Southern Baptist Leaders Challenged to Get Tough on Sex Abuse
Bob Allen - Ethics Daily.com
September 27, 2006
NASHVILLE, Tenn.--Alleged survivors of clergy sex abuse gathered
in front of headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday,
calling on the nation's second-largest faith group to take concrete
steps to protect children from sexual predators in church.
Predators are known to seek out positions that provide access and
power over the young, and the ministry is one such position. Yet
the Southern Baptist Convention's free-wheeling style of local-church
autonomy has only minimal safeguards outside the local church.
It is a "systemic" problem that "indirectly shields
predators," three representatives of a 17-year-old predominantly
Catholic group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
(SNAP) wrote in a Sept.26 letter hand-delivered to leaders at the
SBC Executive Committee offices in Nashville and sent via certified
mail to SBC president Frank Page.
"We are witnesses to truth, and the church needs to confront
that truth," said Christa Brown, who maintains a Web site titled
"Voice to Stop Baptist Predators."
The group called on the SBC Executive Committee to establish an
independent review board with adequate funding to receive and investigate
charges of sexual abuse by clergy, educate churches about its existence
and adopt a "zero-tolerance policy" toward churches that
shield suspected sex offenders.
"We are aware of the autonomous structure of Southern Baptist
churches," the group wrote. "However, Southern Baptists
have shown themselves capable of all manner of cooperative endeavors
when they choose."
Those include international mission work, financial services for
clergy and even an archive of history records.
"Given that congregational autonomy does not preclude a cooperative
denomination-wide effort for these other endeavors, why should it
preclude a denomination-wide effort at protecting kids against clergy
predators?" they asked. "Surely you do not intend to say
that the ecclesiological legalism of congregational autonomy renders
this 16.3 million-member denomination utterly powerless to make
a united effort at ridding the ministerial ranks of those with credible
reports of having molested and raped kids."
SBC president Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors,
S.C., pledged in an earlier letter to SNAP leaders he would meet
with SBC officials to see "if there is some way that we might
provide this kind of assistance without infringing upon the autonomy
of these state-level or local-level entities."
An attorney, wife and mother in Austin, Texas, Brown says she was
sexually abused by an adult, married Southern Baptist youth minister
when she was 16. Although another minister knew about it at the
time, she says, the offending church staff member was sent on his
way to another church and she was told never to speak of it.
When her own daughter reached adolescence, Brown says, memories
were resurrected and she began to deal with them by reporting the
abuse to church and denominational leaders, assuming they would
by now be better prepared to take steps to protect children from
To her surprise, she says, no one thought it was important enough
to help her track down the alleged perpetrator.
She wrote then-SBC president Bobby Welch, who forwarded her letter
to convention attorneys. They responded the convention has no control
over who a church appoints as a minister and no authority to defrock
a minister, but a review of convention records did not indicate
the man currently worked at a Southern Baptist church.
It turned out, she said, the minister served 20 years alongside
former SBC president Charles Stanley at First Baptist Church in
Atlanta and managed childcare for the SBC annual meeting in 1986.
He was still employed at a church in Florida, she said, and was
not forced to leave the ministry until after she filed a lawsuit
that was reported by the Orlando Sentinel last October.
The minister denied the charges in legal papers, but the Baptist
General Convention of Texas acknowledged his name was in a confidential
list of ministers accused of sexual misconduct, which lumps together
both child molestation and extramarital affairs. Names are reportedly
added to the file only when a minister confesses or there is a court
conviction or "substantial evidence" the abuse took place.
Brown argued in an April 28 column in the Dallas Morning News that
the BGCT should make the list public, for the same reasons the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney could
not withhold records of former priests under investigation for child
molestation--to inform parents and protect children from possible
"Yes, this sort of information is 'very troubling,' indeed"
she wrote, "and that is exactly why it should not be kept secret."
Between July 2004 and May 2005, Brown said she mailed 18 Southern
Baptist leaders in four states with substantiated claims of sex
abuse, while her perpetrator remained in ministry. Each of the leaders
could explain their inaction by saying, "It isn't my responsibility,"
she said, and therein lies the problem.
In their 2004 book Ministerial Ethics, Joe Trull and James Carter
noted that decentralized denominations like the Southern Baptist
Convention have no national policies on abuse, leaving each congregation
to set its own. In such a setting, they said, sexual misconduct
is routinely covered up and church officials largely unresponsive.
The first and foremost element in addressing the problem, they
wrote, "is to admit that this evil happens."
"To deny or minimize the sexual exploitation of parishioners
by ministers is to give it tacit approval," they said.
In addition to other safeguards, the SNAP letter said the SBC should
discourage the use of "secrecy contracts," where church
lawyers entice victims to remain silent by agreeing to help with
counseling costs. Disapproval of such contracts, it said, would
"demonstrate a strong commitment to supporting those who reveal
such abuse rather than the churches that strive to keep it secret."
Brown told EthicsDaily.com that sexual abuse by a minister is a
betrayal not only physically but spiritually as well.
"I believe this is a crime that has a soul-murdering impact
on people, and it certainly did on me," she said. She said
a common struggle for victims of clergy sex abuse is "trying
to find a way back to faith."
Brown said she no longer attends a Baptist church, but it was so
important in her youth that deep inside it's still a part of who
she is. Unfortunately, she said, that part of her mind is now "the
land of the predator."
While the primary betrayal was by the perpetrator, she said, "I
certainly feel betrayed that so many church and denominational leaders
turned their backs on me," she said. "What I can't wrap
my head around is how so many can turn a blind eye."
Another SNAP representative, Miguel Prats, 54, told EthicsDaily.com
he was abused by a Catholic priest shortly after turning 18. He
pushed the incident out of his mind until news stories about church
scandals in 2001 resurfaced the memory and plunged him into a near
breakdown. He found out about SNAP through the Internet.
"They were the only thing out there for people like me,"
Prats said. Prats said he at first thought clergy sex abuse was
a Catholic problem and it had something to do with a celibate priesthood.
But later he learned it is in every denomination and that most abusers
Prats said he thought his church handled the issue very poorly,
but in his contact with about two dozen Southern Baptist survivors
they said almost to a person they wished their denomination was
doing as much as Roman Catholics.
Prats said he did not come to Nashville to criticize or tear down
Southern Baptists but as a "gift to the church" bringing
a message to keep children safe. "If a child can't be safe
in church, where the heck can they be safe?" he said.
"Nobody wants to talk about it," he said. "By God,
we're going to talk about it."
"We don't want another child to go through what we went through."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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