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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

SNAP Letters

Letter to Southern Baptist Convention

 

September 26, 2006

Dr. Morris Chapman (Via Hand Delivery to SBC)
President, Executive Committee
Southern Baptist Convention
901 Commerce Street
Nashville , TN 37203

Dr. Richard Land (Via Hand Delivery to SBC)
President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
Southern Baptist Convention
901 Commerce Street
Nashville , TN 37203

Dr. Frank Page (Via certified U.S. mail return receipt requested)
President, Southern Baptist Convention
Taylors First Baptist Church
200 West Main Street
Taylors , SC 29687

Gentlemen:

We appreciate your August 15th letter, Dr. Page, and the fact that you have involved other denominational leaders in considering the problem of clergy sex abuse. SNAP would like to continue a dialogue and work with you to make Southern Baptist churches safer.

We are aware of the autonomous structure of Southern Baptist churches. However, Southern Baptists have shown themselves capable of all manner of cooperative endeavors when they choose. The most obvious example is international mission work, but the denomination also makes a cooperative effort at for such activities as providing financial investment services for clergy and maintaining an archive of Baptist historical 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? 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.

Contrary to what your letter suggests, this denomination's routine "cover-up' of sexual abuse cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the individual churches. It is also a systemic problem that inheres in the free-wheeling structure of the denomination, which lacks effective systems for accountability and which "indirectly shields perpetrators.' As two Southern Baptist seminary professors recently wrote: "Decentralized denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention...have no national policies....Sexual misconduct is routinely covered up in these settings....' Trull & Carter, Ministerial Ethics at 162 (2004).

Just as family members cannot properly investigate a molestation claim made against a close relative, local church leaders cannot properly investigate a report of clergy abuse made against a much-loved minister. The usual dynamics dictate that there cannot possibly be a proper inquiry without outside intervention. Given the reported pattern of church officials being "not responsive' when confronted with clergy abuse allegations, the SBC must provide leadership if it wants to rid the ranks of clergy predators who have been recycled from church to church. When kids are at stake, there is no place for passivity on the part of denominational leaders.

We have recently seen a scenario in which a man was able to remain in ministry even after 18 Southern Baptist leaders in four different states were all put on notice of a substantiated report involving the minister's sexual abuse of a minor. Indeed, many months after Baptist leaders received this substantiated report of abuse, the reported minister was recorded standing in the pulpit of still another Baptist church telling the congregation that he was there to work with them in their children's ministry. This reveals all too clearly the institutionalized nature of the problem in that, despite the documented awareness of so many, there was apparently no one in leadership who considered it their responsibility to take action so as to assure the safety of others.

Your predecessor, prior SBC president Bobby Welch, was among those who were informed about that substantiated report, as was another SBC office in Nashville . Yet, on Welch's behalf, the SBC's attorney wrote that it had no record the man was still a minister in any church. This fact alone illustrates that the denomination may potentially be a perfect paradise for predators. As it turns out, this reported minister had been a 20-year colleague of celebrity evangelist and 2-term SBC president Charles Stanley at the very prominent First Baptist Church of Atlanta. More recently, he worked with the prior president of the Florida Baptist Convention, Dwayne Mercer, at the First Baptist Church of Oviedo. And during the very time that the victim was trying to locate him, he was at another prominent church just 45 miles from Bobby Welch's church in Daytona Beach . If Southern Baptist leaders cannot locate even a minister with such prominent connections, then it is far too easy for ministers with a report of child molestation to simply stay hidden in this denomination.

We are aware, as you point out, that the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas often find themselves "at odds.' However, surely, both entities can agree on the critical importance of ridding the ranks of clergy predators ' predators who use as weapons the very credibility and authority afforded them as ministers of the gospel for the most blasphemous ends of raping and molesting the young and vulnerable.

There can be no right rationalization for the fact that the Baptist General Convention of Texas keeps secret its file with the names of ministers reported for molesting minors. It is the largest state-wide Baptist organization in the country, and we are left to wonder about how many ministers' names are in that file and how many kids they have hurt. Every parent ought to be asking those questions and insisting that the ministers' names in that secret file be made public.

While there can be no excuse for the secrecy of that Texas file, we would point out that, to our knowledge, no other state-wide Baptist organization in the country keeps any file all on ministers reported for sexual abuse ' not even so much as a secret file. Similarly, we are unaware of any file, secret or otherwise, that the SBC keeps on ministers reported for sexual abuse. So how would anyone know whether or not a particular Baptist minister had been reported for sexual abuse? And how would anyone know whether a minister may have even had multiple complaints in churches scattered across the country? Who's keeping track? And shouldn't parents be told when a reported molester has worked in their congregation, so that they can talk with their kids? But who in the denomination bears the responsibility for telling other congregations? When no one bears that responsibility, the reality is that it doesn't get done and the matter is kept quiet.

Ministers move across state lines. The currently-pending case against Jacksonville minister Robert Gray illustrates that some Southern Baptist ministers even move affiliation to become "independent' Baptists. If kids are to be protected, the denomination must find a cooperative way to keep nationwide records on ministers who are reported for sexual abuse. Moral obligation demands it. Southern Baptists keep a centralized archive for Baptist historical records, and so they should also be able to keep a centralized archive for records about ministers who are reported for sexual abuse. And surely this denomination can at least find a way to track its own ministers across state lines.

This is what we are now asking the Southern Baptist Convention to do:

1. We request that, at the 2007 SBC annual meeting, the SBC Executive Committee seek approval for the establishment of an independent review board as an auxiliary to the SBC, but with adequate and assured funding from the SBC. Its purpose would be to receive and investigate reports of clergy abuse and to arrive at a determination of whether the report should be deemed credible. All reports should be archived, and as part of its investigatory powers, the review board should establish a procedure for notifying people in the pews whenever a report of abuse is made about a minister who worked in their congregation. In this way, the denomination can reach out to other possible victims, allow for the possibility of legitimate denominational investigations, and put parents on notice so that they can talk with their kids. Whenever a report of abuse is deemed credible, the review board would also be responsible for reporting that decision to the people in the pews in every congregation in which the minister has worked. This board should be composed of independent professionals, including non-Baptists, who have extensive experience in dealing with the dynamics of clergy sex abuse and whose careers will not be vulnerable to any sort of political considerations within the denomination. We would point to the example set by the Presbyterian Church USA with its independent review board. We can provide you with some suggested names of individuals to consider, and we request that the review board also include representatives from a survivors' group such as SNAP.

2. Immediately after the abuse review board is established, the SBC should undertake to publicize its existence, including the existence of a toll-free number to which people who have been abused by clergy may report their abuse by phone to someone independent of their congregation. The SBC should also include information on its website to educate churches about sexual abuse and about the SBC's abuse review board with its toll-free number. That information should include the SBC's reminder to churches that any information concerning possible abuse of a minor must be reported to civil authorities, and the SBC should encourage any who have been abused in the past to report to both the SBC's review board and to civil authorities. Education is a means to increase awareness and prompt a change in attitudes and behavior. The SBC needs to exercise a leadership role in that undertaking.

3. We request that the SBC Executive Committee immediately adopt a "zero tolerance' policy by which a church will be expelled from SBC affiliation if it hires or retains a minister or deacon for whom there has been a credible report of having sexually abused a minor. Alternatively, we request that the "zero tolerance" policy constitute an SBC resolution recommending that local and regional Baptist associations expel such churches from affiliation. (We are aware of reported instances in which churches have been disassociated after hiring women ministers. Surely, a minister's sexual abuse of a minor is a more serious affront to the pulpit than the mere fact of being female.)

4. We request that the SBC's Home Mission Board and International Mission Board adopt policies of financial non-support for any church that chooses or retains a minister or deacon for whom there has been a credible report of having sexually abused a minor. (Again, we are aware that such a policy was adopted in 1989 as regards mission churches that hired female preachers.)

5. We are aware of instances in which people reported Southern Baptist clergy abuse only to have a denominational attorney try to extract a secrecy agreement in exchange for minimal assistance with counseling costs. This tactic further exploits those who have already been dreadfully wounded and are in desperate need of counseling. It robs victims of their voice and of the liberty to eventually speak of their trauma if they choose. Such contractualized secrecy leaves others at risk for new harm and undermines the safety of Baptist churches. We would also suggest that it is a tactic that resists the movement of God's spirit who works for healing and justice. Therefore, we ask the SBC Executive Committee to publicize the SBC's disapproval of such secrecy contracts by urging state conventions and churches that such contracts should not be enforced against victims who might now choose to break a contract for secrecy, and by offering the SBC's own commitment to indemnifying any individual for the costs and/or liability associated with any lawsuit brought by any Southern Baptist church or denominational office on the basis of any such secrecy or confidentiality agreement. In this way, the SBC leadership will demonstrate a strong commitment to supporting those who reveal such abuse rather than the churches that strive to keep it secret.

The five items listed above will not alone be enough to protect kids in Southern Baptist churches. But they would at least be a start and would show by deeds that this 16.3 million member denomination is committed to truth-telling and transparency in dealing with reports of sexual abuse committed by Southern Baptist clergy. If this list does not suit you or does not seem feasible to you, then we ask you to immediately come up with a list of your own.

In 2002, nationally syndicated "On Religion" columnist Terry Mattingly wrote that "America's largest non-Catholic flock has been hit by waves of clergy sexual abuse affecting untold numbers of women, men, teenagers and children." Those waves have not been quelled. With over 101,000 Southern Baptist clergy in this country, there are too many kids and congregations at risk for there to be any further delay in effectively addressing this problem. We look forward to your further response, and we hope to work with you in the future.

Sincerely,

David Clohessy
SNAP National Director
(314) 566-9790
SNAPclohessy@aol.com


Christa Brown
SNAP - Baptist
(512) 329-5161
christa@stopbaptistpredators.org

Mike Coode
SNAP - Nashville
(615) 364-2334
mikeintn@bellsouth.net

Miguel Prats
SNAP - Texas
(713) 305-0159
snaptxmiguel@yahoo.com



Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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