WASHINGTON (BP)–The welfare of children, not restoration for the clergy, should be the priority in dealing with sexual abuse by church leaders, Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land says.
Land’s comments came as the Roman Catholic Church struggles to cope with a scandal that has included not only child molestation by priests but inaction or concealment by some bishops. Leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States issued a statement April 24 at the Vatican that called for dismissal from the priesthood of those who are serial sex abusers but stopped short of seeking removal based on a single incident of molestation.
“The protection of innocent children trumps any adult opportunity for a second chance at the privilege of serving in the ministry,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Such an opportunity “must never come at the expense of placing any child in harm’s way by an increased risk of molestation by a clergyman,” he said.
“While all of us have a great deal of sympathy for the agony that Roman Catholics are going through right now, we need to keep our focus on the most important issue, and that is the safety and welfare of children,” Land said. “I am disturbed that the cardinals don’t seem to be able to bring themselves to say, ‘One strike and you’re out,’ when it comes to the molestation of children by priests.”
While Christianity teaches forgiveness, it does not require restitution to certain positions for offenders, he said.
“There are things that you can do which disqualify you from continuing in ministry,” Land said. The apostle Paul said he struggled to keep his body under control so he would not be disapproved, Land said. “He knew he wouldn’t lose his salvation, but he would lose his ministry; he would lose his apostleship,” he said.
“Forgiveness does not mean that there are not things you can do to forfeit your opportunity to have the kind of trust placed in you that is placed in people who are in ministry when they’re dealing with children,” Land said.
“Should the church seek to rehabilitate those who have committed these crimes and seek to minister to them? Yes,” said Land, who acknowledged he was speaking about all clergy and not solely Catholic priests. “Should they be placed in a situation where they have the possibility or opportunity to perpetrate these crimes against the innocence of children again? Absolutely not.”
Sexual abuse by the clergy is more than “a church issue,” Land said. “It is not only a sin; it is a crime. And it must always be reported to appropriate legal authorities. Whenever anyone suspects that a child is being physically or sexually abused, he or she has a moral and a legal obligation to report it to the proper legal authorities.”
In an appearance on the April 24 edition of CNN’s “Talkback Live,” Land addressed the importance of a proper handling of abuse reports.
The Southern Baptist Convention “had a couple of high-profile, child-sex-abuse scandals with ministerial staff in some churches in the late ’80s, and that really caused us to focus on this,” he said.
The SBC, its entities and its churches “hammer it home” with seminary students and childcare workers, Land told the audience.
“If anyone related to our churches suspects that this is going on, they have an obligation, both morally and legally, to report it, because we must focus on the victim,” he said. “We say [to childcare workers], ‘You must do background checks on all of your people who work with children, and if you have any reason to believe, any suspicion, that there has been physical or sexual abuse, you must report it immediately.'”
While the focus in the Catholic scandal has been on pedophile priests, it “is only part of the problem,” Land told Baptist Press. “It’s time we took away the cloak of political correctness and talked about this problem for what it really is.
“A pedophile is someone who wants to have sexual activity with a prepubescent child, male or female,” he said. “That has been the case in some of the victimization of children within the Catholic priests scandal. But when you have priests having sexual activity with 12- and 13- and 14-year-old boys, that is not a pedophile problem; that is a homosexual priest problem. This problem within the Catholic Church has been greatly magnified by the fact that they have a significant minority of their priesthood, by their own admission, who are homosexual.”