We need to take another step to stop clergy sexual abuse. Let's post a list of churches that we learn knowingly allow—or force—an abusing minister to move on without doing something to warn others.
This sounds harsh. But it's nothing compared to the pain and anguish victims go through when their ministers violate their trust and abuse them sexually. So churches that know about it but don't help stop it should be shamed as if they actually aided and abetted this heinous act. They did.
Because of our polity, Baptists have struggled with deciding how to report sexual abuse by their ministers. We don't have an ecclesiastical hierarchy to enforce rules and regulations—no bishop to render justice or warn other congregations. We don't require ordination for service, so we can't pull clergy credentials to block a job with a church after violating trust with another congregation. And, of course, we don't tell churches what to do, so we can't require them to report abuse, just as we can't tell them who or who not to hire as ministers.
Baptists also have been understandably cautious about reporting sexual abuse. Short of legal conviction or confession, making a claim of clergy misconduct is fraught with legal peril. Churches and convention officials have been reticent to risk charges of libel and slander in order to stop a perp from plaguing a new set of parishioners. And they have been appropriately reticent to publicize names of accused perpetrators unless the charges have been substantiated.
Despite these polity challenges, several Baptist groups are beginning to take steps to identify abusers. One method is for responsible convention officials to maintain a list of clergy sexual misconduct based on convictions, confessions and reports from congregational officials. An elected search-committee leader can submit a notarized form asking if a prospective pastor or staff member is on the list. Another option is to post online a list of registered sex offenders who were or are staff members of Baptist churches. We can hope and pray these procedures will remove the possibility that ministers who abuse the people who trust them will gain access to new victims.
Still, we could strengthen the system by employing the power of our polity. We honor the autonomy and independence of our congregations. But we should hold them accountable, too. Nobody can tell a church who to hire, and nobody can force a church to report ministerial misconduct. But we can make them own up to their responsibility for the good and well-being of other congregations. If a church shoos an abusing pastor away rather than deal with a violation, other churches should know what that church has done. Similarly, if a church fails to conduct a background search and hires a known abuser, the congregation should be reported. We won't always learn about these shortcomings and violations, but when we do, we should follow up. The prospect of being reported should prompt more churches to do the right thing.
Most churches that turn a blind eye to clergy sexual abuse do so because they want to avoid conflict and shame. But they also violate every victim of the minister who gets to move on without showing up on the sexual-abuser list. They should realize that if they make further abuse possible, they will own a share of the shame, and others will know about it.
This is a difficult, painful topic. But if it makes you feel uncomfortable, then try—just try—to imagine how victims of abusive clergy feel every day of their lives.
Marv Knox is editor of the Texas Baptist Standard.