A Southern Baptist Convention official told a Tennessee TV station a relatively low number of documented cases of sexual abuse by clergy shows the way Baptists deal with the problem is working.
Will Hall, vice president for news services of the SBC Executive Committee, told Nashville ABC affiliate WKRN-Channel 2 that an advocacy group claiming the nation's second-largest religious group can do more to safeguard against abusive clergy has come up with only about 40 incidents in the last 15 years, out of a denomination of nearly 44,000 churches.
"If churches are doing adequate background checks, they're going to discover, and if in fact if a man has been convicted of sexual abuse, he is going to be in prison," Hall said.
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said Hall's numbers come up short. She said SNAP used that figure last February speaking with the Associated Press, saying the group had received about 40 reports of sexual abuse by Baptist ministers since going public last fall.
Since February, Brown said, SNAP has received about 50 more reports of sexual abuse by Baptist ministers, including numerous reports by media involving multiple victims.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Hall should issue a correction.
"According to SNAP, which tracks with care the problem of preacher predators, Hall has gotten his facts wrong, downplaying the widespread nature of this sinful situation," Parham said. "The fact that his information is so dated suggests a lack of seriousness with which SBC leaders are responding to this matter. SBC churches deserve honesty and accuracy from their paid leaders."
Parham said "one preacher predator is one too many," but Hall's comments regrettably "disclose an attitude that it's OK to have a few predators."
Brown said Southern Baptist officials need to "come to grips with reality" concerning child molestation. The FBI, she said, regards it one of the most underreported crimes in the country, with fewer than 10 percent of incidents ever disclosed.
While background checks are essential, she said, they aren't nearly enough, because most perpetrators are never reported, much less convicted, and would not be detected by a background check.
SNAP officials support formation of an independent review board to hear allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and to make credible evidence readily available to churches considering employment of a particular minister.
SNAP, a group credited with helping to reform the Roman Catholic Church's sexual-abuse cover-up five years ago, says the SBC's bottom-up governance of local-church autonomy leaves congregations vulnerable to being duped by sexual predators who violate positions of trust to gain access to victims.
If found out, SNAP says, they move undetected by leaving one church under a veil of secrecy to avoid embarrassment to another unsuspecting church, where they may repeat the behavior.
Amid revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in 2002, Southern Baptists passed a resolution encouraging all religious bodies to "rid their ranks of predatory ministers."
Yet confronted with accusations they are inactive in ridding their own ranks of predators, Southern Baptist leaders consistently invoke the dogma of local-church autonomy.
"We don't have the policing power that some other denominations have, because of our polity, and so we can't force churches to give us information," Hall said.
Because of that he said, individual churches, and not the denomination, are responsible for ensuring their leaders are above reproach.
But Parham called local-church autonomy, when applied to abusive clergy, a "smoke-screen behind which fundamentalists hide, covering the dark reasons that they wish to skirt moral responsibility."
Parham said SBC leaders "override local church autonomy when they want to enforce doctrinal and political power." He called it "a double standard that places children at risk and protects preacher predators."
Brown said the extent of the problem in the Catholic Church is due in large part to a decision by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 2002 to fund an extensive study into the problem--a step she says Southern Baptist leaders are unwilling to take--but a 1996 book by Penn State Professor Philip Jenkins said the percentage of clergy pedophiles is higher among Protestants than Catholics.
Brown does not deny the majority of Southern Baptist ministers are worthy of confidence, but she questions a denomination that refuses to implement accountability procedures to ensure which ministers are reliable and which are not.
In an on-line poll readers' poll two weeks ago, 96 percent of Tennessean readers said Southern Baptists should create a database of clergy sex offenders among their ranks.
Despite the local-church-autonomy defense, Brown said, denominational leaders do not need authority over churches in order to provide churches an independent review board, like other denominations provide, to investigate sexual abuse by clergy.
"Southern Baptist churches work cooperatively for all manner of endeavors," she said. For example, the SBC's GuideStone Financial Resources recently reported passing the $10 billion mark in assets.
"No Southern Baptist church is compelled to provide for their minister's retirement," Brown said. "Yet by working cooperatively, Southern Baptist churches do indeed afford many ministers a more financially secure retirement."
"If Southern Baptist churches can work cooperatively for the benefit of ministers' retirement, why can't they also work cooperatively to protect kids against clergy child molesters?"
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.