“The fact is any cleric–Catholic or Protestant–who molests a child to satisfy his own dark urges should be immediately dismissed and severely punished. Period. However, church leaders have gone blind to their responsibilities.”
Jerry Falwell directed these remarks, published in 2002 by Baptist Press, mainly at Catholics, but Southern Baptists need to take a look at themselves.
Particularly in light of the Foley scandal, this would be an opportune time for the Southern Baptist Convention to get its own house in order and to institute accountability procedures for protecting kids against clergy predators. After all, as a group of religious leaders recently wrote in an open letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, “protecting children is a biblical responsibility.”
Not long ago, 18 church and denominational leaders were informed of a substantiated report that a Southern Baptist minister had sexually abused a minor church girl, and yet the man was allowed to remain in ministry. These leaders were in four different states and at national headquarters.
Whatever the reasons–whether they were trying to avoid scandal or protect a colleague’s career–those leaders were “blind to their responsibilities.”
From the beginning, a Southern Baptist music minister knew about his colleague’s sexual contact with a minor girl in the church youth group. He has sworn to that knowledge, and his Texas church has admitted it. It was admitted “sexual contact”–not just e-mails.
Yet, that sexually abusive man was not removed from ministry and nor was he punished. Instead, he was sent on his way to work in children’s ministry at a larger Texas church, and after that, he went to churches in Georgia and Florida.
And the music minister who knew but stayed quiet and allowed countless other kids to be put in danger? He’s still a minister at the same church. The many other denominational leaders who turned a blind eye are also still in positions of power and influence.
That Texas church girl was me, and the abuse had a soul-murdering impact. When my own daughter reached the age I was at the time of the abuse, I began to resurrect the horrific memories and made a report to church and denominational leaders. I assumed they would make sure other congregations were warned and other kids protected.
How naive I was. Despite the knowledge of its own music minister who was still on staff, the Texas church responded by threatening recourse against me.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas determined there was “substantial evidence” the abuse took place, but it simply kept that determination in a confidential file. And the Southern Baptist Convention responded that it had no record that the man was still a minister in any church.
Finally, with no help from church or denominational leaders, I found the man, still working in children’s ministry at a Florida Baptist church. I then sent letters to Florida’s Baptist leaders at church, regional and state offices. I told them how they could contact the Texas convention to confirm its determination of “substantial evidence.” But none of the Florida leaders even responded to my letters.
After a full year of trying to get some action from church and denominational leaders, I filed a lawsuit and contacted an Orlando Sentinel reporter. Only then, when the matter became public knowledge, was the man finally made to resign from his ministerial position.
Why were people not told about this minister sooner? Why were so many church and denominational leaders so “blind to their responsibilities?”
The Texas church finally issued a formal apology for the “very serious sexual abuse” that was inflicted on me as a kid. Some might think that should end the matter, but as a mother, I cannot keep quiet when I believe kids are at risk.
Baptist scholars report that clergy sex abuse is as prevalent among Baptists as among Catholics. Yet this denomination has no procedures for tracking abusive clergy across state lines, for removing them from ministry, or for informing people in the pews.
If it takes all that I went through to bring to light a minister who sexually abused a minor, then this is a denomination in which it is way too easy for clergy predators to hide. How many kids will have their innocence stolen and their faith betrayed before Southern Baptist leaders lift their blinders and take action?
A retired appellate attorney, she is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.