By Bob Allen
A victims’ advocate says there is a glaring omission at this week’s summit for Southern Baptist pastors on sexual issues — any mention on the program about the church’s response to sexual abuse.
Amy Smith, a lifelong Southern Baptist who works with Catholics and people from other denominations in an advocacy organization called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, found the subject “noticeably absent” among topics being covered in the April 21-23 “leadership summit” sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“How can a summit on ‘The Gospel and Human Sexuality’ not include a topic on the pervasive, devastating, destructive issue of sexual abuse?” Smith asked April 22. “Sexual abuse ravages the lives and souls of people that we hope that churches would be trying to minister to, yet the ERLC doesn’t devote a session, or even a breakout session or panel, to cover how pastors and churches should properly respond to abuse allegations to pursue justice, heal the wounded and protect kids in their midst.”
Leaders of SNAP, a support-and-advocacy group begun in response to the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church a decade ago, have questioned the inclusion on the summit program of a Mississippi Baptist pastor whose church was at the center of controversy about its long-time music minister who pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of multiple boys committed decades earlier.
Greg Belser, pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., agreed with other members of a panel at the ERLC summit discussing “The Gospel and Homosexuality” that the time has come for pastors to get rid of “redneck theology” — repeating clichés and claims about sexual orientation that aren’t backed up by the facts.
“We cannot just handle this issue in a manner in which we have gotten sloppy handling other issues in the past,” Belser said. “We’ve run off at the mouth, said things we shouldn’t have said. We’ve run around like a peacock all over the platform, and we have said things because we were playing to the home team, and they all liked our act. This issue, nobody likes our act, … so the act needs to disappear.”
Belser, a member of a newly formed “leadership council” named by new ERLC head Russell Moore, attracted media attention on a Sunday morning in 2011 when he turned his pulpit over to a longtime church staff member named John Langworthy.
Langworthy, who had recently resigned after 22 years as associate pastor of music and ministries, confessed to the congregation “sexual indiscretions with younger males” that occurred in the 1980s.
The confession, captured on video posted on the church website, prompted a police investigation. That led to Langworthy’s January 2013 conviction on five felony counts of gratification of lust. He avoided what would have been 50 years in prison by pleading guilty in a deal offered in part because prosecutors feared the crimes were too old to prosecute under an ambiguous statute of limitations that courts had interpreted in different ways.
Smith said the “accepted, unspoken method” of handling abuse allegations internally has the effect of silencing victims and putting the reputation of the institution ahead of the protection of kids.
“Sex abuse is all around them, in their churches, perpetuated and enabled by their own, yet their silence is deafening,” Smith said of Baptist leaders.
“It’s beyond time for truth and transparency to shine in the dark places of the church,” she said. “But more than words, we need to see actions taken to address this issue if kids are going to be safe and survivors assisted to heal.”
Moore, nearing his one-year anniversary as head of the SBC agency tasked with moral, ethical and religious liberty concerns, fielded a question about abuse in a Q&A session April 22, advising that churches should both call the police and conduct church discipline.