was shocking. I also called upon Dr. Catanzaro many times for my own abuse. He told me things such as, “Be more active in bed. Submit more. Pray for him.” He never once gave me the option to leave.”
Let that sink in for a moment. A woman reports that her husband is physically abusive. A Southern Baptist seminary professor prescribes more sex to solve the problem. You’d almost think Catanzaro had been hired by a president known for telling abused women to “submit” to their abusers.
Oh wait. That’s exactly who hired him. Not once, but twice.
Eventually, the abuse Megan Cox experienced got worse. A friend noticed more bruises on both Cox and her children and ultimately paid for her to get away from her violent husband. Later, she was “harassed” for the “sin” of leaving an abusive spouse. Her painful story can be read in its entirety here.
If her testimony is true, and we have every reason to believe that it is, Southern Baptists should be concerned that Frank Catanzaro’s counseling methods are the ministry model being taught at Southwestern Seminary. Because it’s that kind of thinking that has nurtured the destructive cycles of abuse, victim-shaming, and cover-up that have roiled the Southern Baptist Convention this week.