Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page said in an interview aired Friday on network television the nation’s largest Protestant organization is looking into creating a national registry of clergy sex offenders.
Page and other SBC leaders have so far resisted requests by an advocacy group, which five years ago pressured the Roman Catholic Church to establish an independent review board to weed out pedophile priests, asking the SBC to do the same.
SBC leaders told the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) that Baptists’ tradition of local-church autonomy leaves the responsibility for screening ministers to the local congregation.
Interviewed on an ABC News “20/20” program about preacher predators in Protestant flocks, however, Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., told reporter Jim Avila, “If it would help to have some national database, I know we are looking into that.”
Asked later about the lack of such a denomination-wide clearinghouse, Page reiterated, “We are looking at the creation of such a registry.”
SNAP leaders in February showed up uninvited to a meeting of an SBC Executive Committee work group, which had listed a discussion of the SBC’s response to the group on its agenda. In that discussion, it became clear SBC leaders weren’t pleased with SNAP telling the media they had been unresponsive to concerns about the safety of children in churches, claiming they had answered every letter received from SNAP.
It turned out a couple of letters from an SBC official were misplaced and discovered later unopened at SNAP’s Chicago office. SNAP apologized for the miscommunication.
In an April 5 e-mail, however, Christa Brown of SNAP-Baptist told EthicsDaily.com what she said Feb. 19 is still true: Southern Baptist leaders haven’t made “any response of substance or meaning to SNAP’s request for action” or done anything to help make kids safer. The missing letter at the time of the February faux pas, she said, was a “brush off” letter from an SBC official mailed in September saying further discussion with SNAP would not be “positive or fruitful.”
Despite a rash of recent cases, Page has said he does not believe the problem of sexual abuse by clergy is “large and systemic” in the SBC.
“20/20” provided EthicsDaily.com with what the segment’s producer nicknamed her “tainted pastor” list, compiled during a six-month investigation that included stories reported earlier by EthicsDaily.com. The names included:
—Kenneth Payne, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church outside Lynchburg, Va. He claimed innocence but recently was found guilty of molesting a teenage boy he tutored.
—Garrett Dykes of Calvary Church in Wetumpka, Ala. He pleaded guilty to molesting an 8-year-old girl.
—Larry Nuell Neathery of Westside Victory Baptist Church, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was convicted of 25 charges of sex abuse of five boys.
—Gregory Stanley Dempsey, former music minister at Oak Creek Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. He just started a prison sentence for statutory rape of someone who attended the church.
—John O. McKay of First Baptist Church of in Hondo, Texas. As EthicsDaily.com reported Oct. 11, he is currently serving a 10-year sentence for a sex assault.
—Doug Myers, most recently pastor of a community church in Florida, was, as EthicsDaily.com first reported Jan. 5, pastor of Southern Baptist churches in Maryland, Alabama and Florida before he was sent to prison in January for seven years for molesting a fatherless grandson of a church member.
Despite being convicted of sex offenses involving minors, all six are still listed as Southern Baptist ministers in an on-line directory at SBC.Net.
“20/20” also found names of four other convicted felons who worked at Southern Baptist churches, whose names don’t show up in the SBC database.
The network found eight more Southern Baptist ministers facing current charges of sex offenses involving children, minus one recently arrested pastor who claimed innocence and a few days later shot himself to death.
ABC documented four other long-time pastors and church staff members who confessed to past wrongdoing but cannot be prosecuted due to statutes of limitation.
The “20/20” investigation also uncovered names of two ministerial students currently enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose names are listed in an online registry of convicted sex offenders, a fact reported April 4 by EthicsDaily.com.
Seminary president Albert Mohler and spokesman Lawrence Smith did not respond to inquiries at the time by EthicsDaily.com about their policy on admitting students with backgrounds including sex crimes, but Smith told a local TV station just before Friday’s “20/20” broadcast the seminary’s policy is “not to accept students who are listed on any sex offender registry.”
An Oklahoma pastor announced last week he would bring a motion to this year’s SBC annual meeting asking the denomination to study the feasibility of setting up a database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been convicted of sexual harassment and abuse.
While welcoming any response, Brown said a listing of convicted offenders doesn’t go far enough. Studies say the average male offender who abuses minor girls has 52 victims before he is caught. The rate for offenders who abuse minor boys is an average of 152 victims. Ninety-seven percent of such crimes, she said, go undetected. The majority of priests defrocked in the Catholic pedophilia scandal weren’t convicted, and therefore did not show up in criminal registries.
SNAP says churches should take all allegations of sexual abuse by clergy seriously, and the Southern Baptist Convention cannot hide behind the excuse of local-church autonomy to avoid exercising leadership in the interest of protecting kids.
While SNAP apologized promptly for saying inaccurately SBC leaders had not responded to a letter, Brown said, no one at the SBC has apologized for erroneously telling her in 2004 the denomination had no record the man she says abused her as a youth minister at a Southern Baptist church when she was 16 was still a Southern Baptist minister.
Through efforts of her own, Brown discovered he was serving a church in Florida. After she contacted 18 Baptist officials in four states and at the national headquarters, she says, the perpetrator was not forced out of the ministry until the Orlando Sentinel carried news about her lawsuit against him.
While the SBC’s attorney told Brown they had no record of alleged abuser Tommy Gilmore, he had served for years alongside former SBC president Charles Stanley at First Baptist Church in Atlanta. In 1986 Gilmore was entrusted with arranging child care for 50,000 messengers when the convention met in Atlanta.
Another high-profile case involved a longtime minister at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., who served alongside former three-time SBC president Adrian Rogers. He reportedly admitted to Rogers’ successor he committed incest with his minor son 17 years earlier, and current pastor Steve Gaines kept it quiet seven months until the victim came forward.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.