As the Southern Baptist Convention prepares to gather for its annual meeting June 14-15 in St. Louis, leaders of a support group for survivors of institutional sex abuse called on denominational leaders to take action to prevent the next “Spotlight”-style exposé from targeting the nation’s second-largest Christian group.
Executive Director David Clohessy and Outreach Director Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released an open letter asking two top SBC officials to create a central “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors can file reports about their alleged perpetrators.
The SNAP leaders said “it is flat-out cruel” to tell clergy abuse survivors they must go to the church of the accused pastor if they want to report that pastor within the faith community.
“This is like telling abuse survivors that they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them,” they said. “It is a response that inflicts additional harm on greatly wounded people and that turns a cold shoulder to those who seek only to protect others.”
Ten years ago SNAP asked SBC officials to establish an independent review board to receive and evaluate reports and keep a database of clergy credibly accused, confessed or convicted of sexual abuse. After study denominational leaders ruled the idea unfeasible, saying the convention lacked authority to investigate local congregations, which are free to call their own ministers.
“At a bare minimum, the Southern Baptist Convention needs to provide a ‘safe place’ where abuse survivors may report their perpetrators to people who have the training and experience to receive those reports with compassion and care,” said Clohessy, an abuse survivor who testified before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.
“Of course, we hope that SBC officials will eventually understand that the denomination needs to do a great deal more, but for now, what we are proposing is something small — receive reports and log allegations.”
Clohessy and Dorris said either of two existing SBC agencies has the power to take on the responsibility. One is the Executive Committee, which handles day-to-business affairs on the convention’s behalf except during the two days each summer when messengers from churches gather for an annual session. The other is the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, a moral concerns agency that the Executive Committee mentioned in 2008 as “fully capable” of providing ministry to victims of clergy sexual abuse.
“Data gathered by the Associated Press demonstrated that clergy sex abuse is not only a Catholic problem but also a huge problem for Protestants,” the SNAP leaders said. “If the SBC persists in denominational do-nothingness, we predict that the next ‘Spotlight’-style exposé will be focused on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that time comes, we earnestly implore you to at least take the step of creating a ‘safe place’ for denominationally receiving clergy abuse reports.”
In addition, the SNAP leaders asked Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page to apologize for remarks he made in a newspaper column in 2007, referring apparently to SNAP as “nothing more than opportunistic persons.”
Clohessy and Dorris said those words “were extremely hurtful, set a terrible example, and helped to foster within your faith group a climate of hostility toward clergy abuse survivors.”
“We are still hoping that, someday, you will understand the harm of what you wrote and will make a public apology, which we would be happy to receive,” the SNAP leaders said.