The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Chicago office received two letters from a Southern Baptist Convention official in September but didn’t forward them to the intended recipients, the group said Thursday. That was after a SNAP representative told media–including EthicsDaily.com–numerous times over nearly five months that SBC leaders had not responded to a Sept. 26 letter suggesting specific actions for safeguarding Southern Baptist churches from clergy predators.
Augie Boto, general counsel and vice president for convention policy at the SBC Executive Committee, addressed letters dated Sept. 18 and Sept. 29 to David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, and colleagues including SNAP-Baptist representative Christa Brown.
Brown told EthicsDaily.com she had not heard about either letter until Tuesday, when she met with an Executive Committee work group discussing her Sept. 26 letter to Executive Committee President Morris Chapman, Ethics & Religious Liberty President Richard Land and SBC President Frank Page. Brown and two other SNAP members delivered the letter in person after convening a “sidewalk press conference” outside SBC offices in Nashville, Tenn., and by registered mail.
On Thursday, Brown gave EthicsDaily.com a copy of a press release due for wider release Friday apologizing to SBC leaders and claiming Boto’s letters were misplaced in SNAP’s office.
“I’m chagrined that I was unaware of these letters,” Brown said. “I’m very sorry about this and extend my apology to Mr. Boto and other Southern Baptist officials.”
Clohessy, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting in Nashville, also apologized. “We said the SBC hadn’t replied to us, and we were wrong,” he said. “I have no idea how this happened, and I’m terribly, terribly sorry. I’m very upset and embarrassed by this and deeply apologize to the Convention for our mistake and for our erroneous comments to the press about the lack of reply.”
Aside from setting the record straight about the convention’s response, Boto’s letters, which Brown faxed to EthicsDaily.com, revealed little common ground. In his Sept. 18 letter to Clohessy, Boto said he was responding on Chapman’s behalf to an Aug. 2 letter to Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., and copied to Chapman.
“I support the mission of preventing sexual abuse and appreciate SNAP’s specialization in addressing sexual abuse in the church realm,” Boto wrote. “It is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists, including Southern Baptist leaders, fully support SNAP’s goal of preventing child abuse. The issue with which we must grapple is not whether to oppose and prevent child abuse, but how to do it.”
Following several paragraphs about the SBC’s structure, Boto suggested some of the specific requests by SNAP, such as creation of an independent review board and a “zero-tolerance” policy toward churches that harbor abusive clergy, are impractical given Southern Baptists’ governance by autonomous local churches. Lacking ecclesiastical authority to defrock ministers or compel churches to cooperate in an investigation, he said, a review board would be meaningless. He said the denomination’s main means of changing churches is through providing resources, including existing books and articles on preventing child abuse.
“We cannot ignore our denominational structure, but we are open to finding new ways of working within that structure to be more effective at preventing sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches,” he wrote. “If SNAP has suggestions which might be applied within the constraints by which we are bound, I would welcome those suggestions.”
Boto’s second letter, dated three days after Brown went to the media claiming the SBC’s congregational polity lack of a comprehensive denomination-wide program enables sexual predators to move undetected from church to church, was less conciliatory.
“I regret that our communications are not accomplishing what either of us intend,” Boto wrote. “That is unfortunate, for I believe our ultimate goals to be similar with regard to the issue of sexual abuse–namely, to eradicate it in a church context (and even more broadly, if possible.)”
“The use of hyperbole, argumentative language, strident tones, or pejorative adjectives is not necessary, and disserves the victims you are seeking to help by alienating those with whom you profess to desire to collaborate, and from whom you are requesting assistance,” Boto wrote. “Your staging of a 10-minute, photo-op mock demonstration in front of our building in an attempt to direct press attention to shortcomings you perceive to exist in the Southern Baptist Convention is certainly not a backdrop conducive to the continued dialogue and joint working relationship you expressed as a desire in the letter you hand-delivered at that time. And your use of examples which are inaccurate or which have no relevance is also unhelpful.”
“Obviously, there may be some ways the Southern Baptist Convention can improve awareness of and protection from the problem of sexual abuse, and we will be both responsive to our constituency and exhortive toward the end, perhaps using portions of your suggestions which find support among rank and file Southern Baptists, and which seem workable and beneficial under our polity,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the adversarial posture which you have assumed is one of several factors leading me to believe that continued discourse between us will not be positive or fruitful.”
Boto declined Thursday morning to comment to EthicsDaily.com, but later in the day Baptist Press carried a story and 1,300-word statement from Boto challenging comments by Brown quoted by the Associated Press.
“Every person on the Executive Committee thoroughly deplores and condemns the sexual abuse SNAP and its Baptist representative, Ms. Brown, have addressed in recent days,” Boto said. “Such criminal acts by those in ministerial positions are abhorrent–they violate a myriad of biblical commands and principles and even the most basic standards of human decency–and we believe such behavior should be prosecuted to the fullest. Our hearts are truly broken when we hear of such abuse and we will continue to encourage Southern Baptist churches to address this deplorable behavior.”
After interviewing Brown outside SBC headquarters last September, EthicsDaily.com e-mailed SBC President Frank Page inviting him to comment, but did not receive a response. Page confirmed Thursday he received that request and said he should have responded with a “no comment.”
Brown said she was grateful an Executive Committee work group discussed their recommendations and allowed her to speak, but she is disappointed the group took no action.
“At the end of the day, no child is any safer now than they were before,” she said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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.