A Southern Baptist Convention spokesman suggested leaders are willing to discuss a proposal by a group that drew attention to sexual abuse by Catholic clergy to make the issue a higher priority in America’s largest Protestant, and second largest overall, denomination.

Religion News Service reported Friday that Kenyn Cureton, a spokesman for the SBC Executive Committee, said SBC leaders “fully agree” there should be more scrutiny of persons involved in ministry to children and youth.

Cureton said SBC leaders came to that conclusion “long before” representatives of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) wrote a Sept. 26 letter urging Southern Baptists to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual abuse by Baptist ministers.

Cureton said SBC leaders will continue to encourage background checks and other safeguards, but cautioned there may be an “apparent misunderstanding” about Southern Baptists’ structure.

“While we are sympathetic with SNAP’s efforts to stop sexual abuse in churches, we need time to vet the specific requests being made of the convention by their group even as we continue our dialogue with them,” he told RNS.

Christa Brown, who says a Southern Baptist youth minister was allowed to continue in ministry for decades after sexually abusing her as a teenager, questioned if Southern Baptists truly recognized the problem, why they haven’t acted more forcefully.

“Encouraging background checks is a weak and inadequate response to the problem,” she said in an e-mail interview with EthicsDaily.com. “Child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported of all crimes. According to an FBI bulletin, only 1 to 10 percent of child sexual assaults are ever reported. And only a small percentage of those ever make it to court. Suggesting that background checks will protect kids only lulls people into a false sense of safety.”

David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP national director, called it a “bit patronizing” for Cureton to speculate about “misunderstanding” of how Southern Baptists are structured.

“The bottom line is that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said. “If church officials genuinely want to do more to protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded, they’re resourceful enough to make that happen.”

Clohessy said for years SNAP prodded Catholic bishops to develop a national approach to dealing with clergy sex crimes and cover ups.

“For years, we were told ‘Each diocese is independent,'” he said. “Finally, when the dam broke and their complicity was exposed, bishops did a complete turnaround, and suddenly decided to adopt a national policy on sexual abuse.

“It would be tragic if the Southern Baptist Convention took similar action only in response to public pressure and horrific scandal.”

Three representatives of SNAP did not meet with SBC officials when they hand-delivered copies of their letter at SBC headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., to Morris Chapman, president of the Executive Committee, and Richard Land of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

They also mailed it to SBC president Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C. EthicsDaily.com e-mailed Page for comment. A staff member said he was traveling, but she should forward him the message. He did not respond in time for this story’s deadline.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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