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Baptist Churches More Vulnerable to Clergy Sex Abuse, Experts Say

By Hannah Elliott - Associated Baptist Press
Published: January 23, 2007

DALLAS (ABP) -- A recent sex scandal involving two North Texas pastors and the women who accused them of molestation is unusual because the victims -- by now beyond the statute of limitations for sex-abuse cases -- urged authorities and media to publish their names in conjunction with the case.

Typically, the names of sex-abuse victims are not publicized in an effort to spare the victim more emotional trauma. But Katherine Roush and Debbie Vasquez agreed to be identified in order to call attention to an increasingly prominent scathe of clergy sex-abuse cases in Baptist churches.

Larry Reynolds of Southmont Baptist Church in Denton, Texas, and Dale Amyx of Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger, Texas, were accused in separate civil lawsuits of molesting Roush and Vasquez, respectively, during counseling sessions when the girls were 14 years old. The abuse continued for several years, according to charges.

Had the women, now adults, reported the molestation at the time of the crime, each man could have faced first-degree felony charges. In juvenile cases, victims can report a crime until 10 years after their 18th birthday.

Instead of the possible life sentence that would have gone with his felony charge, Reynolds issued an apology at a church Thanksgiving banquet as part of a settlement agreement. His suit was settled out of court. Vasquez’s lawsuit has yet to be resolved.

Sex-abuse charges like the ones in North Texas have become increasingly common, with cases in Missouri, Kentucky and Florida making regional and national news. And some experts have said Baptist churches may be particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse.

Inappropriate behavior by clergy cuts across all denominational ties and theological positions, ethicist Joe Trull said. But he says a case can be made that “nondenominational churches and Baptist churches who have autonomous church government are more vulnerable and susceptible” to instances of sexual abuse.

“In a sense, every one of these situations has certain commonalities,” he said. “But on the other hand, each one has its own unique face. In a sense, they’re all different, but in a sense, they’re all alike.”

The editor of Christian Ethics Today, Trull co-wrote Ministerial Ethics in 2004 and taught Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Possibly if you looked at the statistics, I think there would be a higher incidence [in nondenominational and Baptist churches] because of a lack of accountability,” he said. “[Pastors there] have not been prepared by their denomination. There is still that attitude in seminaries and colleges that prepare these pastors that they’re on their own. It’s that CEO mentality. And the thing that grieves me is that there’s absolutely no sense of how this [misconduct] affects other ministers and churches.”

While Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestant denominations have “spelled-out” obligations for ministerial ethics, Baptist clergy lack a code of ethics to which they can be held accountable.

“In other denominations, [pastors] know that if charges are brought, truth will win out,” Trull said. “Doctors and psychologists know if they are caught, they will lose their credentials and there will probably be a malpractice suit. Most Baptists and nondenominational ministers know that ‘If I get caught, I can move to California and start a new church.’”

The increased instances of sex-abuse stories in the news may not necessarily mean it’s happening more than in prior decades. It often means people are simply talking about it more openly, according to some experts. And victims like Rouse and Vasquez have encouraged others to come forward with their own stories of abuse.

Studies documenting the trend consistently find that roughly 12 percent of ministers have engaged in sexual intercourse with congregants. The Journal of Pastoral Care reported in a 1993 survey that 14 percent of Southern Baptist senior pastors had engaged in “sexual behavior inappropriate for a minister.” In a 1988 study commissioned by Christianity Today, 17 percent of pastors surveyed admitted to having sexual contact with a counselee.

Lee Orth, chairman of the litigation committee at First Baptist Church in Greenwood, Mo., recently helped his church wade through a sex abuse case of its own. A long-time Presbyterian, Orth said the lack of a clear chain of command in Baptist churches means reports of abuse often go overlooked.

“Any time you don’t have to report to anyone what is going on, the chances for abuse are going to occur,” Orth said. “Strangely enough, Baptists are so big on following the Bible exactly, but they completely ignore the part about having elders and deacons [to help lead the church].”

Pastors must be exceedingly clear in understanding who they’re accountable to and who reports to whom, he said. If more Baptist pastors knew they had to meet regularly with a central body or accountability board, they would be less likely to commit the abuse.

“I really think that the autonomy is part of the problem,” he said. “I think there is too much that is put into the hands of the preacher. What you’ve got is a lot of little popes sitting out there, and they’re infallible, and they know what the word is. It’s almost like little kings, little fiefdoms.”

Another situation that can lead to sex abuse is a false sense of security people have when it comes to churches, Robert Leslie, a detective with the Greenwood Police Department, said. It’s something sometimes neglected by personnel committees that receive little oversight from outside sources.

Church leaders and parents must demand due diligence when checking the background and references of anyone working around children, he said.

“Churches have always been a place where everybody trusts everybody,” he said. “Everybody feels safe there. If you think about it, what better place for a predator to go?”

Megachurches in particular can attract the “charismatic, predator-type” minister who repeatedly takes advantage of the power he has over congregants, especially emotionally vulnerable women. The advantage of being a solitary figure at the head of a group brings opportunities for moral failure. Although the number of congregants is high on the weekends, many megachurch pastors lead relatively isolated lives with few, if any, close friends.

“[Pastors of] megachurches and growing Baptist churches are the types that go for predator abuse,” Trull said. “They tend to be loners. They don’t have close friends to keep them accountable.”

The imbalance of power between pastors and victims also plays a large part in the relationship. Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said the abuse often isn’t about sex at all. It’s about power.

A former police officer, Prescott has counseled many victims of sexual abuse and found that the perpetrator often has an unhealthy view of power, sex and social interaction.

“What outrages me is when a church doesn’t do something,” Prescott said. “That’s outrageous. You perpetuate that. Somebody has got stop it, because if you don’t there will be other victims. Somebody has got to accept the responsibility to get [the predator] off the street or get them help.”

What needs to be done, others stress, is to educate seminarians, enlighten congregations, establish codes of conduct, and publish complete lists of pastors guilty of sexual infractions -- no small task for autonomous Baptist churches.

Christa Brown, an attorney from Austin, Texas, insists that Baptist leaders would not let autonomy delay action if they truly cared about protecting children from abuse.

Brown works with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an organization of clergy sexual-abuse survivors. She maintains and has asked the Baptist General Convention of Texas to hire independent experts to investigate sexual-abuse cases within the convention.

SNAP volunteers have also petitioned BGCT leaders to publish a confidential file that lists clergy members guilty of inappropriate sexual behavior.

If a Baptist minister is convicted of an indecency or confesses to one, church leaders can report the act. Other churches can have access to the file if they submit an official request. But the information is not published.

BGCT leaders say the file is proof they’re doing more than other Baptist groups in trying to stop sexual abuse. Indeed, the BGCT is the only Baptist group publicly to acknowledge having such a file.

Oklahoma’s Prescott said church people should be concerned whenever any kind of sexual problem emerges. They have a responsibility to other churches to make that problem public knowledge, but the effectiveness of a master file of offenders depends on the integrity of those making the list, he said.

Trull seconded the call for a list, saying that anyone convicted of sexual abuse or declared guilty by the church should be on a “readily available” list. Even a periodic news bulletin of offenders sent to churches might be in order, he added.

“Too often, people opt to do nothing out of fear,” Trull said. “I personally think the Baptist convention has got to find some way of making it more accessible, in light of the crucial nature of this problem and the devastating effect on these churches. It is hurting the convention, it is hurting income. [They] have got to do something.”

Trull supports creating a code of ethics in Baptist life. Baptists are “really, really weak” on codes of conduct -- “a lot of young ministers today don’t have the foggiest idea of ethical expectations, not just sexual but financial,” Trull said. He added that the training should start before young ministers enter a church.

As a professor, Trull had his students write their own code of ethics and list of obligations to model what they might present to church deacons later in life. Incorporating clauses that require doors with windows and more than one adult present with children and that prohibit closed doors, hugs and prolonged counseling sessions can be included in that code agreement, he said.

New ministers need to know their limitations too, especially as counselors. Lengthy counseling sessions required over a long period of time should often be left to a professional counselor, he said.

Churches should also take the initiative to enact well-publicized and non-negotiable policies for dealing with sexual misdeeds before they even happen. Even with the best of intentions, tragedies can happen unless common sense procedures are enacted in a church, said Orth, the Missouri layman.

Prescott agreed. He’s seen what can happen when congregations don’t know or don’t understand the precursors for sex abuse. When the church doesn’t know how to respond after the fact, the toll is even greater.

“Congregations themselves need to have some sort of understanding of these things,” he said. “The churches have a responsibility when they know that they’ve got someone [with a history of inappropriate sexual behavior] to not just release them but they have a responsibility to other Christians and other churches to make sure that person gets whatever help is needed.”


Copyright © 2005 Associated Baptist Press. All rights reserved.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests