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Texas Baptists cracking down on clergy sex abuse

Group publishes list of convicted workers, makes reporting easier

By Sam Hodges
June 5, 2007

The Baptist General Convention of Texas says it's stepping up the fight against clergy sexual misconduct, including posting on its Web site the names of convicted sex offenders known to have worked in Texas Baptist churches.

The Dallas-based group also is making it easier for its 5,600 affiliated congregations to report sexual misconduct by a pastor, and is considering starting a hotline for individuals who want to report allegations directly to the BGCT.

"The BGCT is concerned about the problem of clergy sexual misconduct, and we care deeply about its victims," said Emily Prevost, a staff member who has helped implement the changes.

While some Baptist leaders applauded the BGCT, a representative of a victims' group was less enthusiastic.

"These are very small and inadequate steps," said Christa Brown of Austin, who has helped the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to extend its work to victims of Baptist clergy.

Most Protestant denominations are more centralized than Baptists and have been able to respond more directly to clergy sexual misconduct. Baptist churches hire their own pastors and don't brook interference from state conventions or the Southern Baptist Convention.

But because of the efforts of advocates like Ms. Brown, as well as media reports of spectacular cases of sexual misconduct by Baptist pastors, the SBC and state conventions have faced pressure to act.

The BGCT began Friday to post the names of eight convicted sex offenders who have been ministers in Texas Baptist churches. Most of the cases involved minors.

Some of the offenders are behind bars, and the BGCT has no information that any of those who are free are working at a church, Ms. Prevost said. The convention can't guarantee they aren't, she added.

The BGCT is publishing their names to give prospective employer churches fair warning.

"We don't want anyone to hire without knowledge," she said.

The BGCT plans to cross-check a database of registered Texas sex offenders with staff lists from BGCT churches. If pastors with a sex offense background come to light, their names will be added to the Web site list.

The convention has long kept a confidential list of pastors believed to have engaged in homosexual relationships or sexual misconduct including adultery or pornography addiction. Pastors can get on the list through a conviction or, in the case of noncriminal activity, a confession or a report from a church.

Churches looking to hire a pastor can send a notarized form to the BGCT, asking if a particular job candidate is on the list. The BGCT says yes or no. It does not reveal the nature of the misconduct.

The BGCT has always required a church reporting on a pastor's sexual misconduct to have "substantial evidence," reviewed by a lawyer. But the BGCT has now waived that requirement, saying that if church officials are convinced of the misconduct, the pastor will go on the list.

Fewer than 100 names are on the confidential list. Eliminating the evidence requirement may cause the list to grow, Ms. Prevost said.

The BGCT's moves cheered the Rev. Benjamin Cole, pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, who has called on the SBC to do more to protect children in its churches.

"I commend the Baptist General Convention of Texas for their proactive determination, and I pray that Baptists all across the country will follow suit," he said.

Joe Trull, a Baptist ethicist who has written extensively about clergy sex abuse and has worked with the BGCT on its policies, called the new moves a "giant step."

He said the convention should also start a hotline for those who don't feel comfortable directing complaints to a church. Such a hotline is under consideration, Ms. Prevost said.

Ms. Brown said the BGCT should not only have a hotline but investigate any complaints that come in, and make sure that offenders aren't moving from church to church.

The BGCT has done more other state Baptist conventions, she said, but she called that fact "terrifying." She said Baptists still haven't come to terms with the extent and tragedy of the clergy abuse problem.

"I heard from an 81-year-old woman the other day who said this happened to her in a Dallas church when she was 16 years old," Ms. Brown said. "I was the first person she had told."

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Copyright © 2007 The Dallas Morning News

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests