If a church building had a serious structural problem, leaders would likely call in a foundation expert to inspect the property and advise on appropriate action. But when a Baptist church has a serious problem with its spiritual foundation–when it confronts an allegation of clergy child molestation–leaders circle the wagons and insist they can handle it themselves.
They can’t. This was demonstrated by recent reports about two Baptist pastors in Denton, Texas.
Because the “circle the wagons” pattern is so common, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called on national leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention to develop a strategy to assist churches and better protect kids. Specifically, we asked the SBC to establish an independent review board to objectively consider reports of clergy sex abuse, to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for clergy perpetrators, and to discourage the use of secrecy contracts by church and denominational bodies. Our requests have been ignored.
These were not ground-breaking requests. Similar policies have been adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and by some Protestant groups. But at both the state and national level, Baptist leaders balk.
In 2002, a Baptist Standard editorial observed that “Baptists’ disconnected system for securing ministers indirectly shields perpetrators.” In 2006, the Baptist General Convention of Texas publicly acknowledged that it has a confidential file with ministers “who are reported by a church for sexual misconduct, including child molestation.” These two admissions alone should give parents cause for grave concern.
Yet, in a recent public statement, the Baptist Convention insisted that the names in its file are “confidential…not secret.” This is a meaningless distinction, and with the safety of kids at stake, word games have no place.
Whether Baptist leaders label that file “confidential” or “secret,” what is important is that the people who most need to know what’s in it are not told. In my own case, even after 18 Baptist leaders were put on notice of my substantiated report about a minister’s sexual abuse of me as a kid, and even though the perpetrator’s name sat in that confidential Baptist file, the man continued in children’s ministry in Florida.
Weren’t parents in Florida entitled to know that their minister had been reported for sexually abusing a kid and that the report was substantiated by another minister? Weren’t they entitled to know that the Baptist General Convention of Texas had placed his name in a confidential file of “known offenders” based on “substantial evidence” the abuse took place? If your kids were involved in that Florida church, wouldn’t you want to know?
How many molesting ministers’ names are in that Baptist file and how many kids have they hurt? And why aren’t parents in Baptist pews entitled to know?
Fifteen Catholic dioceses have made public the names of admitted, proven and credibly accused priests. The Baptist General Convention of Texas should do likewise and post on its Web site the names of ministers in that secret file.
Baptist churches need help in confronting clergy abuse, and denominational leaders aren’t providing it. I’m not talking about the sort of help that comes from lawyers who try to keep it quiet with secrecy contracts, as they did in one of the Denton churches. I’m talking about the sort of help that would come from leaders providing congregations with objective, independent investigatory assistance. Autonomous congregations need to get all the facts if they are going to make responsible decisions.
For the safety of kids and the sanctity of congregations, Southern Baptist leaders should take action now, without waiting until they are finally pressured into it by investigative journalists, brave victims and outraged congregants.
A retired appellate attorney, she is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.