Despite several recent reports of sexual abuse by clergy, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention says he does not believe it is a "large and systemic" problem in the nation's second-largest faith group.
Christa Brown as a girl at the piano in First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch, Texas. Brown says she was sexually abused by her youth minister at the church when she was 16. (StopBaptistPredators.org)
The media that once blamed the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church for enabling the hiding of sexual predators are now saying Southern Baptists' lack of denominational hierarchy is doing the same thing, SBC President Frank Page wrote Monday in Baptist Press.
"The truth is that people can abuse any system," said Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C. "There are people who seek out positions in the church where the trust level can be so high that they can then be involved in horrible actions."
Page said he was interviewed several days ago by ABC's "20/20" for an upcoming program tentatively titled "Preacher Predators." Page said he agreed to be interviewed to provide balance to a story he predicted may be "overwhelmingly negative."
"Some persons have accused Southern Baptists of ignoring the issue and hiding behind our polity," Page said. "Let me clearly state that we believe in the autonomy of the local church as a biblical mandate. We are not hiding behind anything, except the Bible."
In Baptist governance, Page said, "The local church is where accountability must be enforced." He called upon every Southern Baptist church to have a system in place for handling accusations of clergy sex abuse and to prosecute any abuses of trust "to the fullest extent of the law."
Page also encouraged churches to take advantage of resources available on the SBC Web site and from LifeWay Christian Resources.
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said Page's recommendations do not go far enough to rid the denomination's ranks of clergy predators. SNAP has asked the convention to set up an independent review panel to investigate accusations of abuse and make information about abusive ministers available to churches.
"Even if Baptist ecclesiology will not allow for an independent review board to have authority over autonomous churches, an independent review board could still provide the very valuable resource of an experienced investigatory body that would report back to the churches with objective information about ministers alleged to have sexually abused kids," Brown said in a statement to EthicsDaily.com.
Leaving it up to local church leaders to review allegations of abuse against a colleague "within an insular system," Brown said, now causes many cases of abuse to go unchecked and allows predatory ministers to move on to new churches, where they can find new prey.
Calling on churches to prosecute offending ministers "sounds tough," she said, but most cases involving sexual abuse by clergy cannot be prosecuted because the nature of psychological damage prevents victims from talking about it until it is too late to prosecute. Even if these men cannot be prosecuted, she said, "Surely Southern Baptist parents want their kids protected against them."
Page said "even one instance of sexual abuse by a minister is too much," but Brown said victims that speak up are "treated like disposable trash" by the denomination's leaders. She said 18 leaders in four states received substantiated information about her own abuse, which occurred decades earlier when she was a teenager in a Southern Baptist church, and none thought it was important enough to take action.
"Instead, I was ignored, insulted, given misinformation and intimidated," she said. "Those kinds of deeds do not send a message of 'even one is too many.' They send a message of 'what was done to you doesn't matter.'"
Brown said she has talked to other survivors of sexual abuse by clergy who report similar experiences.
Page called on churches to "provide an atmosphere where trust will not be abused." Brown responded that trust is abused not only by acts of perpetrators, but also by "many, many more who turn a blind eye."
"That is where the greatest betrayal of trust lies," she said. "If Southern Baptists really want to provide an atmosphere in which trust will not be abused, then they need to have some mechanism for independent oversight to assure that instances of abuse are at least brought into the light of day."
Last week EthicsDaily.com e-mailed the presidents of all six SBC seminaries asking if they would knowingly admit a student with a past conviction of a sexual offense, would they pass that information on to churches considering employing the student or alumnus and whether they perform criminal background checks on prospective students.
Just one, Jeff Iorg of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., responded prior to a noon Tuesday deadline. He said sexual offense is "a very broad category," and that in "some very rare circumstances," such a person might be admitted to Golden Gate.
Iorg said federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations would prohibit the seminary from disclosing such information about a student to prospective employers. He said Golden Gate does not do background checks on incoming students.
A search of the Kentucky State Police sex offender registry turned up two campus addresses of current students at another SBC seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Seminary spokesperson Lawrence Smith did not respond to a March 29 e-mail asking about the seminary's policy on accepting students who have been convicted of sex crimes.
Southern Seminary does not offer a course on ministerial ethics, but Iorg said at Golden Gate the issue is covered in courses like Ministry Leadership, Spiritual Formation and Theological Field Education.
"We also host or provide special seminars, like a legal seminar this past week, to help students and local leaders with specific issues of personal and corporate ethics," he said.
EthicsDaily.com has covered stories about eight Southern Baptist ministers in the news in recent months over allegations of sexual abuse of minors. SNAP says the vast majority of cases are never reported by media, and those cases that are made public represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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