For immediate release: Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014
Abuse victims plead with Southern Baptists
They beg church officials: “Don't appeal jury verdict”
Florida Baptist Convention should “accept justice,” they say
“Appealing will erode Baptist officials’ moral authority,” states SNAP
They call this a “watershed moment” for largest US Protestant denomination
An organization that helps clergy sex abuse victims is asking the Florida Baptist Convention to reconsider its decision to appeal a recent and unprecedented multi-million dollar verdict in a child molestation case.
Last week, a unanimous jury in Lake County, Florida, awarded $12.5 million to a man who was sexually abused as a child by a Southern Baptist minister in a church affiliated with the Florida Baptist Convention.
This is believed to be the first time that a state or national Baptist organization has been held responsible for the crimes of a minister. For years, Baptist denominational officials have successfully maintained that each church is completely autonomous such that Baptist denominational organizations can't be sued for negligently allowing clergy child molesters to “church-hop.”
Within hours, Baptist officials announced their intention to ask a higher court to overturn the jury's verdict.
Leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, are writing to Florida Baptist Convention executive director John Sullivan to urge that the statewide denominational office reconsider that decision.
The group maintains that Baptist officials are “at a historic crossroads” and “must choose between the familiar but hurtful, costly, defensive, and fundamentally immoral practice of using legal hard-ball to evade responsibility, or a more kind and smart practice of accepting responsibility, helping victims and taking action to deter future clergy sex crimes and cover-ups.”
“In the long run, this denomination will protect children, save money, prevent embarrassment, and be hailed as doing the right thing, if you act now as compassionate shepherds instead of cold-hearted CEOs,” said Amy Smith, a SNAP leader in Houston who is herself a Southern Baptist.
“This first-ever jury finding – that Baptist denominational offices should bear responsibility for harm inflicted by a clergy child molester -- is a real 'wake-up call' for the entire denomination,” said David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP’s Director. “Denominational officials can heed or ignore the call. We hope they'll make the tougher but smarter and more responsible choice to accept responsibility, not appeal, and to implement denominational safeguards for the protection of kids.”
Clohessy compared the jury's decision to a lengthy 1985 internal Catholic Church report sent to every US bishop, warning them that soon lawsuits involving pedophile priests would proliferate and radically undermine their reputations.
“The report was eerily prescient. Had bishops listened, so much pain – to victims, clergy, and parishioners – could have been avoided,” Clohessy said. “And if Baptist officials listen now, they have a chance to chart a different and smarter and ultimately less devastating course for themselves and for Baptist congregants.”
“Rather than paying huge sums to attorneys to pursue an appeal, Baptist denominational officials would do better to spend their dollars on outside experts who might help them figure out how they can systematize the sharing of information so as to prevent church-hopping predators,” said Smith. “Rather than pretending to be powerless – a pretense that the jury saw right through -- Baptist denominational officials should start acting like true leaders, accept their responsibility, and take action for the better protection of kids in the future.”
Declining to appeal would be “a radical but savvy change” from current and past behavior by Southern Baptist denominational officials, observed Clohessy. “But that's what leaders do – they see emerging trends and get out in front of them. That's what bishops refused to do. Now Baptist officials can either learn from the Catholic horror or repeat it.”
The victim is represented by Miami attorney Ron Weil and Mary Olszewska of Weil, Quaranta, McGovern, P.A. with offices in Miami and Los Angeles. (305 372 5352, firstname.lastname@example.org)
A copy of SNAP's letter to the Florida Baptist Convention, sent today by email and fax, is below:
Dr. John Sullivan
Florida Baptist Convention
1230 Hendricks Avenue
Jacksonville, FL 32207
Dear Dr. Sullivan,
We are writing to beg you and your colleagues to reconsider your plan to appeal the jury verdict in a child molestation case.
We are members of a support group called SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). Our mission is to protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded. We are begging you to do this as well.
By appealing, at best you'll be postponing, at a great moral and financial cost, an eventual day of real reckoning. At worst, you'll be hurting not just the victim in this case, but all other victims who have been violated and betrayed by Southern Baptist clergy.
Even if it is successful, your appeal will only delay the inevitable. As Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That's true of our judicial system as well. Over 25 years of SNAP's history, we have found that those responsible for injustices are eventually held accountable, not only through the justice system but also through the court of public opinion.
We urge you to spend the money that you would otherwise pay to attorneys to instead use it for outside experts – perhaps experts such as G.R.A.C.E. – who might help persuade and help you figure out how you can systematize the cooperative sharing of information within your denomination so as to prevent church-hopping clergy predators. Surely if the Florida Baptist Convention can send churches information warning about the dangers of Calvinism, as it did in 2007, the Florida Baptist Convention can also provide churches with information about credibly accused clergy predators. (See “Calvinist churches targeted by Florida Baptist Convention,” Associated Baptist Press, 6/8/2007) This would not be an interference with the autonomy of local churches but would instead be the provision of valuable information for local churches.
The Florida Baptist Convention is at a historic crossroads and you must choose between the familiar but hurtful, costly, defensive, and fundamentally immoral practice of using legal hard-ball to evade responsibility, or a more kind and smart practice of accepting responsibility, helping victims and taking action to deter future clergy sex crimes and cover-ups.
Generally, most victims file lawsuits only when they see church officials being evasive and refusing to protect kids. In the long run, if you use this occasion as a wake-up call to institute effective safeguards rather than as an occasion to double-down on the old ways, you may actually discourage more lawsuits in the future.
By putting aside pride and reputations and by actively working to help victims and implement safeguards, you will be repairing your image, saving money over the long-term, and most importantly, protecting children and signaling to victims that justice will be served and healing can begin.
Executive Director of SNAP
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We’ve been around for 25 years and have more than 15,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)