Southern Baptists Confront Their Own Sexual Abuse Scandal
By Adelle M. Banks - Religion News Service
April 19, 2007
Five years after the clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted within
the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists are confronting their own
allegations of abuse and calls for greater steps to protect minors
from predatory pastors.
Although the Baptists seem to confront the issue on a smaller scale,
media reports, activists' pleas and recent actions by some within
the nation's largest Protestant denomination indicate what Catholic
officials have long insisted: that sexual abuse is not a problem
confined to their church.
-- Two young pastors who have used their blogs to influence other
Southern Baptists have authored proposals they hope will be considered
at their annual meetingin June. One calls for a study on developing
a database of Southern Baptist ministers convicted of sex abuse,
and the other urges churches to "pursue every possible avenue"
in vetting a pastor's moral and ethical credentials.
-- Bellevue Baptist Church, a prominent Memphis, Tenn.-area congregation,
issued a lengthy report in January admitting it was "ill-prepared
on several fronts" to handle the case of a minister on staff
who had engaged in "inappropriate sexual behavior" with
his son 17 years ago.
-- The activist group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
(SNAP) and a Catholic whistleblower priest have called on Southern
Baptists to adopt review panels and registries of offending clergy
for greater oversight.
Southern Baptist officials, meanwhile, say theirdenomination's
decentralized structure and autonomous congregations prevent them
from complying with some of the proposed reforms. They say they
have addressed the issue in the past, and urge churches to conduct
background checks on employees and volunteers.
"There is no Southern Baptist Convention office which collects
and provides any qualifying information, including information about
sex abuse convictions or accusations, with regard to any local church
employees, including ministers," said D. August Boto, general
counsel of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee,
in an e-mail response to questions.
" ... The Southern Baptist Convention was formed on the belief
that the selection of its ministers is a sacred right held and exercised
by the local church alone under the leadership of God."
In recent weeks, media reports have highlighted men who have been
convicted of sex crimes and who have worked or studied in Southern
Baptist circles. As recently as Wednesday (April 18), names matching
those of several convicted sex offenders -- and in some cases, men
who are currently imprisoned -- could be found in an online search
for ministers on the denomination's Web site, www.sbc.net. The names
have since been removed.
That same day, two male students at Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Louisville, Ky., were listed on the Kentucky State Police's
sex offender registry.
Boto said the "MinisterSearch" list on the denomination's
site is "absolutely not a list of approved or vetted ministers"
but simply a list based on reports from churches of their employees.
As for the seminary students, a seminary spokesman confirmed that
the students are at the school, but could not confirm their sex
"Our current policy is that no student on the sex offender
registry can be admitted as a student at Southern Seminary,"
said Lawrence Smith.
Asked if students admitted prior to the implementation of the current
policy can remain on campus even if they are on such a registry,
Smith said, "You could draw that conclusion."
When asked if he could say that is the case with the particular
students in question, Smith said, "I can't," citing privacy
Christa Brown, who coordinates SNAP's activism in Baptist churches
and runs a "Stop Baptist Predators" Web site, said she
has compiled information on "dozens" of cases of Southern
Baptist ministers who have confessed, been convicted or "credibly
accused" of sex abuse of children.
But her research, based on media reports, is not conclusive.
"There are no firm numbers out there," said Brown, of
Austin, Texas. "I think part of the lack of data should be
attributed to Southern Baptists themselves because they don't keep
Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page and other denominational
officials say they are considering some kind of list of ministers
convicted of sexual abuse but have not made a decision.
"We're looking at all options," Page said in a recent
interview. "Any molestation is too much. We have a zero tolerance
policy. We believe the Bible teaches that."
Wade Burleson, an Enid, Okla., pastor, hopes the convention will
take up his proposal to study a database of ministers convicted
of sexual abuse or harassment.
"I just think it's appropriate for the Southern Baptist Convention
to take a hard, serious look at it," said Burleson, who is
also a widely read Baptist blogger.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and canon lawyer in Vienna,
Va., warned Catholic bishops in the mid-1980s of potential problems
with clergy sex abuse. He recently wrote to Page and Morris Chapman,
head of the SBC Executive Committee, with a similar warning call.
"While the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is
different from the congregational structure of Baptists, you should
nevertheless realize that your 'no authority' argument is actually
quite analogous to what Catholic bishops were espousing prior to
2002," Doyle wrote in a March 30 letter.
"I hope ... good ministers of the Lord in your denomination
never have to endure the nightmare the Catholic Church finds itself
in because of its institutional neglect of the Lord's message."
In 2002, when the Catholic scandal erupted in Boston, Southern
Baptists passed a resolution at their annual convention on "sexual
integrity" of the clergy.
"We acknowledge our own fallenness and the need to prevent
such appalling sins from happening within our own ranks," the
statement reads. "We encourage those religious bodies dealing
with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks
of predatory ministers."
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune