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IMB addresses sexual misconduct as missionary voices confession

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a statement issued June 18, applauded the resolution on “the sexual integrity of ministers” adopted at the June 11-12 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis while acknowledging an instance when the problem had occurred in its ranks.

“Sadly, our record in this area is not without blemish and we are not immune from such problems, though our policies and current stance on sexual misconduct are very strong,” IMB President Jerry Rankin said. Internal policies of the IMB were strengthened in the area of sexual misconduct a decade ago and reflect a zero tolerance on sexual offenses.

The Richmond-based IMB funds more than 5,200 missionaries serving around the world and Rankin acknowledged there have been isolated cases of sexual abuse in the past, noting the case of William McElrath who served as a missionary with the IMB in Indonesia from 1967 to 1995.

On June 17, McElrath sent an open letter to family and friends “confessing” to “sinful acts” involving “touching, tickling, cuddling, fondling that went too far.”

In 1973 a complaint was made against McElrath, accusing him of fondling two children of missionaries in Indonesia. The accusation was reviewed by field administrators, parents of the children involved, McElrath, and his wife. The matter was resolved among the parties.

In January 1995, additional incidents of sexual abuse between the years of 1967 and 1973 were brought to the attention of IMB officials. After the investigation, McElrath admitted the charges and he was terminated immediately.

Because the incidents took place outside the United States and more than 20 years earlier, the North Carolina Department of Social Services informed the IMB that no legal recourse was possible. However, five of his victims have met with IMB officials recently and the IMB is taking initiatives to provide additional counseling to these men and women.

Rankin noted that the IMB has strict written policies addressing sexual misconduct and outlining procedures for handling violations. For example, a written IMB policy states that, “If personnel suspect sexual misconduct, they should report it immediately to the regional leader without first attempting to effect a local solution.” Grounds for termination include “sexual assault or harassment, pedophilia, or sexual misconduct by personnel involving a minor.”

“Even though wrong behavior took place nearly 30 years ago, the scars and repercussions are very real and painful,” Rankin said. “We are firmly committed to reaching out to victims and dealing decisively with violators.

“We are engaged in an ongoing review of our policies regarding sexual misconduct, ” Rankin added, “and we are committed to continuous training of our personnel in awareness and prevention of sexual misconduct.”

The SBC resolution acknowledges “our own fallenness and the need to prevent such appalling sins from happening within our own ranks.”

The resolution also acknowledges “sexual infidelity and other violations of ministerial integrity have tragic consequences for those who are victimized….” It calls on “our churches to discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse” and to “cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases.”

The document encourages “those religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers,” something Rankin acknowledged was not always done expediently within the ranks of the organization.

An Associated Press report June 18 quoted Bill Merrell, a vice president with the SBC Executive Committee, as stating that sexual abuse cases remain rare in Baptist churches. “the best way to deal with the issue,” Merrell said, “is to be forthright, direct, positive and aggressive.”

The IMB was formed in 1845 and has commissioned more than 15,000 missionaries since then, with a third of them still serving today in more than 100 countries. The IMB also sends more than 30,000 volunteers worldwide each year and administers a multi-million dollar world hunger/disaster relief fund.

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