As Russian tanks, troops and bombs poured into Ukraine, imagine if President Joe Biden had announced to the world: “This is shocking. We pledge to help Ukrainians save their lives and freedom for one year. Next year, though, we may change our minds.”
In the Boy Scouts of America, tens of thousands of adults have disclosed they were sexually violated as kids. Imagine if Scouting officials proudly proclaimed: “We’re deeply sorry. And we promise that if some of those still-wounded victims will only trust us again, we’ll act better for the next year. After that, who knows?”
As the dust settles from last week’s Southern Baptist Convention gathering in Anaheim, Calif., this is essentially what Southern Baptist leaders are telling people: “Yes, for decades, we kept secret the identities of many hundreds of dangerous child molesters. Our organization did virtually nothing to disclose these countless crimes. In fact, we often took steps to hide them. Nor have we held accountable the hundreds of ministers who committed or concealed these crimes. But trust us. For one-year, we’re saying we’ll turn things around. But next year, we may go back to business-as-usual.”
That’s not reassuring to us. It’s alarming. And it should be alarming to anyone who cares about kids, congregants and survivors.
What led the SBC to this place?
An explosive third-party investigatory report detailed how top Southern Baptist officials actively resisted calls for abuse prevention, responded to survivors with “stonewalling and even outright hostility,” and covered up the sexual abuse of victims, many of whom were children.
The report disclosed that senior SBC officials “were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC” and took steps to hide information about sexual abuse, even if it meant that molesters continued in ministry. They “protected or even supported alleged abusers” while “stories of abuse were minimized, and survivors were ignored or even vilified.”
“Evidence in the report suggests leaders also lied.”
The parallels between the country’s largest Protestant denomination and the Catholic Church are inescapable. Like their Catholic cousins, Southern Baptists worked to conceal widespread clergy sex abuse, except as one author observed, there was “a certain chilly business-school efficiency in the SBC’s approach.”
What did the SBC do in Anaheim?
In response to such damning revelations, the SBC voted last week for reforms that are strikingly limited and fragile. Bruce Frank, chair of the task force that drafted the recommendations, described them as “the bare minimum of what can be called reform.”
The “bare minimum.” By their own admission.
A problem this enormous and entrenched should have launched immediate transformational reforms. Instead, we see the creation of yet another task force, authorized for only one year, and the promise of a database — at some undetermined point down the road — that is structured to be church-dependent and survivor-unfriendly. It is a “bare minimum” that is but a bare bone tossed.
Still, many are proclaiming it “a first step.” But let’s remember what happens when a minimal-by-design response system fails: More innocent children are raped and sodomized. Their trust is shattered, often leaving them incapable of meaningful friendships or stable marriages. And with faith having served as a complicit partner to child-rape, victims often are left as spiritual orphans for life.
“With faith having served as a complicit partner to child-rape, victims often are left as spiritual orphans for life.”
And those who committed or concealed these heinous crimes often remain “under the radar,” emboldened to devastate more children’s lives.
This is indisputably true. We know it from facts, history, common sense and deeply painful personal experiences. (Both of us were sexually violated as youngsters by clergymen.)
We also would point out that while walking is generally good for one’s health, one can walk forward, walk backward or walk in place. So, taking a step doesn’t necessarily mean getting to or even heading toward a particular destination. A “first step” — especially if taken largely because of external pressure — can be meaningless, or even deceptive.
Put another way, motion isn’t necessarily progress. Nor does motion alone guarantee or necessarily lead to progress.
Given that the safety of thousands of innocent kids is at stake, the standard should not be “Is this a slight improvement over the status quo?” Instead, the standard must be “What protects the most vulnerable?”
What should happen now?
In the face of a scathing independent report, decades of institutional intransigence, thousands of lives decimated, massive media on a global scale, and tens of thousands of signatures on petitions, the SBC still did only the “bare minimum” to address clergy sex abuse. This is deeply disheartening.
If children are to be made safer, it is now crucial that secular authorities — both state and federal — step up.
“State attorneys general must launch thorough investigations into sexual abuse, institutional enablement and survivor maltreatment in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Specifically, state attorneys general must launch thorough investigations into sexual abuse, institutional enablement and survivor maltreatment in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Investigations like this already have been done, or are in progress, in roughly half the states in the U.S. with respect to the Catholic Church, and this is what must come next for the Southern Baptists as well.
Also on the state level, legislators must relax or repeal archaic, predator-friendly statutes of limitations that prevent civil lawsuits. Such lawsuits often lead to compensation for still-suffering survivors — something Southern Baptist officials have not yet even placed on the table for discussion. Civil lawsuits also are the most sure-fire way to prevent abuse and expose child molesters, because when civil suits are filed, the names of wrongdoers are nearly always made public, which allows parents to safeguard their kids.
And the federal government, which has done virtually nothing to address child sex crimes in faith groups, must follow the lead of Ireland, Australia and other Western nations and set up well-funded totally independent inquiries into clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. Such inquiries must be focused on exposing wrongdoers and writing well-documented reports.
“Every caring person in the SBC should step back from the understandably tempting assumption that, last week, their faith group did a turn-around on abuse and that it will keep moving in the right direction.”
But one step should take place immediately, not by governmental authorities, but by rank-and-file Southern Baptist churchgoers. Every caring person in the SBC should step back from the understandably tempting assumption that, last week, their faith group did a turn-around on abuse and that it will keep moving in the right direction.
Of course, we all want this to happen. And parents in the pews of Southern Baptist churches deserve it.
But it hasn’t happened yet. And it won’t, if people let their justifiable anger melt into premature complacency. Or if they let themselves be lulled by nice-sounding words put forward in the face of a public relations disaster.
Real reform — reform that can truly reverse decades of dangerous deception — takes a long-term commitment and a healthy skepticism.
David Clohessy, former longtime director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, currently serves as SNAP’s volunteer director for St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @davidgclohessy. Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang. She serves on the board of advisers for the Child-Friendly Faith Project and previously served on the board of directors for SNAP. Follow her on Twitter @ChristaBrown777.
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