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Victims of Baptist Clergy Abuse Urge SBC Leaders to Take Action

By Hannah Elliott - Associated Baptist Press
Published: September 27, 2006

NASHVILLE (ABP) -- Members of the coalition that fought the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy over sexual abuse by priests are asking the Southern Baptist Convention to prevent similar clergy abuse in the denomination's churches.

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, delivered a letter to the SBC Executive Committee at its Nashville headquarters Sept. 26. It asks convention leaders to form an independent review board to receive and investigate charges of clergy abuse in Southern Baptist congregations.

Abuse from clergy is a "systemic" problem, the letter said, and must be addressed by the denomination's main permanent governing body, the Executive Committee. SNAP members also mailed the missive to South Carolina pastor Frank Page, who was elected to the SBC presidency in June.

The letter is the second one they have sent to Southern Baptist leaders.

"Just as [a] family member cannot properly investigate a molestation claim made against a close relative, local church leaders cannot properly investigate a report of clergy abuse made against a much-loved minister," SNAP members wrote. "The usual dynamics dictate that there cannot possibly be a proper inquiry without outside intervention."

Part of the difficulty the SBC faces in taking aggressive action involves the autonomous nature of local churches in Baptist polity. Since individual congregations have full control over their decision-making and governing processes, the SBC can't dictate rules or punishment to them.

Christa Brown, 54, who said she was abused by a Southern Baptist youth minister in 1968, told Associated Baptist Press she believes if SBC leaders cared enough to focus on protecting kids, they would not let congregational autonomy be an impediment to action.

"For denominational leaders to use congregational autonomy as an excuse for inaction strikes me as a rather Pharisee-like focus on an ecclesiological legalism," said Brown, who maintains , a website aimed at challenging Southern Baptist leaders to "get tough" on sex abuse by clergy. "And it's a misplaced focus that is very dangerous because it leaves kids at risk."

In January, Brown won an apology from the Texas Baptist church that employed the youth minister she says sexually abused her when she was 16. Officials took no legal action against the man at the time, and he was employed by other churches for more than two decades. Brown filed a lawsuit that was settled out of court last year.

Abuse survivors complain that too often abusive ministers move on to other churches without being punished, only to repeat the abuse in another location.

The SNAP letter said that, given the frequently reported pattern of church officials failing to respond to clergy-abuse allegations, the SBC must provide national leadership to rid the ranks of such repetitive predators.

"When kids are at stake, there is no place for passivity on the part of denominational leaders," it said.

David Clohessy, Mike Coode, Miguel Prats and Brown said in their letter that the denomination's structure is no excuse for Executive Committee inaction.

Southern Baptists have shown themselves capable of cooperative endeavors when they choose, they wrote, so, "given that congregational autonomy does not preclude a cooperative denomination-wide effort for these other endeavors, why should it preclude a domination-wide effort at protecting kids from clergy predators?"

SBC president Page responded to SNAP's first letter. After stating how disturbed he was by the egregious abuse of power in some local churches, Page said he would meet with SBC officials to see whether they "might provide this kind of assistance without infringing upon the autonomy of these state-level or local-level entities."

Requests in the latest letter call for a victim hotline, church-wide education about sexual abuse, and a "zero tolerance" policy for Southern Baptist churches that hire someone with any report of having sexually abused a minor. Another issue in the letter highlights the fact that the Baptist General Convention of Texas keeps confidential a file of ministers who reportedly committed sexual misconduct. The SNAP representatives said parents nationwide should have access to the list.

The SNAP letter asks the SBC Executive Committee to recommend the establishment of a review board to messengers at the SBC's 2007 annual meeting, set for San Antonio.

According to the Tennessean of Nashville, SBC officials have said they will continue to provide support for abuse victims and will fully support criminal prosecution when necessary.

Copyright © 2005 Associated Baptist Press. All rights reserved.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests