But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong,
’Cause if you really want to hear our views,
You haven’t done nothin’
– Stevie Wonder
Since last July when Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear announced the formation of a sexual abuse study group, people have been asking me, “Do you think they’ll finally change things?”
Often, I hear a note of hopefulness in the question and remember when I too might have believed that such an announcement meant Baptist officials were rising to the task of addressing clergy sex abuse. Not anymore. After 12 years of hearing the stories of survivors of Baptist clergy abuse, I’ve learned that, on this subject, the words of Baptist leaders are worthy of wariness.
SBC officials say they’re “studying it.” So what?
First, let’s remember that SBC officials have sung this “studying it” song before. Their prior 2008 “study,” with its seemingly predisposed do-nothing result, left many of us Baptist abuse survivors with a healthy measure of skepticism.
“But this is a new generation of Baptist leaders,” people say, and true enough, there are some younger faces. However, this is not a problem of old-guard versus new-guard.
“Decades of institutional patterns will not be changed by simply repopulating the same inadequate structures with new faces, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.”
The problem is that the SBC system fosters a climate for abuse and cover-ups because it lacks effective structures for clergy accountability and for information-sharing among congregations. Decades of institutional patterns will not be changed by simply repopulating the same inadequate structures with new faces, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.
Second, it’s not even clear exactly what SBC officials are “studying” this time around. The details of their process are not transparent, and some of their remarks provide little reason for confidence. It’s hard to imagine that these leaders will be able to remediate effectively their own institutional failures when, so often, they avoid even speaking of them. For example, Executive Committee chairman Mike Stone claimed there had “never” been any “hesitancy about addressing these issues” in the SBC, and said it was engaging the study because of the increased emphasis on sexual abuse “in the culture and in the media.” Executive Committee interim president Augie Boto talked about the study as a way “to address evil, human failure and the consequences of sin.”
These explanations simply ignore the reality of what most clergy sex abuse survivors experience. When confronted with the common problem that their claims are no longer subject to criminal prosecution, survivors often attempt to report abusive clergy within the SBC only to encounter, not merely “hesitancy,” but stonewalling, silencing, shaming and blaming. It’s not some generic “evil” that further traumatizes survivors; it’s the specific horror in how church and denominational officials respond to them.
Third, this is a denomination that doesn’t even provide a “safe place” office to which survivors can report clergy sex abusers. Without such an institutional structure, the SBC’s study will necessarily be incomplete and seriously flawed. The SBC will never come to grips with how widespread the malignant rot of clergy sex abuse really is until it affirmatively welcomes the voices of abuse survivors.
Fourth, if SBC officials want a study with credibility, they need to get out of the driver’s seat and turn it over to outside experts. And note, I’m not talking about the kind of experts who view the abuse issue through the lens of keeping a church, ministry or denominational entity safe from liability exposure. I’m talking about the kind of experts who view the issue through the lens of keeping children safe.
How much “studying it” does it take?
Over a decade ago, insurance data informed us that Baptists likely have as big of an abuse problem as Catholics, and some experts say evangelicals are “worse than Catholics” in how they respond. Yet, despite these realities, denominational officials have refused to intervene.
“It’s not some generic ‘evil’ that further traumatizes survivors; it’s the specific horror in how church and denominational officials respond to them.”
So now, after what has already been way too many years of denominational do-nothingness, “studying it” is no longer an acceptable response. Besides, how much “studying it” does it take for SBC officials to understand that they’re placing children at risk when their standard reply to those reporting clergy predators is to pontificate about polity? And surely it’s obvious that, when someone asks “how to turn in a pedophile,” it helps no one when denominational officials respond “this matter is not in the scope of our role, authority or ability.” Every time Baptist officials make such self-serving, do-nothing responses, they increase the probability that more kids will be sexually abused.
And really, how much “studying it” does it take to know that a man should not be able to remain in the pulpit of an SBC-affiliated church – for over a decade now – after he has admitted to having sex with a church teen “between 20 and 40 times.”
Rather than a timid “studying it,” action is needed.
SBC officials need to take immediate action. They need to create structures that will reach out to clergy sex abuse survivors, that will implement effective accountability processes for clergy, and that will cooperatively facilitate the sharing of information about credibly accused clergy.
Rather than delaying action for another two years with yet another inherently flawed, in-house study, SBC officials would do better if they would work to implement the recommendations of the $342 million Australia study on institutional responses to child sexual abuse. This much-lauded, 5-year, comprehensive study concluded with numerous recommendations for improving the safety of children, including recommendations for improved record-keeping and information sharing in religious organizations. Specifically, Recommendation 16.58 urged that religious organizations consider establishing “national registers … to help affiliated institutions identify and respond to any risks to children that may be posed by people in religious or pastoral ministry.”
This recommendation meshes with what SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, first requested of SBC officials in 2006 in urging the creation of a denominational system for record-keeping on clergy sex abuse reports and for informing congregations about credibly accused clergy. It meshes with what Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson proposed at the 2007 SBC annual meeting when he moved for the creation of a denominational database of clergy sex abusers. And it meshes with what a new generation of survivor advocates have been urging since last June – i.e., that an SBC database of clergy sex abusers is “needed today.”
For far too long, officials of the country’s largest Protestant denomination have done nearly nothing to effectively address clergy sex abuse. The time for action is overdue, and the SBC’s version of “studying it” does not suffice.