Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Sept. 18, 2007. Bob Allen was managing editor at the time of publication. This story was part of EthicsDaily.com’s efforts to bring to light clergy sexual abuse in the U.S., particularly within Baptist churches. More than a decade later, reporting by The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News documented 700 cases of abuse over a 20-year period. This has resulted in repentance by Southern Baptist Convention leadership, including current president J.D. Greear calling for a formal investigation of sexual abuse within the convention and its affiliated congregations.
A victims’ advocacy and support group asked Southern Baptist Convention leaders to seek input from outside experts and victims in developing a denomination-wide response to sexual abuse by clergy.
In June, SBC messengers referred a motion to the SBC Executive Committee requesting “a feasibility study concerning the development of a database of Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse and that such a database be accessible to Southern Baptist churches.”
“Baptist believers have spoken, and it is time for their leaders to listen,” Christa Brown, Baptist outreach leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a sidewalk press conference outside SBC headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.
Brown, of Austin, Texas, and SNAP National Director David Clohessy of St. Louis traveled to Nashville to hand-deliver a letter to members of the Executive Committee’s bylaws work group urging them to be “open and transparent” about the study’s methodology and resources.
“We request that you proactively solicit input from experts and from other religious leaders who have gone down similar roads ahead of you, and that you receive their testimony in a public hearing,” the letter said. “We request that you schedule a private hearing to receive testimony from victims.”
Brown and Clohessy said there have been “far too many” reports over the last year of Baptist clergy sex abuse combined with church cover-ups, indicating that both victims and churches need help.
SNAP has been urging the SBC to establish an objective review board to determine credible accusations and warn churches about predator preachers and respond compassionately to wounded victims.
The Executive Committee’s bylaws work group discussed clergy sexual abuse for more than an hour.
Work groups are open to the media on background reporting rules, which prohibit direct quotation or attribution.
SNAP representatives were allowed to sit in the gallery of the work group meeting but were not invited to speak.
A couple of references to the group used adversarial terms. One described SNAP as a special-interest group and another referred to critics that lack integrity and will not be satisfied no matter what Southern Baptists do.
Brown, a victim of sexual abuse by her Southern Baptist youth minister when she was a teenager in Texas, said afterward she was discouraged by the tone of the discussion.
“It’s very hurtful,” she told EthicsDaily.com. “I wish people could know my motivation. I wish they could get the e-mails I get and the phone calls I get.”
Since starting a website, Stop Baptist Predators, Brown said she has talked to “well over a hundred” survivors of clergy sex abuse, most who didn’t know where else to turn.
With her volunteer-produced and unfunded website getting such a response, she wondered how many more victims would come forward if the SBC put its influence and funding behind a similar project.
Clohessy said it was “very sad” to hear “people that have tried to turn their personal pain into child protection so mischaracterized.”
“It shows we have a long way to go,” he said.
Most of the discussion was about resources to educate work group members about the scope and nature of the problem.
Executive Committee leaders said they are not yet ready to make a recommendation on the feasibility of a database.
An official said the Executive Committee was already studying the issue before this summer’s motion about the feasibility study and may or may not be ready to give a final report when the convention meets next summer.
Dee Ann Miller, a former SBC missionary turned advocacy writer since 1993, weighed in with an email asking convention leaders to receive Brown and SNAP’s requests with “utmost care, thought and respect.”
Miller said denominations dealing with sexual abuse by clergy must move outside “closed” systems to include “outsiders,” who are more objective and can see things that “insiders” cannot.
“I once thought that we Southern Baptists didn’t need help from others,” Miller said. “I now understand that no group has a monopoly on supreme insights, and we must reach far and wide beyond ourselves to find those insights, always in prayer, of course.”
While most media attention on clergy sexual abuse in recent years has focused on the Roman Catholic Church, news stories about Baptist clergy caught in molestation scandals are becoming more frequent.
A Southern Baptist pastor in California pleaded not guilty to 107 counts of sexual misconduct involving two girls. John Bonine, 43, pastor of Sierra Heights in Fresno, is charged with lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14 over a period of nearly five years.
Because Bonine’s alleged crime involved more than one victim, according to the Fresno Bee, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Other recent reports include the August sentencing of a former Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary student to 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually abusing several teenage boys he mentored while a volunteer youth worker at a Southern Baptist church in North Carolina, and a Chicago-area Southern Baptist church that allowed a preacher to remain in its pulpit despite knowing he was a convicted child-sex offender.
In June, the Florida Baptist Convention was named in a lawsuit alleging negligence for recruiting a pastor to start Southern Baptist churches in the state, who was later convicted of molesting an 11-year-old boy.
Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.