Two weeks have passed since Christa Brown and two other survivors of clergy sex abuse hand-delivered a letter to Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., asking leaders to set up an independent panel to address the problem of sexual abuse by clergy.
Brown still hasn’t heard from three leaders addressed in the letter: Morris Chapman, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee; Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and SBC president Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. “Not even the courtesy of a response,” she said.
“SBC leaders seem to think that if they close their eyes long enough, the problem will go away,” Brown told EthicsDaily.com Tuesday. “This is a very dangerous sort of blindness that leaves kids at risk.”
Brown, an attorney, wife and mother in Austin, Texas, said it isn’t the first time convention leaders turned a deaf ear toward her. In 2005 her lawyer wrote a letter reminding them she had previously reported abuse by her youth minister at a Southern Baptist church that occurred when she was 16. The letter went on to say her perpetrator was still active in ministry, serving at a prominent church in Florida and the Baptist General Convention of Texas had determined there was “substantial evidence” of his guilt.
“The SBC never responded to that letter at all,” Brown said, “and my perpetrator continued in ministry. The only reason he was finally made to resign was because of my own efforts and the reporting of the Orlando Sentinel. Not a single one of this denomination’s leaders took action to assure the protection of other kids.”
Since EthicsDaily.com first reported Brown’s story Sept. 27, others have responded with similar stories.
“Thanks so much covering this subject,” wrote one. “I, too, was sexually abused in a small SBC church in the ’80s. It’s hard to maintain faith after something like that happens to you, but exposure that there are other survivors through articles like yours bring healing.”
“The military had their ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ slogan,” wrote another. “The church has ‘don’t tell’ as their directive.
“I know because that is what happened to me. The ministers who exhibited terribly inappropriate sexual behavior have habitually denied what they did, and the senior pastor directed the victim to ‘not tell.’ Whatever happened to common sense in taking responsibility and acting accordingly. What our civil and criminal courts and society does not allow should not be allowed to continue in church, just because it is done by a minister. I have heard so many people say, ‘It may hurt the church,’ or ‘Can’t you just forgive?’ Neither of those comments are reacting in a responsible way or are preventing clergy sexual abuse from being repeated.”
Another woman told of being raped by a “so-called man of God” when she was 15, and she wound up becoming pregnant with his daughter.
“I was told not to tell who the father was as it would hurt the church,” she said. “I was made to go before the church to confess being a pregnant unwed teenager.”
The pastor, she said, moved on to a church in another state, and is still in the ministry. His current church, she said, has been informed of what he did, but he is still there. “I wish I knew how to get the Baptist leaders to change how they do things,” she said.
Another e-mail responded to a story last Tuesday drawing parallels between the experience reported by Brown and allegations of a cover-up in the scandal surrounding former Congressman Mark Foley.
“Why do the Baptists want to keep things that are evil in God’s eyes hidden?” she asked. “It seems like the Baptists and Congress may have something in common. It is long past time to deal with situations in an appropriate manner, and that does not mean to hide or protect the sexual predators, even if they are a political person or minister.”
Brown was one of three representatives of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) who gathered in front of SBC headquarters Sept. 26 to draw attention to what they say is a “systemic” problem that “indirectly shields predators” by allowing them to move from church to church under a cloak of secrecy.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, local churches are responsible for making their own decisions about leadership. Unlike denominations with a hierarchy, the SBC lacks authority to override those decisions or to defrock a minister.
But SNAP says that doesn’t mean the denomination can do nothing to stop sexual predators. They called on the SBC Executive Committee to establish an independent review board with adequate funding to receive and investigate charges of sexual abuse by clergy, educate churches about its existence and adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” toward churches that shield suspected sex offenders.
One respondent told EthicsDaily.com that clergy abuse will stop when clergy know that zero-tolerance is the policy; victims have an unbiased board, rather than colleagues of the predator, to which to report crimes; policies are enacted to block clergy predators from transferring to another church; churches are held responsible for damage done to victims; predator files are not confidential; abusers are tracked across state lines and people in the pews are informed.
“Southern Baptists have over 101,000 clergy in this country,” Brown told EthicsDaily.com. “With that many men in positions of trust, it is foolish for anyone to believe that there are not predators among them.”
One reader told EthicsDaily.com he has no doubt about that. Rev. John O. McKay still shows up in a minister search on the SBC’s official Web site, SBC.net, with an address in Hondo, Texas. That is despite the fact he has been in prison since March 2004, serving a 10-year sentence for sexual assault that occurred in February 2003.
Knowing that predators in Baptist churches “have been shielded and recycled,” Brown said, Baptist leaders need to take responsibility for getting rid of them.
“Isn’t it long past time for SBC leaders to stop hiding in the comfortable dugout of ‘congregational autonomy’ and step up to the plate and start swinging?” she asked. “What kind of so-called ‘moral leaders’ remain mute when the safety of kids is at stake? In remaining silent and in failing to take action, SBC officials stand on an island that is void of any moral ground.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.