A TV station in Jacksonville, Fla., reports that leaders in a prominent Baptist church in the city knew for years their former pastor was a pedophile, but covered it up for fear public knowledge would harm the church’s ministry, shipping the minister to Germany where he served 10 years as a missionary, possibly with access to other children.

First CoastNews carried segments Tuesday and Wednesday night with interviews of several alleged victims of Bob Gray, a former pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for 38 years charged with capital sex crimes against three girls and a boy, now adults. Since his arrest in May, more than 20 women have come forward to say they were molested as children by Gray.

The Baptist Mission for Forgotten People, where Gray finished his ministry as a missionary, wasn’t told anything about his background for 10 years and did not find out until Gray was arrested, a spokesperson told reporter Jeannie Blaylock.

Trinity Baptist Church is not part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but collusion can–and does–happen in Southern Baptist churches as well, says Christa Brown, one of four representatives of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) signing a Sept. 26 letter to SBC leaders calling for a coordinated effort to combat clergy sexual abuse.

“This is a pattern we have seen over and over again in religious institutions, always with the same tragic result that many more kids fall prey,” Brown, an appellate lawyer and survivor of clergy sex abuse, told EthicsDaily.com. “Too many times, when confronted with reports of ministers molesting kids, Southern Baptist leaders have turned away and failed to take action.”

Brown says she was sexually abused for six months in 1968 and 1969 by a minister of education/youth at her Southern Baptist church in Texas. After several months she told the church’s music minister what happened. He went to the offender and threatened to bring the matter before the church unless he left, which he did.

When her daughter turned 16, the same age as when she suffered her own abuse, memories resurfaced and Brown in 2004 reported the minister’s name to Southern Baptist Convention officials. They responded there was no record her perpetrator was currently a minister in a Southern Baptist church.

He in fact was serving in a church in Florida, after having worked for years at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, a mega-church whose pastor, Charles Stanley, is a former SBC president.

SBC officials have not responded to the Sept. 26 letter by SNAP, but in previous correspondence indicated there are limits to what Southern Baptists can do to address the problem by their congregational form of church government.

Brown says she recognizes challenges posed by autonomy of the local church, but she argues–including at length in a current discussion on BaptistLife.com–the denomination should not use its polity as an excuse for doing nothing to protect kids from sexual predators.

Brown says she went to 18 Southern Baptist leaders in four states with substantiated accounts of her own abuse, but her perpetrator did not leave the ministry until after she filed a lawsuit and a story about it appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.

Ecclesiology did not prevent the SBC from addressing another autonomy issue–homosexuality. In 1992 the SBC amended its constitution defining membership to add: “Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”

For 147 years before that, membership was defined solely in terms of “friendly cooperation” and financial support. That year two churches in North Carolina made news for affirming gays: one by blessing a same-sex couple and the other by licensing a minister who was openly gay.

Neither church sent messengers to the 1992 annual meeting, denying the convention the traditional way of disciplining congregations by refusing to seat their messengers. Instead the convention determined to settle the matter once and for all in the constitution.

Some of the debate, according to a news account at the time by Associated Baptist Press, centered on polity concerns, specifically about Southern Baptists being tempted to add other “practices we find objectionable” to impose on local churches.

“We know of no other issues contrary to the Bible (that have surfaced in churches),” said C. Ray Fuller, chairman of the committee that brought the proposal. When those issues surface, Fuller said, “We will come back and address those issues as well.”

James Guenther, the SBC’s long time attorney, viewed the action as “historic” in Southern Baptist ecclesiology. “It is hard to overestimate the significance of this change,” he said. “The convention has always had the power to determine which churches will be in friendly cooperation, but for one reason or another … has never thought an issue was so important as to look to the faith and order of a church.”

Richard Land, now president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and one of the leaders addressed in the recent SNAP letter, justified the action, because, “There have never been two Southern Baptist churches that so directly challenged basic Southern Baptist belief.” He predicted it was “highly unlikely” the SBC would soon add other restrictions to the constitution.

Ed Young, SBC president at the time, had reservations about getting into the business of putting doctrine in convention bylaws, but he said the two churches were so far out of line it raised the question of “whether or not they are New Testament churches.”

The current pastor at TrinityBaptistChurch, Tom Messer, declined to comment for the First Coast News reports. He said in an Oct. 1 statement on the church Web site that attorneys “found no indication of a cover-up, either deliberate or unintentional.”

“God knows that I have beat myself up second guessing things I might have done differently,” Messer confessed, and “despite our best efforts, things could have been done differently.”

Brown of SNAP said, “The unfolding tragedy in Jacksonville should be a wake-up call to SBC leaders to get their own house in order and to assure that Southern Baptist churches do not harbor clergy predators.”

Trinity recently was host church for a meeting of the Southwide Baptist Fellowship. Two Southern Baptists spoke to the independent group.

Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., referred to the sexual-abuse crisis dismissively, comparing it to a “bump in the road.”

Jerry Vines, a past SBC president and retired pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, reportedly praised the church’s ministries without mentioning the scandal.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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