Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page suggested an activist group pressing the denomination to confront the problem of sexual abuse by clergy may have a hidden agenda of setting up the nation's largest Protestant body for lawsuits.
"We believe that Jesus clearly loved children, and we must protect them," Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said in a story in Sunday's Tennessean. "But I do not believe we have a systemic problem. Are there instances of sexual abuse on the part of Southern Baptist ministers? Yes, just as there are in schools, government and every denomination that exists on this earth."
"So why would people ask these questions of Southern Baptist ministers and not Methodists or Episcopalians? Is it because we're the largest and possibly a target for lawsuit possibilities?"
Coincidentally, an Associated Press file photo accompanying the Tennessean story shows Page seated next to a Florida pastor once accused of harboring a minister who decades earlier had sexually abused a minor.
Though not identified in the photo caption, sitting to Page's left in a photo from last summer's SBC annual meeting is Dwayne Mercer, pastor of First Baptist Church, Oviedo, Fla., according to a former secretary at the church.
Kaye Mayer says she was sexually harassed by two staff ministers she worked with before resigning from the Florida mega-church about five years ago. Maher didn't know it at the time, but one of the two, Tommy Gilmore, was also accused of sexually abusing Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) decades earlier, when she was 16 and he was her youth minister at a Southern Baptist church in Texas.
Brown, who is leading the charge seeking establishment of a national review board to investigate and report allegations of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist clergy, finally tracked Gilmore down as children's minister at First Baptist Church of Oviedo on her own. That was after she appealed to 18 Baptist leaders and was told by the SBC's headquarters there was no record that Gilmore was still in the ministry.
It wasn't until Brown filed a lawsuit against Gilmore, and the Orlando Sentinel published a story about it, that he was forced out of the ministry.
In 2005 Mercer, a past president of the Florida Baptist Convention, told the Orlando Sentinel Gilmore had left the church a couple of years earlier by mutual agreement and was not dismissed. Mercer said he was surprised by the allegation and that there were no complaints about Gilmore when he was there.
But Maher, in a series of e-mails to EthicsDaily.com, said she witnessed inappropriate sexual conduct by two ministers during the six-and-a-half years she worked at the church. Finally overcoming fear of losing her job, and with abusive behavior growing more frequent, she says she complained to the church staff.
The accused staff member denied it, Maher says, and his ministerial colleagues believed him. Maher says she was put on trial, forced to sit at a table with her abuser and two fellow ministers and lay out her grievances. Mayer says she was asked to give two weeks notice. The senior pastor, she says, told her not to repeat her accusation.
Afterward, Maher and her husband left the congregation, where they had been members for more than 12 years.
Brown, who told EthicsDaily.com others have floated the rumor with her that SNAP is a front for an attorney group seeking to expand a its caseload for abuse lawsuits, said she was disappointed by Page's suggestion.
"How sad that the leader of the largest Protestant denomination in the land would choose to publicly attack the motives of a self-help support group for child-rape victims," Brown told EthicsDaily.com. "It's unchristian. It's unkind. And worst of all, it's unproductive. It does absolutely nothing to make other kids any safer."
Contrary to Page's assertion, Brown said if SBC officials would take the lead in preventing abuse, it could actually reduce lawsuits. One reason ministers are reluctant to disclose suspected incidents of abuse when a church checks references on a former colleague is fear of being sued.
If there were an independent denominational board to investigate such allegations, Brown said, there would be an established system for ordinary ministers to report concerns without risk of being sued for ruining a colleague's career.
"Through the review process, the SBC would take on some of that risk of being sued by ministers who feel falsely accused," Brown, who works as an appellate attorney in Austin, Texas, acknowledged. "But the SBC can better bear that risk and can insure against it more easily than can many individual ministers and small churches."
"The SBC would also have the resources to conduct reviews in a professional manner with skilled and knowledgeable experts so that the risk of erroneous determinations would be less," she said. "Investigations could more consistently be conducted in a professional manner, and that works to everyone's benefit, including any accused ministers."
SBC officials have resisted the idea of establishing a review board, saying that because of the way Baptists are organized the denomination has no authority over the local church. But Brown, a former GA, said the SBC doesn't have to usurp authority of any church.
"It could simply fund an independent review board that would then relate back to the autonomous church its determination," she said. "The decision of what to do with that objective information would still be up to the church."
Brown said the reason she is singling out the SBC is because a Southern Baptist church is where her abuse occurred, and that is where she wants to focus her energies. She said SNAP also works with other groups, and other denominations are further down the road in addressing the problem than the SBC.
Brown said Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians all have various forms of review processes in place. Those systems aren't perfect, she said, "but they have at least begun the process of attempting to address the problem in a systematic way. Baptists haven't."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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