By Christa Brown
Last week, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released the results of a five-year study on the “causes and context” of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Though the study was commissioned by United States Catholic bishops, it provides useful data for understanding child sex abuse in a broader context. As the report itself states, it provides “a framework for understanding not only the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, but sexual victimization of children in any institution.” Hence, if Baptists care about kids, they too should pay attention.
Child sex abuse is not unique to the Catholic Church. What is unique to the Catholic Church, as the John Jay report observes, is that “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse, and as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”
What sort of picture would emerge if, for Baptist clergy, we could gather not only the news about criminal charges and convictions, but also the data about internal complaints and denominational review proceedings? No one knows the answer to that, because Southern Baptists have refused to implement any denominational record-keeping on credibly-accused Baptist clergy.
Time magazine named this institutional inaction by the Southern Baptist Convention as one of the top 10 underreported religion news stories of 2008. And despite the near-unanimous vote of over 8,000 messengers directing a study of the issue, the SBC’s Executive Committee did not even set aside a budget for such a study. By contrast, the John Jay study was conducted at a price of $1.8 million, with about half of that paid by the Catholic Church.
Since Southern Baptists have refused to gather data on the clergy sex abuse problem in their own faith group, it would behoove them to at least seek a better understanding based on the data derived from another faith group.
For example, the data gathered in the John Jay study establishes that “a delay, or time lag, in the reporting of sexual abuse cases is typical.” Between 1990 and 1998, 50 percent of priest molestation cases were reported 20 years or more after the event. In the tidal wave of cases reported in 2002, 50 percent were reported more than 30 years after the event, and 10 percent were reported more than 45 years after the event. Sixty percent of these cases were reported to a diocese — i.e., to a regional ecclesiastical body.
If a Baptist clergy molestation survivor wanted to report a minister 30 years after the event, where would he go? What denominational body would even hear him? If his claim is too old for criminal prosecution, as most are, what office within the Southern Baptist Convention would even look into the claim?
So far, the message from denominational officials has been that abuse survivors should go to the church of the accused minister. This is not realistic because most local churches have neither the expertise nor the objectivity to make a responsible assessment about a clergy abuse report involving their own minister. And many clergy abuse survivors will not even try to report to the minister’s own church because they fear the further wounding that so often occurs when an unknown outsider brings such ugly news about a church’s much-loved minister.
Because most clergy abuse cases are reported years later, one of the best ways to prevent clergy sex abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about clergy sex abuse in the past. This is where Southern Baptists fail so miserably, and it is a failure that leaves children at greater risk. Until there is a safe place to which the victims themselves may report abuse with a reasonable expectation of being objectively heard, other denominational efforts will amount to little more than window dressing.
The Catholic Church has begun a system of change, but institutional change takes time, states the John Jay report. By contrast, Southern Baptists have not yet even begun any “system of change.” Indeed, despite the reality of their shared faith identity, Southern Baptists have rejected even the notion of a systemic denominational approach to the problem. Worst of all, they have used religion itself as a rationalization.
Despite all the many other ways in which Southern Baptist churches cooperate, Southern Baptist officials have propounded the doctrine of local church autonomy as an excuse for denominational do-nothingness on clergy sex abuse. This religious rationalization rests on an island that is void of any moral ground. If Baptist churches cannot cooperate on a shared strategy to better protect children against clergy-predators, they lose moral credibility and they betray the very faith they profess.