Addressing the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote in a syndicated piece before Easter that the sexual scandals in Catholicism and Protestantism were different.
After rightfully acknowledging that Protestants have their own “blemished history” and listing examples of the “hall of shame,” Thomas contended that the difference between Protestants and Catholics was that the sexual scandals in Protestantism were “between consenting adults.”
He did not excuse such behavior, referring to it as sin.
Nonetheless, his framing of the differences is inexcusable. He has led his readers to believe that the sexual abuse of children by clergy isn’t a Protestant problem. That, of course, is a tragic misunderstanding.
Perhaps Thomas is uninformed about the preachers who prey on children in the Southern Baptist Convention in particular and the Baptists in general, a scandal that has been exhaustively covered on EthicsDaily.com with well over 100 articles. He is certainly unfamiliar with Christa Brown, founder of Stop Baptist Predators and Baptist coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who has tirelessly sought to rip off the cover of secrecy within Baptist life and to press Baptists to reform their practices.
If Thomas is uninformed about the Baptist child-abuse scandal, then Baptist denominational leaders have successfully kept the shameful, systemic problem off the national media’s radar.
Protecting the Baptist denomination and churches from public humiliation and discrediting has been a higher priority for many Baptist leaders than protecting children from the predatory ministers – ministers who move from church to church, state to state, without punishment, only to harm again.
One Baptist state convention even dismissed a staff member after his reporting on a preacher predator in an apparent effort to protect the preacher and the organization.
A Fox News commentator and a former vice president of the Moral Majority (1980-85), Thomas does strike a note for justice, however.
“The Catholic Church must be held accountable. A formal investigation should be conducted, which exempts no one, including the pope. It should be run by people not in the church hierarchy or beholden to it. Anything less will not satisfy public opinion, much less a Higher Authority,” wrote Thomas.
The same recommendation should be applied in Baptist life. Granted Baptists are non-hierarchical. Baptists lack the formal structure of bishops, cardinals and a pope. Baptists lack the centralized authority, claiming churches are autonomous.
But as an EthicsDaily.com editorial pointed out two years ago, the shield of local church autonomy is a false one that should not be used to protect predatory preachers and that Baptist leaders know too well about the official church connectivity and “unofficial web of clergy connectivity.”
The editorial argued that the biblical concept of church autonomy should not be used to override the biblical concept of protecting the vulnerable.
While Baptist church polity is messier and more confusing than Catholic polity, both traditions do share another commonality on the clergy child-abuse front – the primacy of orthodoxy, right belief, over orthopraxy, right behavior.
News stories have repeatedly portrayed Pope Benedict XVI, as a cardinal in Germany and an official at the Vatican, as being more interested in rooting out theological corruption than moral corruption of pedophile priests and their enablers. Called “God’s Rottweiler,” he was interested in punishing priests for theological differences with the church, such as liberation theologians, and turned a blind eye to priests who molested children.
Baptists, too, have leaders who are fixated more on everyone agreeing with their theological interpretation of every jot and tittle than with creating a workable system that protects children from predatory preachers.
Catholic and Baptist leaders have more similarities than differences on the child-abuse front. Both have harmed church members and the Christian witness by not swiftly addressing predatory clergy and designing reliable protective systems.
And both have covered up predatory behavior until those outside the male-dominated system of preachers/priests rang the alarm bell.
Sacraments may differ. But the systems, secrecy and spin are similar – and shameful.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.