A father of two sons sexually abused by a youth minister at a Southern Baptist church in the 1990s encouraged Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page in an April e-mail to take a leadership position in combating sexual abuse by clergy.
The man, who asked not to be identified–saying it might have a negative impact on members of his extended family, some of whom are Southern Baptists–told EthicsDaily.com in an interview he is disappointed that Page, pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., didn’t respond to his message.
“I encouraged him to leave a legacy by starting the steps to address this issue,” he said.
The April 14 e-mail was in response to seeing Page on an ABC News “20/20” report, titled “Preacher Predators?” describing challenges posed by the SBC’s tradition of autonomy of the local church in combating sexual abuse by clergy.
After receiving no response from Page, the e-mail’s author forwarded it to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He later gave SNAP permission to forward it to EthicsDaily.com, with contact information omitted.
After EthicsDaily.com agreed to ground rules including anonymity, he provided his name and contact information and consented to a phone interview conducted Tuesday morning.
The man, who no longer attends a Southern Baptist church, said he agrees with Page the denomination cannot force churches to defrock ministers accused of sexual abuse. But he said he believes the SBC president can use his bully pulpit to encourage churches to report–instead of covering up–such scandals, and to warn others so the offending minister won’t be hired by another unsuspecting church.
The father said he identified with the pain of people interviewed on “20/20” describing how their churches mishandled cases involving predatory preachers. One father spoke about the church pushing the victim’s family away after they came forward. That, he said, also happened to him.
One thing he found missing in the “20/20” report, he said, was the responsibility of parents of victims to report the crime to church authorities, giving them opportunity to turn the information over to law enforcement, and if church leaders fail to do so to go to police themselves. “The majority of the parents in our case just shoved it to the back of the closet and hoped it would all go away,” he said.
While his sons’ perpetrator went to prison after pleading guilty to the crime, the father said he wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere down the road an unsuspecting church fails to do a background check and the guy winds up back in ministry.
“A lot of the reason these local churches do it wrong is because they don’t understand the problem,” the father said.
While the SBC can’t be responsible for who a local church employs as a minister, he said, the denomination can provide churches with information. It then becomes the church’s responsibility to decide what they do with the facts.
The common reaction to sweep it under the rug–to avoid embarrassment for the church and attempt to deal redemptively with the offending minister–actually emboldens clergy predators, he said. Having gotten away with it once, predators may feel like they can do it again. Only next time they will be smarter, because they will have learned lessons about how to avoid getting caught.
Given the scope of the problem, he suggested to Page that seminaries require courses about how to prevent molestation and how to respond if an allegation occurs. “There are no courses in the seminary on how to handle a situation,” he told EthicsDaily.com. “I asked, and the answer was there is nothing.”
During his “20/20” interview, Page said the denomination is looking into creating a national registry of clergy sex offenders. Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., said he plans to make a motion calling for a feasibility study about such a database, when the SBC gathers for its 2007 convention June 12-13 in San Antonio, Texas.
Since the program aired, however, statements by SBC leaders have been increasingly defensive.
Page called the ABC piece “an intentional slice-and-dice effort to portray the SBC and its president as uncaring and uninformed” and a “prime example of yellow journalism.”
Page speculated that SNAP might have a hidden agenda behind forcing the issue–opening the SBC to lawsuits. He warned of groups “that are nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain.”
The victims’ father interviewed by EthicsDaily.com said one of the best ways to avoid a lawsuit is to reach out to victims and their families rather than to shun them. In fact he said he was forced to file a lawsuit to get the offending minister’s ordination revoked, after the church declined to act voluntarily. “They forced us to do something we didn’t want to do,” he said.
A civil case decision reviewed by EthicsDaily.com said there was no contest about whether the acts occurred, because the defendant pleaded guilty in a criminal case.
Another SBC spokesperson said for a denomination of nearly 44,000 churches, the 40 or so incidents alleged by SNAP to have occurred over the last 15 years is a relatively low number and proves that the current system is working.
One Web site last updated in 2003 found news reports of 147 Baptist ministers sexually abusing children–out of 838 ministers in all Protestant denominations–in an attempt to show that clergy sex abuse is not just a Roman Catholic problem.
Christa Brown of SNAP-Baptist said many of those reports involve multiple victims, and they don’t include cases where the offending minister is never exposed. Her Web site, Stop Baptist Predators, offers examples of the latter here and here.
But the victims’ father interviewed by EthicsDaily.com said he is not adversarial to the SBC. Everything he has heard about Page leads him to believe he is a nice guy, he said, and he mentioned in his e-mail to the SBC president that he prays for him weekly.
“I’m not out to attack them, but I’m tired of them ignoring the problem,” he said. “It’s a problem, and it’s going to continue until they address it. They’re going to replace the Catholics in the news media if they don’t watch it.”
“Without some education coming from the convention, it’s going to continue to be mishandled until the convention dies,” he said. “If I were a young parent, I wouldn’t go to a Southern Baptist church. I’d go to a community church, because they’re more up to date.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.