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Watchdog settles with city/state (not FBC Jacksonville)

Jacksonville, Fla., blogger Thomas Rich, who until unmasked in an unjustified criminal investigation blogged anonymously as FBC Jax Watchdog, has settled his suit against the city and state.

Terms include, Watchdog explains:

  • A $50,000 payment to Rich.
  • A meeting with Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford to discuss ethics issues to help develop “conflict of interest code for its detectives.”
  • Development and implementation of “a training program for JSO detectives specifically on constitutional First Amendment issues and legal ramifications that must be considered when issuing investigative subpoenas.”

Rich’s attorney, Michael Roberts, said the separate defamation suit against the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville will continue.

The suit was filed after FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity was silently demolished in 2008 by a still unsatisfactorily explained and, from the point of view of the blogger at the time, secret criminal investigation. The settlement did not involve an admission of fault.

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Anonymous blogs permit the relatively powerless to speak what they believe is truth, to power. Power rarely responds graciously. In this case, the unmasking and FBC Jax Watchdog had a serious impact on his life. As his attorney explained:

“Mr. Rich was essentially excommunicated from his church,” his attorney, Michael Roberts, said. “He was a member for 20 years. Sure he was critical of the new leadership at the church, but a lot of members were critical of things they didn’t like.”

The bylaws governing resolution of grievances within that church were and apparently still are heavily loaded against dissent. This case illustrates that an oppressive approach tends to drive debate underground — often into anonymous blogs — and unmasking the blogger does not eliminate that dissent or refute the criticisms. A heavy-handed response in fact underlines the social value of dissent and of the dissenter’s efforts.

October 22, 2010 Posted by | Churches, Religion, WWW | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Clerical sexual abuse of adults is commonplace

Clerical sexual abuse of adult parishioners is widespread.

Baylor University’s School of Social Work found in a nationwide, cross-denominational study to be published later this year “that 3.1 percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been the victims of clergy sexual misconduct since turning 18.”

Christa Brown says the number is understated:

The study doesn’t reflect the women who were sexually abused by a religious leader and who completely stopped going to church. Nor does it reflect the women who were sexually abused by a religious leader and who now go to church only sporadically.

Case studies on Baylor’s Clergy Sexual Misconduct site bear searing testament to the harm done by clerical abuse, but it is Ms. Brown’s documentation of the case of Southern Baptist pastor Daryl Gilyard that is most compelling. Her account demonstrates how, with the complicity of denominational leaders, a predatory clerical career can roll across decades, harming scores of trusting church members.

  • It begins more than two decades ago in Texas with the unsuccessful efforts by adult victims to provoke action by then Criswell College president Paige Patterson.
  • With Patterson’s support, Gilyard served at churches in Texas and Oklahoma.
  • After losing Patterson’s support in 1991, “Gilyard moved to Florida,” where former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines “agreed to forgive” Gilyard. Gilyard served for 14 years as pastor of Jacksonville’s Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, until a complaint was filed with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 29, 2007 and he began a voluntary paid leave of absence.
  • During his career, Gilyard resigned from five different churches over charges of sexual misconduct, in the process accumulating a baffling record of serial sexual abuse with 44 publicly-reported victims, and provoking Tiffany Thigpen Croft’s blog devoted the ending his trail of tears.
  • On May 21, wrote Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press, Gilyard “pled guilty to molesting 15-year-old girl and sending lewd text messages to another at his former church.”
  • On June 11, 2009, Gilyard began a three-year prison sentence.

This disturbing vignette has no hopeful conclusion.

Key leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. non-Catholic denomination, not only failed to stop a predator who began his career in a Texas, one of two states whose law explicitly forbids pastor sexual victimization of parishioners, but they also played an enabling role.

SBC leaders fostered, defended and continue to nurture conditions which resemble those identified by Diana R. Garland and Christen Argueta of the Baylor School of Social Work [.pdf] as creating conditions which permit clerical predators to flourish.

  1. Lack of personal or community response to a situations which normally calls for action. This was evident from the beginning. Even though pushed by subordinates, as dean of Criswell College, Patterson failed to respond appropriately to serious complaints. That was a failure of community response.
  2. A culture of “niceness” which requires participants to overlook socially inappropriate behavior of others rather than risk embarrassing, angering, or hurting them. In this case, Patterson’s protectiveness toward Gilyard and Vines’ forgiveness may be seen as misguided “niceness.”
  3. Lack of accountability by the offending religious leaders for where and how they spent their time. SBC organizational structure makes this the responsibility of the local church, and that as a result typically leaves it in the hands of the pastor. Who is then effectively unsupervised and knows from observing others that if he is adroit enough, he can be pushed out of one church but still find employment at another.
  4. Overlapping clerical roles of counselor and religious leader. Such overlap is both commonplace, and recognized as likely to result in abuse, in part because it places too much power in one set of hands.
  5. Trust in the safe sanctuary the church congregation and its leaders are expected to create. An attractive quality of church life, but given the preceding circumstances, one which makes it easier for predators to manipulate their victims.

The resulting harm to the victims, almost inevitably acute.

Garland and Argueta write [.pdf]:

Reports based on case studies and on clinical intervention with the offended suggest that the results for the offended include self-blame; shame; loss of community and friends if forced to relocate either to escape the community’s judgment or to escape an angry offender who has been discovered or reported; spiritual crisis and loss of faith; family crisis and divorce; psychological distress, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; physiological illness; and failed or successful suicide attempts.

Concern in the SBC about those effects is still too weak to support effective, denomination-wide action against predatory clergy. Instead the SBC takes refuge in the argument that each church is autonomous in these matters, although that is plainly not the case for churches which welcome homosexual Christians into fellowship or which call woman pastors.

September 15, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Health, Religion, SBC | | 2 Comments

DC Court of Appeals sets standards protecting anonymous online speech

The arbitrary disregard of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department for Thomas A. Rich’s right to anonymity as the FBC Jax Watchdog blogger could not meet the standards set by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals last Thursday, or of other lower courts which have ruled on similar matters.

FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity was stripped away without prior notice in a still unsatisfactorily explained criminal investigation over which no charge was filed and which produced no court action. Although the DC case involved defamation[.pdf], the standards are nonetheless clear.

A subpoena associated with a well-pleaded claim and the opportunity to contest it are required to consider breach of online anonymity:

  1. Ensure that the plaintiff has adequately pleaded the elements of a defamation claim.
  2. Require reasonable efforts to notify the anonymous defendant that the complaint has been filed and the subpoena has been served.
  3. Delay further action for a reasonable time to allow the defendant an opportunity to file a motion to quash.
  4. Require the plaintiff to proffer evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact on each element of the claim that is within its control.
  5. Determine that the information sought is important to enable the plaintiff to proceed with his/her lawsuit.

The consensus of the lower courts is that disclosure of an anonymous blogger’s identity requires painstaking court consideration. Lack of that is not excused by the dismissive statement[.pdf] of the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff John Rutherford.

Sam Bayard of the Citizen Media Law Project wrote:

The court also perceived the danger of relying on procedural labels like “prima facie” and “summary judgment” and distilled the most important common feature of the competing tests in this area — that a plaintiff must make at least a substantial legal and factual showing that his/her claim has merit before a court will unmask an anonymous or pseudonymous Internet speaker.

As The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explained, the D.C. court “noted that states vary widely in what test a defamation plaintiff must meet before it can compel a third party to turn over the identity of an anonymous speaker. Virginia, for example, ‘requires only that the court be convinced that the party seeking the subpoena has a legitimate, good faith basis’ for its claims. But the D.C. court ruled that this lax test
‘may needlessly strip defendants of anonymity in situations where there is no substantial evidence of wrongdoing, effectively giving little or no First Amendment protection to that anonymity.’ “

When anyone’s First Amendment protection is trampled, we are all harmed.

August 18, 2009 Posted by | Law, WWW | , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on DC Court of Appeals sets standards protecting anonymous online speech

Let’s have all of the FBC Jax Watchdog facts

FBC Jax Watchdog’s anonymity was silently demolished by an unsatisfactorily explained and, from the point of view of the blogger, secret criminal investigation.

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Anonymous blogs permit the relatively powerless to speak what they believe is truth, to power. Sometimes the power is a church, as we see in the confrontation between First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla. and FBC Jax Watchdog, and risk still attends attempting to say to power things it would prefer not to hear.

The unmasking of Thomas A. Rich as Watchdog, detailed in Florida Times-Union, closely resembles the July attempt by the Bronx (N.Y.) District Attorney to use a grand jury subpoena to unmask and silence critical anonymous bloggers and commenters on the NYC political blog site called Room 8. With the help of Public Citizen, Room 8 successfully resisted disclosure.

We do not know how Google responded to the subpoena it received. Not only does Google have an official policy of not commenting on subpoenas or other legal processes, but also, subpoenas associated with criminal investigations are typically attended by gag orders (Room 8 responded by threatening the Bronx DA’s office with a countersuit). Nor has Watchdog thus far been able to obtain a copy of a subpoena he believes Comcast honored.

We do know that no wrongdoing was found, yet the investigating Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department officer apparently chose to breach the blogger’s anonymity by disclosing his identity to FBC Jax. We also know that Thomas A. Rich’s life was disrupted as a result. He was denied access to his (now) former church, publicly excoriated in an official church action and this week was described as a “sociopath” by the pastor who has been the principal subject of his blogging.

We don’t know in persuasive detail what criminal allegations were believed to justify that intrusion of police power into Rich’s life and the lives of two other bloggers. As a result, whether those allegations can withstand the light of day is an open question. Serious issues of conflict of interest (the investigating officer is an FBC Jacksonville member and apparently among those who provide security there) and as a result abuse of power, have been raised by the association of the detective’s investigation with attempts to silence the then anonymous blogger.

Such issues are typically best resolved by full disclosure, for this has become in considerable part a debate over public policy, and specifically over whether the force of law was properly applied. Given the issue’s visibility, the local and state public officials involved must tell truth and trust the people, or absent a thoroughly compelling explanation for silence, find themselves indicted by the appearance of concealment.

If the purpose of the investigation and disclosure was to end Watchdog’s commentary on matters of general interest to his audience, it failed and those who applied the pressure have put themselves in the fire.

Related:

Ethical/legal standards not followed by law enforcement in FBC Jax case

April 9, 2009 Posted by | Law, Politics, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

FBC Jax pastor Brunson expresses limited remorse

Pastor Mac Brunson of FBC Jacksonville, Fla., preached on Nov. 1 a sermon in which he alluded to remorse, apparently for statements he made in April about Thomas A. Rich, the formerly anonymous blogger who blogs at FBC Jax Watchdog.

Brunson did not ask for Watchdog’s forgiveness, even touch in passing on the manipulation of the Jacksonville [Fla.] Sheriff’s Department or acknowledge the fundamental abuse of power that is at the core of events there. There was, similarly, no mention of the emptiness of his church’s argument in court that Watchdog’s suit should be dismissed because action will “require excessive entanglement [by the courts] in church policies, practices and beliefs.”

FBC Jax Watchdog is more confident than we that the sermon is something other than a pass at damage control, directed at his parishioners, and driven by the lawsuit Brunson precipitated is likely to see lost.

Review the sermon [Itunes podcast] and read FBC Jax Watchdog’s assessment here.

November 6, 2009 Posted by | SBC, WWW | , , , , | 1 Comment

Wrong issue, FBC Jax

Seriously? The First Amendment means the church is above the law?

First Baptist Church of Jacksonville attorneys argue that a fraud, misrepresentation and defamation suit by the formerly anonymous author of FBC Jax Watchdog should be dismissed because ruling “require excessive entanglement [by the courts] in church policies, practices and beliefs.”

That’s the wrong issue.

The core issue is abuse of power to unmask the until-then anonymous author of the blog FBC Jax Watchdog, and subsequent events and statements. The suit by blogger Tom Rich appears to make no allegations with regard to protected “church policies, practices and beliefs.”

Under the circumstances, the “excessive entanglement” argument seems to imply that freedom of religion is somehow attended by a right to immunity by churches from the legal consequences of their actions.

Bad argument/bad idea.

The most important general public issue is the failure of law enforcement officials to meet or attempt to meet readily available ethical and legal standards for unmasking an anonymous blogger.

Anonymity “is sometimes required if one is to both make responsible contributions to public discourse, and also put bread on the family table.” As a result, protecting blogger anonymity is a part of “protecting the discourse itself,” which is at the core of our democracy. Protection of that overarching public interest in anonymity of expression has required a great many legal battles to prevent unmaskings whose palpable goal was to suppress free expression. Not all bloggers survive unscathed.

The general public interest in the protection of anonymous expression should have been addressed in court with regard to FBC Jax Watchdog, not circumvented by way of a criminal investigation which was officially closed without charges or meaningful official report. There is we feel a general public interest in seeing the debate joined in open court not, not dismissed on the basis of the FBC Jacksonville freedom of religion pretext.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | Churches, SBC, WWW | , , , | Comments Off on Wrong issue, FBC Jax

Mis-outed anonyblogger

Had the New York Times been able to call in the Jacksonville, Fla., sheriff’s department to do the job, it would most assuredly not have mis-outed the anonymous author (or authors) of the NYTPicker blog.

They then compounded the error by deleting the offending blog entry, even though copies of the text had already traveled the online world an could not be recovered [Copy here].

Who cares? We do, although we mostly agree with Zachary M. Seward at Nieman Journalism Lab:

To be honest, I don’t really care who the NYTPicker is. The site’s Twitter feed has denied the Times’ aborted report, and they’ll no doubt have something to say about the ethics of pulling a post. I just think this is a lesson that removing content from the web is a futile task, particularly for big news sites. And if a story needs to be retracted, if that’s the case here (update: it is), then we need better ways to do it than just pulling content off the web.

There remains a lingering question:

Why did write the story at all?

The author does perform a service, although having your glaring errors regularly reported to the world may not feel like a services to those who err. Thus attempting to report the author’s identity has the scent of revenge about it. And basing the failed revelation on an anonymous source, without securing appropriate confirmation before reporting, is both overeager and bad reporting.

Bad as all that is for The Times’ reputation, it isn’t manipulation of a law enforcement agency and trampling of available legal standards to unmask a critic.

September 9, 2009 Posted by | Publications, Religion, WWW | | Comments Off on Mis-outed anonyblogger

Standards unmet in Fla. anonymous blogger case

There are available if evolving ethical and legal standards to help law enforcement officials decide whether to identify anonymous bloggers. Yet accounts suggest that none were applied when Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Detective Robert Hinson unmasked FBC Jax Watchdog to First Baptist Church of Jacksonville (FBC Jax) leadership.

Jacksonville Times-Union reporter Jeff Brumley wrote:

It was also proper for [Detective Robert] Hinson to provide First Baptist’s leadership with [Thomas A.] Rich’s identity despite finding no criminal evidence, [Undersheriff Frank] Mackesy said, so it could take whatever internal action it felt necessary for its own safety.

Mackesy’s allusion to “safety” may be read as an attempt to excuse his department for an error, since nothing Detective Hinson reports finding provides reason to believe the safety of either the church or any of its members was at risk from Rich. A close reading of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog reveals no threats of violence. Nor is there anything other than restrained self-expression in the Watchdog’s words we have seen quoted elsewhere.

Hinson could not have escaped knowing, however, that his minister yearned to identify the author of the anonymously penned FBC Jax Watchdog blog which regularly called him to task. Hinson, who is a member of FBC Jax Pastor Mac Brunson’s security detail, surely knew Brunson would be grateful for that information.

The ties between charismatic pastor and protective parishioner, and the attendant natural desire to please the pastor, created an appearance of conflict of interest which overshadows this matter.

Concerns about that apparent conflict should in our view have led Hinson to recuse himself from any investigation involving his church and pastor.

Legal ethics, most evident in judicial standards, generally require such recusal. For even if an officer behaves with unwavering professional objectivity, the appearance of conflict still tends to undermine public confidence in the department and thus in the law.

Even so, had Detective Hinson not given up Thomas A. Rich as the anonymous author of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog, that appearance of an ethical conflict of interest would not have congealed into an argument for its reality. That appearance is unreduced by the sheriff’s failure address his subordinate’s role, even if unintentional, in the pillorying of Rich by FBC Jax which followed Hinson’s disclosure.

In addition, emerging legal standards regarding blogger anonymity suggest that Rich should have been given notice of Hinson’s intended erasure of his anonymity — notice attended by ample time to respond. Rich’s legal counsel could then have argued in court for the protection of his privacy and First Amendment rights.

Recent cases also suggest that those seeking an anonymous blogger’s identity must demonstrate to a court that their claim will withstand both a motion to dismiss and a motion of summary judgment. That is, they must plead facts necessary to succeed in their claim, and show the sufficiency of those facts.

Thus far there appear to have been no facts sufficient to have persuaded a court of competent jurisdiction to strip Rich of his anonymity. Nor to have seriously considered doing so. There are instead contradictory accounts of the causes for the investigation — with the Rev. John Blount, who filed the complaint, differing from Hinson — and an apparent dearth of facts.

We are left with abiding concern about Hinson’s possible conflict of interest, the lack of appropriate legal regard for Rich’s rights and the chilling effect on free expression which can result from such a public trampling of an individual’s rights.

April 10, 2009 Posted by | Churches, Law, Religion, WWW | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Standards unmet in Fla. anonymous blogger case