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Churches Must Act to Prevent Clergy Sexual Abuse

Stories of children abused by Catholic priests have horrified the nation in recent weeks. Sadly, Baptists are not immune to clergy sexual abuse.

Just ask Charles. That’s not his real name, but he’s a real young man. He was 16 and a member of a strong Texas Baptist church when he was abused sexually by a male staff member. In an instant, he lost his youth and fell into a well of shame and undeserved guilt. He has battled depression for a decade, struggled with alcoholism, considered suicide. His faith is shattered, the pieces ground to dust by church staff members who refused to confront the perpetrator. Now, still suffering the agony of his violation, he is far from church and the community of God’s loving care.

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“This came as a terrible shock to us,” his mother recalled. “But an even bigger shock was the fact a staff member or members were told about this and other incidents involving other young boys. This problem was swept under the rug, never to come to light until 10-plus years later, when our son was able to talk … to us.”

Fortunately, this church developed policies for screening ministry candidates, supervising all adult contact with children and youth, and reporting and handling any charges of improper conduct. Unfortunately, this church remains a minority among Texas Baptist congregations. Most still have not established policies and procedures to prevent and respond to clergy sexual abuse.

And it’s more prevalent than we want to admit.

“It’s a major problem,” acknowledged Dan McGee, director of counseling and psychological services for the Baptist General Convention of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Texas. Clergy sexual abuse ranges beyond molestation of minors to much more infamously include sexual involvement between male ministers and female church members. And while the majority of ministers who seek McGee’s help are dealing with other issues, the number of sexual issues is increasing, he said. Ministers who seek his help with sexual problems that are not illegal are protected by confidentiality laws of licensed therapists.

A survey of Southern Baptist pastors reported by the Journal of Pastoral Care found 14.1 percent of ministers had engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior”; 70.4 percent knew about other ministers who had sexual contact with a church member.

Sadly, Baptists’ disconnected system for securing ministers indirectly shields perpetrators, noted Sonny Spurger, associate director of minister/ church relations for the BGCT. Local churches are responsible for hiring and firing their clergy, and no bishop or supervising group blocks ministerial appointments, he explained. For many years, churches seemed to say to offenders, “We won’t say anything if you won’t say anything, and you go on down the road,” he noted. Consequently, churches “ended up passing perpetrators to other churches.”

“For years, Baptist college and seminary professors taught ministers to maintain confidentiality at all costs,” added Jan Daehnert, director of minister/church relations. “When allowed, we were told to deal with the guilty but maintain silence as much as possible. Often, families wanted their (abused) family members protected while the guilty person also was being dealt with. That approach is gone forever.”

Today, turning a blind eye to abuse and shooing perpetrators to other churches is illegal, at least regarding abuse of children, Spurger added. “In Texas, you’re responsible to a large extent for what you know.” People who know about abuse of children within a family legally are liable to report offenses to Child Protective Services. If abuse of children happens outside the family, the district attorney must be contacted.

Adultery isn’t illegal, so the laws don’t apply. But a church has responsibility for members of other congregations where the perpetrator might later serve, Spurger insisted. Churches have a multi-faceted responsibility–to check the background of any ministerial candidate, to establish procedures to prevent abuse, to set policies for reporting abuse and to develop plans for instituting healing and redemption after abuse occurs.

Churches should conduct criminal background checks on prospective ministers. An attorney or local law enforcement official can give your church information about background checks.

Still, a ministerial background check should dig deeper, advised Phil Strickland, director of the Christian Life Commission. “A criminal background check tells you if a candidate has been involved in lawsuits or has been jailed or accused of a crime,” he said. “But it cannot tell you if a perpetrator has never been discovered or taken to court.” He advocated diligent investigation. “There may not be any legal records, but you can do the practical work of being sure you have a good feel for the character of this person.” Talk to references and ask references for other references.
Your church can work to ensure the safety of members by preparing appropriate policies. The first set of policies should focus on prevention–stipulating the background checks that should be completed before a ministerial candidate can be considered, as well as regulating how all adults interact with children. Policies also should describe procedures for reporting and responding to possible sexual misconduct by ministers or other members in positions of responsibility with children. They also should focus on redemption–how to secure help for victims and perpetrators, as well as families and other loved ones. Information about policies and policy development is found in the Christian Life Commission journals on sexual misconduct and legal procedures.

Don’t fool yourself into believing members of your church could not be abused by someone in a position of trust with women or children and youth. While most ministers and volunteer workers are wholesome and above reproach, some prey on youngsters and vulnerable women. We need to root out the predators to protect the reputations of the vast majority of upright pastors, staff members and volunteers. And we need to establish controls to protect the people to whom our churches minister. The best insurance churches can offer is preparation and vigilance.  
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This editorial was reprinted with permission. Click here to read the piece in its entirety.