Words alone won't stop Baptist predators

Penn State has hired former FBI director and federal judge Louis Freeh to investigate gaps in how the university handled allegations of child sex crimes involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. To assist him in the task, Freeh has assembled a team of former FBI investigators and federal prosecutors. Many have expertise in child predator cases.

By Christa Brown

Penn State has hired former FBI director and federal judge Louis Freeh to investigate gaps in how the university handled allegations of child sex crimes involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. To assist him in the task, Freeh has assembled a team of former FBI investigators and federal prosecutors. Many have expertise in child predator cases.

This internal investigation is in addition to the criminal investigation that was conducted by a grand jury.

“No one -- no one -- is above scrutiny,” said Kenneth Frazier, a member of the university’s board of trustees. That includes university administrators, employees and “every member of our board of trustees.”

Freeh has no connections to the university or to the state of Pennsylvania. He said assurances of independence were a condition for his acceptance of the position.

Though Freeh will have “complete reign” in the probe and will recommend changes based on his findings, it will ultimately be up to the university’s board of trustees to implement the recommended changes.

Southern Baptists should heed this lesson from the Penn State scandal. Effective accountability systems require the involvement of outsiders for the sake of objectivity.

This is essentially what survivors of clergy sex abuse have been asking the Southern Baptist Convention to provide as a resource to local churches -- an independent outside review board that could receive and assess reports about clergy sex abuse and provide information to people in the pews.

So far, Southern Baptist leaders have refused, and their refusal is irresponsible.

If this denomination wants to rid its ranks of clergy predators, it must find a way to institutionally listen to the people who are trying to tell about clergy abuse, and particularly to those whose claims cannot be criminally prosecuted, which is most. The denomination must provide a safe place where clergy abuse survivors can make a report with a reasonable expectation of being objectively and compassionately heard. That “safe place” will almost never be the church of the accused minister, but an independent review board could be.

In the same week that Penn State hired outsider Louis Freeh to assure oversight of its own systems, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land talked about Penn State on his radio show. Land said the scandal “shows that internal reporting is not enough.” He urged people to report suspected child abuse to the police.

Land is right: Internal reporting is not enough and people should report suspected child abuse to the police.

Land stops short, however. Just as internal reporting is not enough, neither is it enough for denominational authorities to simply preach to local churches about reporting to the police. To pretend otherwise is an abdication of institutional responsibility and an abandonment of moral responsibility.

In the real world, Southern Baptist churches are rarely the first party to report child sex abuse by clergy to the police. The fact that churches typically don’t report their pastors is what often allows the limitations period to run so that criminal prosecution becomes impossible.

This reality must be dealt with, and preaching about it isn’t enough. There must be institutional consequences for church leaders who don’t report child sex abuse and for churches that engage in keep-it-quiet cover-ups.

And no one -- no one -- should be above scrutiny.

This means that even high honchos such as former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham should be subjected to scrutiny. With Graham at the helm, leaders of the 27,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church failed to report child sex abuse allegations against one of its ministers, allowing the man to move on to other churches and placing other kids at risk. That minister now faces child sex charges in Mississippi.

The Southern Baptist Convention should follow the example of Penn State and engage a team of independent outside professionals to conduct an internal investigation of how and why allegations of child sex crimes were kept quiet at one of its most prominent and powerful churches. How did the system allow for such an abysmal failure, and how should the system be restructured to make such failures less likely?

After dealing with Prestonwood, the SBC should then use the team to establish an independent denominational review board with the power to receive, assess and track clergy abuse allegations, and to investigate other accounts of church cover-ups.

Accountability systems are essential for child safety, and accountability systems require outsiders.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.