A bipartisan House committee just released its investigatory results. It found that speaker Dennis Hastert and other congressional leaders were negligent in failing to protect teenagers from inappropriate advances by former Representative Mark Foley.
Much of the language in that report might also apply to Southern Baptist leaders who have failed to protect teens from clergy child molesters.
“A pattern of conduct was exhibited among many individuals to remain willfully ignorant of the potential consequences” of Foley’s behavior, said the House committee’s report.
Baptist leaders have shown a similar “pattern of conduct.” When a man can remain in ministry even after 18 Baptist leaders receive notice of a substantiated report involving his sexual abuse of a teen–abuse far more serious than e-mails–then too many leaders are remaining “willfully ignorant of the potential consequences.”
As professor Marci Hamilton explained, “Members of Congress should know by now that sex crimes against children (even when they are in their teens) are extremely serious–and that child predators are typically serial perpetrators.”
This appears to be a lesson that Baptist leaders have yet to learn. By remaining “willfully ignorant,” they leave kids at risk of extremely serious harm.
The House committee also found “a disconcerting unwillingness to take responsibility for resolving issues regarding Representative Foley’s conduct.” Congressional leaders “did far too little, while attempting to pass the responsibility for acting to others.”
Again, Southern Baptist leaders show a similar “unwillingness to take responsibility.” Rather than taking action to appropriately deal with ministers reported for molesting minors, Baptist leaders recite the mantra of congregational autonomy as though, by mere invocation of the words, they might pass the burden of moral responsibility to someone else.
Meanwhile, in the real world outside the mantra’s trance, reported perpetrators are left in positions of trust, and kids are left at risk of grave harm.
“The failure to exhaust all reasonable efforts to call attention to potential misconduct involving a member and House pages is not merely the exercise of poor judgment, it is a present danger to House pages and to the integrity of the institution….”
Similarly, the failure of Baptist leaders to call attention to ministers reported for child molestation creates a present danger for church kids. That failure occurs, not merely when the misconduct is “potential,” but even when the minister’s kid-molesting conduct is actually substantiated by another minister’s sworn affidavit. It occurs even when the kid-molesting conduct is confirmed by offices of a state convention. And it occurs even when the kid-molesting conduct is shown by a paternity judgment against the minister for fathering a child by a teen in another congregation.
Like congressional leaders, Baptist leaders are failing to treat child sex abuse allegations with the deadly seriousness they deserve. That failure compromises the integrity of the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Though the House committee concluded that no rules were broken, its report constitutes a clear rebuke of the many congressional leaders who turned a blind eye. Similarly, Baptist leaders may tiptoe around legal liability, but their blindness should nevertheless be rebuked.
At least with our political leaders, the matter was deemed worthy of an investigation. Shouldn’t our religious leaders be held to at least the same level of accountability?
If a Baptist minister had been sending lurid e-mails to teens, there would be no denominational process for an investigation into who knew what. Indeed, even when Baptist ministers have done far worse, and even when other leaders have known, there has still been no investigation. People in the pews are simply left uninformed.
Not only are people usually left uninformed about clergy child molesters, but also about the many more Baptist leaders who have turned a blind eye.
Perhaps this is why Southern Baptist leaders have ignored SNAP’s call for an independent board to investigate reports of clergy sex abuse. Perhaps they are afraid of what those investigations might reveal about the many who turned a blind eye when the safety of kids was at stake.
Perhaps they are afraid of the outrage people in the pews might feel if they saw the extent to which the integrity of the denomination has been compromised by the blindness of its leaders to ministers who molest kids.
Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.”