Sometimes I shudder when I think about the hard ball tactics used by some Southern Baptists to silence dissent. For the majority of my twenty five years of ministry, there has been a belief in me that most Southern Baptist leaders understand humility, servant leadership, and the grace that is needed to endure dissent. However, after reading the comments on FBC Jacksonville Watchdog's Blog, and specifically those comments that reveal how subpoenas were issued to discover the identity of the owner of the Watchdog blog - as well as reading all the relevant public documents myself - there have arisen in my mind a few questions. These questions relate to whether or not FBC church leaders used church members involved in law enforcement and the courts to illegally obtained the private information of a United States citizen who wished to remain anonymous, including the identity of a blogger going by the pseudonym Watchdog. Further, there are legitimate questions that should be asked to discern whether or not FBC church leadership used that information they possibly gleaned through law enforcement to in any way intimidate, threaten, or coerce the Watchdog into silence. I do not have the answers to the following questions, I am simply asking. These questions were to be asked personally and privately of FBC leadership, but phone calls have been unreturned for three weeks now, so it is entirely appropriate to ask them publicly.
(1). Is the Sheriff's Deputy (Det. Hinson) who filled out the Field Incident Report on the current payroll of the church? Has he ever been employed by the church?
(2). When the subpoenas were authorized by the Florida State's Attorneys office demanding Google and Comcast identify the owner of the Watchdog Blog, did anyone from church leadership, including retired Circuit Judge A.C. Soud, use their influence to obtain the warrant signatures from the State's Attorneys Office?
(3). On what basis did the Sheriff's Deputy request the subpoenas for Comcast and Google from the State's Attorneys Office? In other words, what stated criminal allegations, if any, were used to obtain the warrant to discover the identity of the Watchdog's blog?
(4). Once the identity of the blogger was obtained through the private records of Comcast and Google, did law enforcement officials inform the aggrieved party (i.e. church leaders of FBC Jacksonville) of the identity of the owner of the Watchdog blog? Was Watchdog ever personally made aware that his private records had been obtained by law enforcement?
(5). When the Sheriff's Deputy closed his Field Incident Report after six weeks of "investigation" with the words "this investigation was closed after no criminal activity was discovered on this reported incident," did he then participate in any form or fashion in helping church leadership at FBC Jacksonville issue, through the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, the "trespass warning" against the now known blogger and his family?
(6). Will the actions of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department, the Florida State's Attorneys Office and the church administrative leadership of FBC Jacksonville stand up under the scrutiny of public questions?
(7). Finally, and from a pastor's perspective, this is my most important question: If, after church leadership discovered the "identity" of the Watchdog blog, did leadership make any attempt to contact the blogger, following the principles of Matthew 18, in order to seek to answer his questions and reconcile relationship, or did church leadership immediately issue a "trespass warning" through the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and then go behind closed doors with others and disparage the character and conduct of the Watchdog owner?
I ask these questions because this incident at FBC Jacksonville reminds me of two events of a similar nature. First, Pastor Rick Godwin has recently lost a court case where he was sued for publicly defaming a church member for asking questions about how the church was spending money. The church is appealing the case, but it should be a chilling reminder that when questions are asked of a non-profit, the best way to respond is by giving answers rather than attacking the questioner.
Seoond, for those who think a Sheriff's Office would never do anything questionable or illegal, one only has to look at Jacksonville's neighboring county, Nassau County, where former Sheriff Laurie Ellis and a couple of deputies were sent to prison for selling confiscated drugs and pocketing the cash.
It is an axiom of human nature that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. One of the blessings and beauty of the Information Age is that people in power can no longer do things and stifle questions. The questions I ask above are legitimate. I am more than happy for anyone to answer them and will listen. If there are good, solid answers to the above questions, then the events at FBC Jacksonville will be a non-issue.
However, until someone does provide answers, I believe they should continue to be asked. Without answers it seems someone in authority may have crossed a line. I made a vow three years ago that no longer would this Southern Baptist sit idly by while other Southern Baptists were abused by men in powerful positions. It is my intention to fulfill my promise until the above questions are answered. Christianity is not the practice of Hard Ball religion, and those who use their power to intimidate should at least be called to account.
In His Grace,