An exposé by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on clergy sex abuse in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches blared yet another wake-up call to America’s religious leaders, including those of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptist News Global columnist Bill Leonard rightly observed that the IFB cases “sound strikingly like predatory acts committed against children by Catholic priests.” They also sound a lot like clergy sex abuse and church cover-up cases in the SBC.
I know because between 2006 and 2012 I maintained a website on which I logged hundreds of news articles about sexual abuse in all types of Baptist churches. The articles implicated 167 pastors, deacons, denominational officials and missionaries affiliated with the SBC.
If I had plotted these cases on a map (they covered 29 states), it would have looked much like the map published by the Star-Telegram in its series on clergy sexual abuse in IFB churches.
Similar abuse and cover-up patterns
Like the IFB cases, SBC cases not only showed clergy who weaponized faith to harm the young and vulnerable, but they also revealed other pastors and denominational leaders who kept quiet about their colleagues’ crimes, allowed perpetrators to find new positions in other churches and heaped shame onto victims.
Many of these ministers were able to move on to new settings even when others in leadership knew about abuse allegations. A single clergy-perpetrator could have multiple victims in multiple churches in multiple states.
“Victims in SBC churches were intimidated into remaining silent, told to forgive their abusers and sometimes paid hush money.”
Even with ministers criminally convicted on child sex charges, SBC-affiliated churches invited offenders to their pulpits. One church retained a pastor even after he admitted to having sex with a teen.
As with the victims in IFB churches, victims in SBC churches were intimidated into remaining silent, told to forgive their abusers and sometimes paid hush money.
So determined were some Southern Baptist leaders to cover up these crimes that they chastised news reporters for hurting “the cause of Christ” and threatened one newspaper with legal action to try to deter publication of the stories. A denominationally-employed journalist was fired for daring to report on child sex charges against a pastor.
These Southern Baptist cases involved churches of all sizes, and like the IFB cases, they included some prominent pastors.
Not a matter of knowledge
I was acutely aware that the six years’ worth of SBC cases that I logged were just the tip of the iceberg. I did the research in my spare time, without funding or staff. I did it while also lawyering, mothering, managing a household and dealing with cancer. So you can be certain that I missed a lot.
Furthermore, I included only those pastors and church officials for whom there was a public record, which usually meant a published news article about criminal charges or a civil lawsuit. Yet, countless cases of clergy sexual abuse are not criminally prosecuted – often due to church cover-ups that allowed statutes of limitation to run. Many survivors’ stories never garner media attention, particularly if they involve smaller churches.
Despite these limitations, the research and documentation revealed a widespread problem that should have prompted denominational action. Yet, most SBC officials seemed oblivious, in effect repeatedly hitting the snooze button.
My efforts were hardly their only wake-up call. SBC officials hit snooze when the Associated Press gathered insurance company data showing that clergy sexual abuse among Protestants, including Baptists, was likely as widespread as abuses in the Catholic Church. When ABC’s 20/20 aired its exposé on preacher predators, SBC officials hit snooze yet again, dismissed it as “yellow journalism,” and waited for the media glare to subside.
All of these alarms and more should have fully awakened Southern Baptists to the need for action, but over and over again, SBC officials simply turned their backs on the problem.
Knowing versus doing
No longer can anyone reasonably say that SBC officials don’t know the extent of the problem. They know. The question is what they will do about it.
“A system for record-keeping and information-sharing on clergy sex abusers is an obviously needed safeguard.”
Nice-sounding resolutions, ineffectual platitudes and in-house studies won’t suffice. Rather, SBC officials must do the hard work of implementing structural changes, because without modern systems for record-keeping and accountability, Baptists’ denominational structures are enabling the secrecy that allows clergy sex abuse to thrive.
The Star-Telegram observed that, although IFB churches were autonomous, they were nevertheless networked in ways that enabled predatory pastors to move from church to church. So it is with SBC churches. They are autonomous but nevertheless networked, and because cooperation is central in Southern Baptist life, they are networked in ways even more apparent than IFB churches.
Following its exposé, the Star-Telegram’s editorial board urged action and made this proposal: “Any institutions having influence over pastors and pastors-to-be should do their own networking, starting with a database of known offenders.”
There it is again: the proposal of a database.
A system for record-keeping and information-sharing on clergy sex abusers is an obviously needed safeguard. But in the SBC, it has now been proposed multiple times by multiple people, including myself, at least as far back as 2006. It’s what a highly-touted Australian study recommended for all faith groups – i.e., a “national register” so as to assist “affiliated institutions” with being able “to identify and respond to any risks to children that may be posed by people in religious or pastoral ministry.”
So what are SBC officials waiting for? Sooner or later – and probably sooner – Southern Baptists will get their turn in the spotlight of still another media exposé on clergy sex abuse and cover-ups. Journalists will document the widespread SBC scandal, just as they did for IFB churches.
When that happens, it may be for the good in terms of informing people, but will it finally prod denominational action?
Or will SBC leaders continue to hit snooze in response to the travesty of clergy sex abuse?