A support group for victims of clergy-sex abuse welcomed a motion expected at this week’s Southern Baptist Convention to study the feasibility of developing a database listing Southern Baptist ministers who have been credibly accused of, confessed to or been convicted of sexual abuse or harassment.
Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., said he plans to ask the SBC Executive Committee to study a possible database accessible to Southern Baptist churches to help prevent future sexual abuse or harassment by clergy.
“The issue of preventing child abuse must be dealt with by all Christians, including the Southern Baptist Convention,” Burleson said in his Friday blog. “I don’t have all the answers, but I know that we must do all we can to stop the victimization of our children, and we cannot turn a blind eye toward those who commit such crimes.”
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said she is encouraged by the motion, because it addresses not only the convicted, but also those who have confessed and been credibly accused of the crime.
While criminal background checks are essential for keeping kids safe, Brown said, they aren’t enough. Not all predators show up on existing criminal sex-offender registries, because many are never convicted of a crime, but they still pose a threat to unsuspecting churches.
Brown, who runs a Web site called Stop Baptist Predators, has been calling for such a national database for months, in addition to an independent review board to receive and investigate credible reports of clergy abuse, and pass that information on to people in the pew, making it harder for predators to move from church to church undetected.
Brown says she was sexually abused as an adolescent in her home Southern Baptist church in Texas by her youth minister. He was an adult nearly twice her age and married with a child.
Like many vulnerable young people in her position, she was pressured not to tell anyone about what happened to her, even though at least one fellow church staff member knew about it and gave the offending minister an ultimatum either to resign or be exposed.
Her abuser moved on to a larger church, amid praise from the pulpit on how blessed the congregation was to have known such a man of God.
Brown didn’t talk about it for many years, until her daughter, now in college, turned 16, the age she was when her abuse occurred. That reopened old wounds. She set out to find if her abuser was still in ministry.
She contacted 18 influential Baptist leaders in four states between July 2004 and May 2005, warning there might be a sexual predator among their ranks. Not one offered to help.
An SBC attorney told Brown the convention had no record of her perpetrator holding a ministerial position in a Southern Baptist church as of July 2004. Brown responded through a lawyer in 2005 she discovered on her own the man was indeed working as a minister at a Southern Baptist church in Florida.
Between leaving the church in Texas and moving to Florida, he worked on the staff at FirstBaptistChurch in Atlanta, alongside former SBC President Charles Stanley, and was in fact charged with responsibility of arranging childcare for more than 50,000 messengers when the convention met in Atlanta in 1986.
Her abuser, she says, wasn’t forced to leave the ministry until she filed a lawsuit, and the Orlando Sentinel wrote a story about the suit publicly identifying him in October 2005.
Last September, Brown hand-delivered a letter to SBC headquarters addressed to SBC President Frank Page, Executive Committee President/CEO Morris Chapman and Ethics & Religious Liberty head Richard Land, asking for a nationwide strategy to address loopholes in a free-wheeling denominational structure she says indirectly shields perpetrators.
EthicsDaily.com has carried 38 news stories about Brown’s efforts since last September, along with nine opinion articles and an exclusive video posted on YouTube.
The story received wider attention when The Associated Press picked up the story in February, followed by an investigation by ABC News “20/20” that aired in April on Friday the 13th. SBC officials criticized both stories and sought to “set the record straight” in a national newspaper sent to churches in April and again in June.
Religion News Service covered the story a few weeks ago. Last week a group of Baptist state newspapers contributed to a package of stories distributed by Associated Baptist Press.
The SBC passed a resolution on sexual integrity of ministers five years ago in the context of a pedophile priest controversy focused on the Roman Catholic Church. But SBC leaders have said there is little the denomination can do about abusive clergy in their own ranks, because local churches are autonomous.
Despite a spate of recent arrests of Southern Baptist ministers for sexual abuse, the convention’s president, Frank Page, has said he does not believe the problem is wide or systemic.
Just last week a television station in Corpus Christi, Texas, reported the arrest of a volunteer youth worker of First Baptist Church in Sinton, Texas, on charges of molestation, possession of child pornography and taking indecent pictures of children. The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Last week the Baptist General Convention of Texas began posting on-line names of registered sex offenders that have worked in BGCT churches. Brown said that doesn’t go far enough. Since March Brown and SNAP have called upon the BGCT to make public a confidential list it keeps of ministers admitted to or credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
The BGCT now lists names of nine convicted sex offenders that appear both in the BGCT’s file and on The Texas Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Registry. That is out of about 100 names of all “confirmed” cases regarding BGCT clergy and sexual misconduct. Those cases reportedly include both child molestation and extramarital affairs, but the names of offending clergy not convicted of a crime are disclosed only to ministerial search committees making a formal request asking if a specific name is on the list.
The Louisiana Baptist Convention recently posted a link on its Web site directing visitors to Child Guard Systems–a Texas-based company that offers a comprehensive child protection program for churches.
“We want every local church to be a positive experience for every child,” David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press. “The vast majority of our Louisiana Baptist churches work very hard at assuring that children are protected.”
The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention devotes a full page on its Web site highlighting resources for preventing child sexual abuse.
According to a South Carolina non-profit organization called Darkness to Light, an estimated one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and most never report the abuse.
Coaches, teachers, clergy and parents are authority figures that children are taught to trust, the groups says, but a large percentage of those who sexually abuse children are from those groups. “Imagine how difficult it is to for a child to say ‘no’ to a parent, a teacher, a coach or clergy,” Darkeness to Light says on its Web site.
Experts say those who sexually abuse children are drawn to such settings, where they can gain easy access to children. While parents teach their kids to be wary of strangers, research shows that up to 60 percent of actual abusers are people of trust.
Brown says that violation of trust, especially in a religious institution, makes sexual abuse by clergy a “soul-murdering” offense. People who have experienced it call themselves “survivors,” because of the devastating impact on their emotional and spiritual development.
Statistics say 70 percent to 80 percent of sexual abuse survivors report excessive drug and alcohol use. Half of male survivors consider suicide, and one in five attempts it. Young girls who are sexually abused are more likely to develop eating disorders as adolescents.
About 40 percent of sex offenders report they were sexually abused as children. Both males and females who are sexually abused are more likely to engage in prostitution.
About 70 percent of sexual offenders of children have between one and nine victims. About one quarter have between 10 and 40, but serial child molesters may have as many as 400 victims in their lifetime.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.