Leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests criticized a Southern Baptist Convention entity’s fund-raising appeal that touts the denomination’s response to the scourge of sexual abuse in the church as “misleading and insensitive” to victims.
Daniel Darling, vice president for communications at the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, sent out an e-mail Dec. 16 soliciting tax-deductible donations of $50, $100 or $500 to help the agency “stand with” survivors of sexual abuse and “equip them to make their voices heard.”
An accompanying 2 ½-minute video features Susan Codone, a Mercer University professor, responding to questions including, “How does it feel to know that for the first time, the church is taking the issue of sexual abuse seriously?”
“I have quite a story of sexual abuse in the church, and to be able to have a safe place where I was believed and supported by ministry leaders, to share that with the church and hopefully make the church a safer place, to me that meant everything in the world,” Codone says.
SNAP, a network of survivors of institutional sexual abuse and their supporters launched in 1988, responded with a press release contrasting Codone’s praise for SBC leadership with the “disappointing disparity” experienced by hundreds of abuse survivors “who have received zero support from the SBC.”
“It’s cruel and Orwellian for any Southern Baptist official to fundraise with the claim that he’s ‘equipping’ clergy abuse victims to speak up when nearly all church officials continue to subtly silence them,” said David Clohessy, SNAP St. Louis representative and a survivor of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
An exposé earlier this year by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed hundreds of abuse allegations in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent decades, prompting calls for the convention to investigate churches accused of harboring sexual predators.
The Religion News Association, a trade group for people who write about religion in the news media, just named the series the top religion story of 2019. Susan Carroll, investigations editor for the Houston Chronicle, congratulated journalists on social media for reporting that “shook the SBC and led to major reforms.”
Codone, who was invited to speak at the ERLC’s October conference on “caring well” for abuse survivors, says in the video she sees the SBC entity assigned matters involving private morality, public policy and religious liberty concerns “as an extension of the church, and in that way an extension of Jesus himself.”
She says being included in discussions about how the church can better handle sexual abuse “capped off a lifetime of recovery for me and really broke through a wall in my own relationship with God.”
Christa Brown, a SNAP board member and abuse survivor who writes occasionally for Baptist News Global, said she wishes every clergy abuse survivor could receive the kind of support described in the ERLC video, “but that’s just not the reality when the vast majority of SBC survivors receive so support at all.”
Brown has for years been trying to draw attention to what she calls a systemic problem in Southern Baptist life that indirectly shields predators by allowing them to move from church to church without detection.
Time Magazine ranked the Southern Baptist Convention’s refusal to establish a database of clergy sex offenders one of the most under-reported news stories in 2008.
In 2016 Clohessy and SNAP outreach director Barbara Dorris released an open letter warning that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé might target the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
“At a bare minimum, the Southern Baptist Convention needs to provide a ‘safe place’ where abuse survivors may report their perpetrators to people who have the training and experience to receive those reports with compassion and care,” Clohessy said at the time. “Of course, we hope that SBC officials will eventually understand that the denomination needs to do a great deal more, but for now, what we are proposing is something small — receive reports and log allegations.”
The SBC recently introduced a process for filing paperwork to report churches accused of falling short of the denomination’s standards regarding abuse prevention, but critics say it repeats mistakes of the past such as offering no protections for victims and relying on non-experts to evaluate whether abuse allegations are credible.
“The SBC as yet provides no safe place for even making a report,” Brown said in the SNAP press release. “Nor does it have any established transparent process for institutionally doing anything at all about clergy who have been credibly accused.”
Brown said the Southern Baptist Convention should publicly name clergy perpetrators, in order to protect others from harm and to reach out to other possible victims.
“Even retired and deceased perpetrators should be named,” she said. “Retired clergy may still have access to children in other contexts, and deceased clergy should still be named for the sake of institutional transparency and outreach to others who may believe they are all alone in what was done to them.”
As recently as two years ago, according to a story last summer in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, an ERLC spokesperson told someone asking how to turn in a predator that “specifically engaging in this matter is not in the scope of our role, authority or ability.”
“Until the ERLC will publicly disclaim that statement and explain exactly how it would respond differently today, and until it can demonstrate a transparent process for actually doing something about reported clergy predators, #SBCtoo survivors who share their stories with the ERLC are likely to feel betrayed all over again,” Brown said.