Reporting on Arguments from Silence
Last essay, we looked at the idea of treating the Prestonwood-Morrison Heights-Langworthy situation like a civil suit, where the “preponderance of evidence” is our guiding standard. This essay looks at some of the evidence gleaned along the digital highway, and some implications from what has and has not been said after over two decades of silence by officials of Prestonwood Baptist Church.
An Argument from Silence Says Nothing?
Sometimes, when people want to refute a particular theological point, I hear them argue, “Well, Jesus didn’t say anything about ABC, so it’s not really an issue.” It’s as if their final word on the subject is that no word came from Jesus, who is The Word. So, in their thinking, the silence settles the matter. Now, that says something …
On the other hand, I could just as easily suggest that an argument from silence says nothing – both literally and figuratively. “Jesus didn’t say anything about XYZ … and so why are you putting words in His mouth for Him?” Silence doesn’t mean there are no issues, only that someone isn’t speaking here about them.
In some ways, silence is what we face here, with the churches involved in the John Langworthy situation. Focusing in on Prestonwood Baptist Church and what happened in 1989, I’ve found almost nothing official from them in online news agency reports, press releases, blog articles and comments, etc. There seem to be more PBC leaders who “declined to comment” on record in various news reports than there are statements. Granted, the internet hasn’t been up and widely used for that long, but the silence is still quite noticeable.
In this case, though, does near silence say nothing … or does it perhaps reveal much? There is, to my current knowledge, only one official statement from PBC that’s ever been made about what went down in 1989 with PBC and John Langworthy. (Plus, there are a few other pieces of evidence online from other people that would likely be available if we were at a genuine civil lawsuit trial, so I’ll address those as well in later essays.) Given this nearly complete state of silence:
- What can we learn from what is apparently their one and only official comment issued over a 23-year period, especially when comparing it to Texas state legal requirements for mandatory reporting of known/suspected child abuse by both attorneys and clergy?
- What does it mean when this church refuses to say anything additional that could clarify, acknowledge, or refute the various ongoing and unanswered allegations against them?
- If we have only this one piece of evidence from them, do the apparent omissions and commissions lead us to just suspicions?
What was Finally Said …
Let’s start our investigation and consideration of the Prestonwood Baptist Church/John Langworthy case with five basic facts about mandatory reporting of sexual abuse in Texas law.
- The relevant statute is: Texas Family Code – Section 261.101.
- This mandatory reporting statute was in force in 1989, when the allegation of sexual molestation by John Langworthy came up at Prestonwood Baptist Church.
- According to this Texas law, attorneys, members of the clergy, and other specified professionals are LEGALLY required to report known/suspected child abuse, which includes child sexual abuse – in other words, the usual professional/client privilege does not apply, no exception.
- They are required to file this report “immediately,” which is defined as within 48 hours of coming into knowledge of the alleged abuse.
- They cannot assign the responsibility to anyone else, or rely on someone else to make the report, but are personally required to make the report themselves.
Here is what I have found online as far as any indication that anyone from Prestonwood Baptist Church followed the law on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse, as required: NOTHING.
Instead, there is only one official statement from PBC that I’ve been able to find online. This comes from Mike Buster, who joined the staff at Prestonwood Baptist Church in 1989, and has served as the Executive Pastor since 1992. (The PBC website biography of Pastor Buster does not specify what month he was hired, so I do not know yet if he was on staff when the issues with Mr. Langworthy came to light, which was apparently in June 1989, as that is when he was fired.)
Twenty-two years after the fact, Executive Pastor Buster offered the following statement about what PBC did in June 1989. This was shared in response to an August 7, 2011, public confession by Mr. Langworthy to some “sexual indiscretions” with minor males during places of prior employment. The statement appeared in a substantial news story on Mr. Langworthy, featured by local Dallas/Fort Worth station WFAA on August 8, 2011:
“In the summer of 1989, the church received an allegation that John Langworthy had acted inappropriately with a teenage student. Based on this allegation, he was dismissed immediately, removing him from all responsibilities with the church. In no way did officials of the church seek to cover up the actions of Mr. Langworthy or silence his accuser. The elected officers dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly.”
What he DID say: Executive Pastor Buster stated there was an accuser and an allegation (both in the singular), that Mr. Langworthy was fired immediately, that there was no cover-up by church officials, and elected officers of the church knew of the situation and dealt with it.
What he did NOT say: Executive Pastor Buster did not say that anyone – executive leadership, other staff, attorney(s), elected officers from Prestonwood Baptist Church reported Mr. Langworthy to the police, as required by Texas state law. He also did not specify who received the allegation, who dismissed Mr. Langworthy, and who specifically dealt with the matter and how. He also did not specify any efforts made to inform the congregation so that more than just the one single accuser might be identified and helped.
An Argument from Silence May Say Much!
I’m highly analytic in the ways I process information. So, I did a word count. This statement from Executive Pastor Buster gives the reading public a grand total of 67 words. That’s the equivalent of three words a year on average for 22 years in response to ongoing questions about this case, including whether anyone ever reported Mr. Langworthy to police.
And whatever “firmly and forthrightly” meant to them at PBC, I find it flimsy and anemic. Why?
My undergraduate training was in linguistics and in Teaching English as a Second Language. So, I am very conscious of words. I noticed that this statement is couched in vague phrasing throughout. “The church received” hides the one(s) who knew behind the institution as the subject of the sentence. “He was dismissed” hides the one(s) who fired him behind the passive voice of the verb. “The elected officers” hides specific staff behind a generic group as the subject of the sentence. Therefore, I guess we must assume that each and all elected officers of the non-profit are equally responsible for any and all decisions made in the matter.
“Firmly and forthrightly” sounds strong, but actually is vague phrasing that tells us essentially nothing. But does saying that much “nothing” after two decades actually amplify those few words into everything?
Silence and vagaries do not answer allegations or questions. Hence, PBC’s silence leaves public opinion to assume what we will. It leaves us to find other evidence that fills their void, refutes their arguments from silence, and/ or points out the consequences of their silence. Much of the rest of the essays about the Prestonwood side of the Langworthy situation will be about just that.
Unresolved Issues, Unanswered Questions, Unintended Consequences
- Was the accusation and evidence against John Langworthy ever reported by Prestonwood Baptist Church leaders to the police? Apparently not.
- But if by chance it was, who did so? Were he/she/they the legally required person(s) to do so because of their knowledge of the known/suspected sexual abuse of a minor? If so, was the report made within the legally mandated 48-hour time limit?
- If no report was made, why not? Did someone delay or block the reporting of the accusation and evidence? Did the lead Pastor know and do nothing? Did other staff members know and do nothing? Did PBC’s attorney(s) know and do nothing? Did PBC’s elected officials know and do nothing?
Constructive Actions for an Unquestioned Future
Every “what” incubates a “so what?” inside it. Here are some thoughts of implications we can learn from this aspect of the Prestonwood/Langworthy case.
Since prevention of sexual abuse is a public obligation of all U.S. citizens, and a legal responsibility of professionals including attorneys and clergy, why be silent if we’re obeying the law? Part of the testimony of a church is found in its integrity in following the laws of the land. And Christians are subject to civil authorities, aren’t we? If for any reason we cannot as congregational leaders and/or parishioners declare and document that we are obeying the law in a serious area like reporting of known/suspected sexual abuse, how can our leaders or our church be trusted with any other area of solemn social responsibility?
Many churches and ministries failed in this regard in decades past, and handled such issues “in-house.” However, the consequences are now boomeranging back. For instance, the allegations hanging over Sovereign Grace Ministries in a class action lawsuit stem from the similar time frame of the 1980s. If there were lapses in the past, wouldn’t it be better to take responsibility now, do whatever it takes to make any amends now, and move forward with a cleared record and irreproachable corporate conscience now? How else could we achieve a future where our integrity is unquestioned and the digital documentation thereof need not be “scrubbed”?
Post updated June 8, 2013, to make minor additions and corrections.