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Support Group Urges Alabama Baptists to Adopt Tougher Policy on Clergy Sex Abuse

A victims’ support group urged the Alabama Baptist State Convention to follow the example of the smaller Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in adopting a strong policy aimed at breaking the cycle of molestation by clergy.

Meeting in annual session, the state’s largest Baptist group on Wednesday passed a resolution on preventing sexual abuse that urged churches to respond to and report child abuse, utilize prevention resources and observe “responsible employment practices,” including running background checks on potential employees.

“We’re doing what we can to address it,” Joe Godfrey, chairman of a resolutions committee, told the Mobile Press-Register prior to the Nov. 13-14 meeting in Mobile, explaining that Southern Baptists don’t have a hierarchical system that allows the problem to be addressed beyond the local church.

But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said Baptist resolutions, statements that represent the opinion only of those voting and are not binding on anyone, do little to protect children or churches.

“We urge the Alabama Baptist Convention to study the policy of the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and take similar steps to protect kids in Southern Baptist churches,” said Christa Brown, SNAP’s Baptist liaison and publisher of the Web site StopBaptistPredators.org.

The Alabama CBF policy, approved last month by the group’s coordinating council, includes procedures for individuals and churches to report sexual abuse and for “good-faith investigatory action” that respects both the accused and accuser.

SNAP National Director David Clohessy said the state convention’s “non-action stands in stark contrast” to the CBF’s proactive approach.

“How tragic that the Alabama Baptist Convention continues to stand on the sidelines and make excuses for why it can’t better protect kids against clergy child molesters,” Clohessy said.

The non-binding resolution proposed by Godfrey’s committee expressed a “deep level of moral outrage and concern at any instance of child victimization.”

It implored Alabama Baptist churches to “utilize materials from LifeWay Christian Resources and Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and other relevant research that help churches prevent child abuse.”

It strongly recommended that churches and convention entities “respond to any suspicions or allegations of child abuse in a timely and forthright manner.”

It urged churches to “exercise moral stewardship by observing responsible employment practices, including performing criminal background checks on all ministers, employees and volunteers” and to “take advantage of counseling ministry of the Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries to assist in the emotional healing of those victimized by sexual predators.”

It also called on the state’s Baptists to “pray for righteousness and justice to prevail in our state asking God to intervene on behalf of victimized children and heal their deep emotional and physical wounds, grow them into mature and healthy adults and stop the cycle of abuse from repeating itself in another generation.”

An April editorial in the Alabama Baptist newspaper said the local church is the ultimate authority in Baptist life and alone determines criteria for ministers, but Baptist organizations can and do offer resources to help congregations prevent and respond to sexual abuse.

In February the paper suggested churches adopt policies like asking staff members to sign documents agreeing that if they are caught using pornography they will be terminated, running background checks and checking multiple references before hiring ministers and developing policies about how to respond before a registered sex offender visits or joins the church.

Another article also recommended that churches include liability coverage for sexual misconduct when they buy insurance.

The Alabama CBF policy acknowledges that organization, also, has no authority over local churches, but offers the sexual-abuse policy as a resource. The policy’s stated intent is not to control but “minister” to churches.

“Sexual abuse by clergy has caused devastating harm to so many persons in the past and threatens to hurt countless people in the future,” said Alabama CBF Coordinator Brent McDougal.

“The tendency in Baptist life, and in other denominations, has been to ignore such claims, minimize the hurt that has been done or rationalize the behavior of clergy,” McDougal said. “It’s our responsibility to hear and respond to claims of clergy sexual abuse in a manner consistent with our faith in Christ. Jesus welcomed children and stood up for the weak.”

SNAP said that while both Alabama Baptist groups profess autonomy of the local church, the CBF takes action while the Alabama Baptist State Convention “makes excuses for its inaction.”

“Kids will be safer in a faith community whose leaders at least try to stop abuse, rather than in a faith community whose leaders pretend to be powerless and wash their hands of the problem,” said Clohessy, a Catholic survivor of clergy abuse who in 2002 gave an impact statement to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Related stories:

Alabama CBF Passes Policy Regarding Clergy Sexual Abuse

SNAP Calls for ‘Open and Transparent’ Study of Sex Abuse by Clergy