An Alabama man, the bi-vocational pastor of a church across the state line in the Florida Panhandle, is the latest in a spate of Southern Baptist ministers arrested on charges of sexual abuse of a minor.
Police in Brewton, Ala., arrested Stephen Lyle “Steve” Whittaker, 40, Wednesday on charges of sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl. Web sites identify him as pastor of Beaver Creek Baptist Church in Baker, Fla., a small rural church near Destin. The church shows up in a database search at the Southern Baptist Convention Web site, SBC.Net.
EthicsDaily.com has reported several stories about arrests of Baptist clergy on sex charges since first covering efforts last fall by a victims’-advocacy group to draw attention to the presence of sexual predators in Southern Baptist churches. The group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), compares it to the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal and cover-up exposed by media five years ago.
Christa Brown of SNAP-Baptist told EthicsDaily.com Whittaker’s case is atypical in that the child’s mother learned of the alleged abuse and was able to report it to police. An estimated 30 percent of people abused in childhood and adolescence never disclose it to anyone, she said, and many others do so years later, after statutes of limitations have expired and no one wants to listen to them.
Brown, a victim of sexual abuse decades ago by her youth minister at a Southern Baptist church, said people concerned about the number of cases they are seeing in the news these days need to realize it is the tip of the iceberg. Only about 3 percent of child sex crimes are ever detected, let alone prosecuted and convicted, by police, she said, meaning the vast majority of sex offenders don’t show up in a background check.
SNAP has asked the SBC, the nation’s second-largest faith group, to establish an independent review panel to help weed out clergy predators nationwide. SBC leaders say the idea is impractical, since the national body holds no ecclesiastical authority over hiring or firing of ministers.
According to the Brewton Standard, Whittaker admitted that he touched the girl but denied it was abuse. He claimed it happened while he was playing with her.
That didn’t persuade her girl’s mother, who according to the Associated Press called police March 12 after her daughter told schoolmates Whittaker repeatedly abused her, and one of the girl’s mother called to tell her so.
Whittaker turned himself in Tuesday after being contacted by phone. He is out of jail on $5,000 bond, accused of first-degree sexual abuse, a Class C felony punishable by one to 10 years in prison.
Florida Baptist Convention spokeswoman Barbara Denman said the organization “abhors any type of conduct that harms children either physically, emotionally or spiritually.” The convention screens backgrounds of its paid and volunteer staff and encourages churches to do the same, she said, but has no code of conduct or policies for ministers.
“This is a local church matter, and congregations set these policies,” she told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail. “We do have theological guidelines for churches that cooperate with us.”
Brown, an attorney and mother from Texas, said the Florida convention’s abhorrence of sexual abuse means little without policies to help prevent it. After reporting substantiated evidence of her own abuse to 18 Southern Baptist leaders in several states, including Florida, she says, she discovered by her own efforts her perpetrator was still a minister, with access to children, in Florida.
Brown says the current system discourages victims from speaking out, enabling predators to remain undetected.
“Why should people who have already been grievously wounded risk the re-traumatizing effort of sharing something so painful with people who aren’t likely to do anything about it, who have no system in place for appropriately dealing with it, who lack the professional experience and educational background to understand trauma response, and who seem to be more focused on kicking the messengers than on ridding the ranks of perpetrators?” she asked.
Denman said when situations occur, the state convention works with the offending pastor’s family and offers counseling. She said the convention also provides mediation for congregations upon request.
What is missing, Brown said, is lack of support for victims. “It seems apparent that victims are at the bottom of Baptist leaders’ list for any care or concern,” she said. “They offer counseling for accused pastors and for pastors’ families, and they offer help for wounded congregations. What about the wounded victims?”
“Clergy abuse survivors may be psychologically wounded people, but they aren’t stupid,” she said. “It’s all too easy for Southern Baptist abuse victims to see that there’s not going to be any denominational support for them if they speak up, and that the response may even be hostile.”
“The lack of denominational support or assistance to past victims,” she said, often “means that it’s easier for perpetrators to stay in pulpits and that more kids are at greater risk.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.