NASHVILLE, Tenn.–Alleged survivors of clergy sex abuse gathered in front of headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention Tuesday, calling on the nation’s second-largest faith group to take concrete steps to protect children from sexual predators in church.
Predators are known to seek out positions that provide access and power over the young, and the ministry is one such position. Yet the Southern Baptist Convention’s free-wheeling style of local-church autonomy has only minimal safeguards outside the local church.
It is a “systemic” problem that “indirectly shields predators,” three representatives of a 17-year-old predominantly Catholic group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) wrote in a Sept.26 letter hand-delivered to leaders at the SBC Executive Committee offices in Nashville and sent via certified mail to SBC president Frank Page.
“We are witnesses to truth, and the church needs to confront that truth,” said Christa Brown, who maintains a Web site titled “Voice to Stop Baptist Predators.”
The group called on the SBC Executive Committee to establish an independent review board with adequate funding to receive and investigate charges of sexual abuse by clergy, educate churches about its existence and adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” toward churches that shield suspected sex offenders.
“We are aware of the autonomous structure of Southern Baptist churches,” the group wrote. “However, Southern Baptists have shown themselves capable of all manner of cooperative endeavors when they choose.”
Those include international mission work, financial services for clergy and even an archive of history records.
“Given that congregational autonomy does not preclude a cooperative denomination-wide effort for these other endeavors, why should it preclude a denomination-wide effort at protecting kids against clergy predators?” they asked. “Surely you do not intend to say that the ecclesiological legalism of congregational autonomy renders this 16.3 million-member denomination utterly powerless to make a united effort at ridding the ministerial ranks of those with credible reports of having molested and raped kids.”
SBC president Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., pledged in an earlier letter to SNAP leaders he would meet with SBC officials to see “if there is some way that we might provide this kind of assistance without infringing upon the autonomy of these state-level or local-level entities.”
An attorney, wife and mother in Austin, Texas, Brown says she was sexually abused by an adult, married Southern Baptist youth minister when she was 16. Although another minister knew about it at the time, she says, the offending church staff member was sent on his way to another church and she was told never to speak of it.
When her own daughter reached adolescence, Brown says, memories were resurrected and she began to deal with them by reporting the abuse to church and denominational leaders, assuming they would by now be better prepared to take steps to protect children from future abuse.
To her surprise, she says, no one thought it was important enough to help her track down the alleged perpetrator.
She wrote then-SBC president Bobby Welch, who forwarded her letter to convention attorneys. They responded the convention has no control over who a church appoints as a minister and no authority to defrock a minister, but a review of convention records did not indicate the man currently worked at a Southern Baptist church.
It turned out, she said, the minister served 20 years alongside former SBC president Charles Stanley at First Baptist Church in Atlanta and managed childcare for the SBC annual meeting in 1986. He was still employed at a church in Florida, she said, and was not forced to leave the ministry until after she filed a lawsuit that was reported by the Orlando Sentinel last October.
The minister denied the charges in legal papers, but the Baptist General Convention of Texas acknowledged his name was in a confidential list of ministers accused of sexual misconduct, which lumps together both child molestation and extramarital affairs. Names are reportedly added to the file only when a minister confesses or there is a court conviction or “substantial evidence” the abuse took place.
Brown argued in an April 28 column in the Dallas Morning News that the BGCT should make the list public, for the same reasons the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney could not withhold records of former priests under investigation for child molestation–to inform parents and protect children from possible abuse.
“Yes, this sort of information is ‘very troubling,’ indeed” she wrote, “and that is exactly why it should not be kept secret.”
Between July 2004 and May 2005, Brown said she mailed 18 Southern Baptist leaders in four states with substantiated claims of sex abuse, while her perpetrator remained in ministry. Each of the leaders could explain their inaction by saying, “It isn’t my responsibility,” she said, and therein lies the problem.
In their 2004 book Ministerial Ethics, Joe Trull and James Carter noted that decentralized denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention have no national policies on abuse, leaving each congregation to set its own. In such a setting, they said, sexual misconduct is routinely covered up and church officials largely unresponsive.
The first and foremost element in addressing the problem, they wrote, “is to admit that this evil happens.”
“To deny or minimize the sexual exploitation of parishioners by ministers is to give it tacit approval,” they said.
In addition to other safeguards, the SNAP letter said the SBC should discourage the use of “secrecy contracts,” where church lawyers entice victims to remain silent by agreeing to help with counseling costs. Disapproval of such contracts, it said, would “demonstrate a strong commitment to supporting those who reveal such abuse rather than the churches that strive to keep it secret.”
Brown told EthicsDaily.com that sexual abuse by a minister is a betrayal not only physically but spiritually as well.
“I believe this is a crime that has a soul-murdering impact on people, and it certainly did on me,” she said. She said a common struggle for victims of clergy sex abuse is “trying to find a way back to faith.”
Brown said she no longer attends a Baptist church, but it was so important in her youth that deep inside it’s still a part of who she is. Unfortunately, she said, that part of her mind is now “the land of the predator.”
While the primary betrayal was by the perpetrator, she said, “I certainly feel betrayed that so many church and denominational leaders turned their backs on me,” she said. “What I can’t wrap my head around is how so many can turn a blind eye.”
Another SNAP representative, Miguel Prats, 54, told EthicsDaily.com he was abused by a Catholic priest shortly after turning 18. He pushed the incident out of his mind until news stories about church scandals in 2001 resurfaced the memory and plunged him into a near breakdown. He found out about SNAP through the Internet.
“They were the only thing out there for people like me,” Prats said. Prats said he at first thought clergy sex abuse was a Catholic problem and it had something to do with a celibate priesthood. But later he learned it is in every denomination and that most abusers are married.
Prats said he thought his church handled the issue very poorly, but in his contact with about two dozen Southern Baptist survivors they said almost to a person they wished their denomination was doing as much as Roman Catholics.
Prats said he did not come to Nashville to criticize or tear down Southern Baptists but as a “gift to the church” bringing a message to keep children safe. “If a child can’t be safe in church, where the heck can they be safe?” he said.
“Nobody wants to talk about it,” he said. “By God, we’re going to talk about it.”
“We don’t want another child to go through what we went through.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.