Baptist Churches More Vulnerable to Clergy Sex Abuse, Experts
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. Vasquezs 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, theyre all different, but in a sense, theyre
The editor of Christian Ethics Today, Trull co-wrote Ministerial
Ethics in 2004 and taught Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist
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 theyre on their own. Its that CEO mentality. And
the thing that grieves me is that theres 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 its 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 dont 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 theyre
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 youve got is a lot of little popes sitting
out there, and theyre infallible, and they know what the word
is. Its 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. Its
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,
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 dont have close friends to keep them
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 isnt
about sex at all. Its 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 doesnt do something,
Prescott said. Thats outrageous. You perpetuate that.
Somebody has got stop it, because if you dont 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
www.stopbaptistpredators.org 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
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 theyre 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
Oklahomas 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 dont 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. Hes seen what can happen when congregations
dont know or dont understand the precursors for sex
abuse. When the church doesnt 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 theyve 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.