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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, 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 offender status.

"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 issues.

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 records."

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

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