Within hours of each other, two men emailed me with harrowing stories of having been sexually violated as kids on a church trip to Glorieta Baptist Conference Center (now defunct) in New Mexico. They both told of having grown up in the same Southern Baptist church in Louisiana, and they both named the same music minister as their perpetrator.
I asked if the two of them had been in touch, but they said they hadn’t spoken in over 20 years.
This unlikely coincidence happened in 2007 when survivors were flooding my inbox with their stories of Baptist clergy sex abuse and church cover-ups. Because of the providential timing, the story of these two men has remained with me.
The saddest part of it was what they told me about their futile efforts to seek help from Southern Baptist Convention officials.
The first man, whom I’ll call Bill, was the son of an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He was 14 at the time he was abused, and he told of significant physical and psychological harm.
Years later, as an adult, he called the SBC offices, asking to speak with someone about the abuse. According to Bill, the man who returned his call “spent more time trying to show the error of my homosexuality than providing a listening ear.” He insisted that the perpetrator had “turned (Bill) gay,” and emphasized that “the SBC held no responsibility.” He did nothing to extend compassion or care to Bill or to responsibly address his allegations.
The second man, whom I’ll call Brad, was 16 at the time he was abused by his music minister. He told his parents, who informed the senior pastor, but the police were not notified.
“The pattern of denominational dismissiveness toward clergy abuse reports has continued to the present day.”
Twenty-five years later, Brad learned that the music minister was still working in a Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. And the senior pastor of the church, who had kept the reported abuse quiet, had become an official in the Louisiana Baptist Convention prior to his retirement.
Brad sent an email addressed to six SBC officials: the president of the Executive Committee, three additional Executive Committee members, the SBC president and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president.
Brad informed them that he was aware that the statute of limitations had expired but believed revealing what had happened was necessary “to prevent future assaults on innocent children.” He told them he knew of another boy who had been sexually assaulted by the same minister.
“I worry every time my daughter is on a church trip,” he wrote.
An Executive Committee member responded, sermonizing Brad on forgiveness and quoting Ephesians 4. He said that he was forwarding Brad’s email to still another SBC official, an Executive Committee vice-president.
Brad waited a couple weeks and wrote again, expressing his frustration at being ignored and reiterating his desire to protect others. In reply, he received an email from an attorney representing the SBC.
The attorney offered up the standard denominational excuse for inaction – local church autonomy – and stated that he joined the Executive Committee vice-president “in praying that neither your daughter nor any other child will be sexually molested.”
According to Brad, without any extension of care to him or any attempt to responsibly address his allegations, the statement of prayer support seemed more like another “cold shoulder.”
Yet Brad wrote back yet again, stating he had contacted SBC officials several times through the years and how “humiliating” it was. He expressed his view that the SBC’s attorney was protecting the convention from legal liability, adding, “I only wish someone like you had done something to protect those of us who didn’t have protection all these years you have been counseling Baptist leadership.”
Brad received a reply stating that “the Southern Baptist Convention does not have the power to prevent what you have described…. Just as you had no power to control the man you say abused you, nor the churches who may have decided to employ him, you, like the Convention, have no legal liability either for anything he may have done.”
When Brad forwarded me this final email, I was outraged. There is no comparison between the abstract, self-serving “no power” claim of a multi-million dollar denominational entity and the very real lack of power in a child who has been intentionally groomed and abused by a clergy predator.
Brad gave up, but by then, seven SBC officials had been informed about his report of clergy sex abuse. Including the SBC’s attorney and the Louisiana convention official, there were at least nine men who could have chosen to do something. But no one did.
“An excavation of these files would likely entail revelations about still more convention officials who knew about abuse reports and did nothing.”
In the same year that Brad was writing to SBC officials, Anne Marie Miller was making an abuse report to leaders of the International Mission Board. Despite finding that the abuse “more likely than not” had occurred, and even though the accused perpetrator continued in ministry, the IMB kept the information hidden in its files for 11 years. It took media exposure to bring the information to light.
Meanwhile, when a woman contacted the ERLC last year to report a minister she described as a “pedophile,” the reply included this chilling line: “Engaging in this matter is not in the scope of our role, authority or ability.”
Clearly, the pattern of denominational dismissiveness toward reports of clergy abuse has continued to the present day.
Over the course of many years, Brad, Bill, Anne Marie Miller, myself and countless others have contacted SBC officials with reports about clergy who sexually abused kids.
What happened to all these reports? Were they considered of so little significance that some were simply trashed? Or are the reports still there in the SBC’s files? If so, why aren’t convention officials doing something about them? It shouldn’t take media exposure to prod action.
The SBC purports to be studying the abuse problem. But if the denomination is sincere about wanting to get a handle on its clergy sex abuse scandal and understand its institutional failures, it needs to authorize an independent commission to delve into the SBC’s own files, including abuse files housed with its attorneys.
An excavation of these files would likely entail revelations about still more convention officials who knew about abuse reports and did nothing. Sadly, that’s why the files will probably stay closed, protecting against potential revelations rather than protecting kids.
Previous commentary by Christa Brown: