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State Convention Resolutions Indicate Increased Awareness of Baptist Clergy Sexual Abuse, Victim Advocate Says

Recent Baptist state convention resolutions indicate growing awareness of the reality of sexual abuse of children in the Southern Baptist Convention, says a victims’ advocate, but they don’t go nearly far enough to ensure that all churches in the nation’s second-largest faith group are safe places for kids.

Southern Baptist state conventions in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Louisiana all passed resolutions this month urging churches to take safeguards against child molesters, including background checks for prospective children’s workers and reporting of suspected crimes to law enforcement authorities.

The Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Association of Virginia challenged leadership to take “proactive steps” like training and workshops to better “protect our churches from sexual predators.”

Some state groups, including the Missouri Baptist Convention, have negotiated contracts with private companies for discounted rates on background checks.

“Any effort at increasing awareness is positive, and so we are glad that the reality of Baptist clergy sex abuse is now on more people’s radar screen,” Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in an e-mail interview with EthicsDaily.com.

Brown, Baptist liaison with the support group formed during the Roman Catholic Church’s pedophile priest cover-up scandal five years ago, has worked for more than a year to draw attention to an issue that many previously assumed was a Catholic or homosexual problem and not a major concern for Southern Baptists.

But Brown said she is discouraged that it has taken significant media exposure, led by EthicsDaily.com and including stories by ABC’s “20/20” and the Associated Press, to achieve such “tiny steps.”

After the big Catholic story in 2002, other mainline Protestant groups didn’t wait for media to come knocking before taking action against clergy predators, Brown said, but SBC leaders “sat back and pretended it wasn’t a serious problem.”

Even steps now being taken by some state conventions, she said, are much smaller than what other faith groups are doing. “Why aren’t Southern Baptist kids entitled to the same sort of protection as Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian and Lutheran kids?” she asked.

David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, said “most tiny steps forward” at the state level have been “belated and begrudging” responses to negative publicity and have been accompanied by attacks from denominational leaders against victims of abuse. They duck the “real issue,” he said, of the SBC’s “broader obligation and ability to enact proven, effective reforms.”

“No one takes notice or offers praise when churches buy insurance coverage–that’s common sense,” Clohessy said. “Nor should there be ‘kudos’ when churches do background checks.”

“What’s needed is something more than routine good business practices,” he said. “What’s needed is genuine compassionate outreach for the wounded and genuine practical protection for the vulnerable.”

Brown, a survivor of sexual abuse by a Southern Baptist youth minister when she was a girl, said local churches need greater leadership and guidance about dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy.

Because local churches are autonomous, and denominational bodies have no authority to defrock ministers, state and national Baptist leaders are telling victims to report their abuse to the local congregation where the abuse occurred.

Too often, Brown said, such accusers face a hostile response. People who put a beloved minister on a pedestal don’t want to believe the accusations. They instinctively rally around the pastor and blame the victim.

If a minister confesses or is proven guilty, the solution is often to allow the offender to quietly resign and move somewhere else in a spirit of redemption, while silencing the accuser to protect the reputation of the church.

Good intentions aside, the result is that predators are allowed to move on to another church where they can hurt others, while victims are further traumatized by being marginalized by their own faith community because of their own abuse.

SNAP has recommended that Southern Baptists establish an autonomous review board functioning as an auxiliary to the SBC to receive and investigate reports of clergy sexual abuse. If determined to be credible, the panel would report that information to people in the pew.

SNAP says that would give victims a safe place to report abuse to a trained and objective panel not influenced by church politics. It would also encourage other victims to come forward, providing the denomination for the first time with a comprehensive system to identify and warn churches about serial offenders.

Referred a motion at last summer’s SBC annual meeting, the SBC Executive Committee is studying the feasibility of a nationwide registry of clergy offenders, but leaders have from the start insisted the denomination lacks ecclesiastical authority to investigate local-church matters.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Baptist Convention considered a proposal to create a statewide registry of sexual abusers in the ministry but decided against it. A KBC spokesman said it could create a “false sense of security” if not kept up to date, and it would be difficult to decide what to do about accusations that haven’t been confirmed in court.

SBC President Frank Page said in an interview with the Kentucky newspaper that national leaders haven’t ruled out a registry but have been advised it isn’t the best way to protect churches.

“For example, if we were to have a national registry, what we know happens with true abusers, they just switch to another denomination that doesn’t access a denominational database,” Page said. “We have stated over and over that a local church is where abuse occurs, and the local church is where protection must be strongest.”

But Brown said Page’s logic sounds like an argument why there should be a denomination-wide registry. “If perpetrators switch to denominations that don’t have a database, and if Southern Baptists persist in not having a database, then perpetrators will gravitate there,” she said.

“And if Page is so concerned about the possibility that Southern Baptist perps might simply move to denominations that don’t have registries,” Brown added, “why couldn’t Southern Baptists make their database available to people in other faith groups?”

Brown said the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. prove that congregational polity need not prevent Baptist groups from taking leadership on stemming sexual abuse by clergy.

Alabama CBF leadership recently wrote a policy allowing victims to report clergy sexual abuse that includes a process for “good-faith investigation” if allegations are disputed that respects both the accused and accuser. Leaders said it isn’t an effort to control churches, but to minister to them.

American Baptists encourage ministers to sign a covenant and code of ethics that includes a pledge not to use their position to abuse or take advantage of anyone, especially children, and to report any knowledge of abuse to appropriate agencies and denominational representatives.

Like the SBC, the ABC/USA does not ordain ministers. That is done by local churches. But American Baptists do recognize ordinations at the regional level and reserve the right to suspend or revoke that recognition for misconduct including sexual abuse.

Implications of suspension or revoking recognition of a minister’s ordination include deleting the name from a directory of ministerial leaders, refusal of personnel services like reference and referral and notification of all ABC/USA regions of the action.

Brown charged that small progress in the SBC has occurred “despite” and “not because of” Southern Baptist leaders, who repeatedly are quoted as minimizing the scope of the problem. Roman Catholics spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study the extent of the abuse problem by priests, she said, but SBC leaders haven’t said what, if any, funding they are putting in their study of a database.

“I hope people in the pews will not be lulled into complacency by these tiny first steps but will instead hold their leaders’ feet to the fire and demand much more action for the protection of kids,” Brown said.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.