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Page says ’20/20′ segment one-sided

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Much is being done and more can be done to protect children from sexual predators within Southern Baptist churches, but an ABC News “20/20” segment on the issue April 13 amounted to “yellow journalism,” SBC President Frank Page says.

The segment focused on child sexual predators within Protestant churches, focusing on 10-20 occurrences within Southern Baptists’ 40,000 churches. In introducing the 16-minute segment, 20/20’s Elizabeth Vargas said, “What surprised us … is how little is being done to stop it.” ABC’s Jim Avila used the term “preacher predators.” The segment spotlighted a youth pastor who sexually abused minors at a church in Kentucky, and then moved on to a Missouri church and did the same.

Avila interviewed Page for roughly two hours recently, but in the end used just a few seconds of the interview, and Page said, left out what the denomination is doing to address the problem.

“Much is being done right now and much is being done on the local level,” Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., told Baptist Press. “They did not want to include that because it would have tainted their piece.”

Officials on the national level, including those at the SBC Executive Committee, Page said, “are looking to improve wherever possible.”

“I felt that it was an intentional slice-and-dice effort to portray the SBC and its president as uncaring and uninformed,” he said. “It was more than a two-hour interview reduced to less than 60 seconds of choppy response. It was a prime example of yellow journalism, in which a broad brush was used and the whole truth was denied a fair hearing.”

Southern Baptist messengers in 2002 adopted a resolution calling on churches to “rid their ranks of predatory ministers” and “to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases.” (The entire resolution is available here.

Page and other Southern Baptist leaders have repeatedly encouraged churches to conduct criminal background checks and to call a candidate’s references — as well as people not listed on the candidate’s reference list — to make certain a candidate’s past is clean. To assist in that, in 2002 LifeWay Christian Resources negotiated reduced-rate background check services with a company, U.S. Investigations Services. Information on background checks through USIS is available here.

LifeWay offers other resources for helping prevent child sexual abuse in churches. Among them:

— The “Pastor Search Committee Handbook,” which is available at LifeWay Christian Stores and which includes information on how to conduct criminal and credit background checks.

— “4 Steps to Prevent Sexual Abuse in Your Church,” available here.

— “Preventing Sexual Abuse,” available here.

— “7 Ways to Protect Your Church Staff from Scandal,” available here.

— “How to Protect Your Church from Lawsuits,” available here.

D. August Boto, general counsel and vice president for convention policy with the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, also issued a statement of concerns, listing what he described as misperceptions fostered in the ABC 20/20 segment (Read the entire text).

“Unfortunately, the 20/20 report last Friday had the effect of misleading at least some of its viewers to believe that the Southern Baptist Convention somehow condones, hides or denies sexual offenses committed by ministers in SBC-affiliated churches,” Boto said. “The convention does none of those things. Quite the contrary.”

The segment, Boto, said, did include “accurate assertions.” For instance, he said, “in some of those instances” of sexual abuse, abuse “had occurred earlier at churches where those men had been previously employed.”

“It is apparently true that at least in one case a church previously employing a sexual predator and the church employing the offender at the time of his ultimate arrest, did not communicate with each other in a way that disclosed any earlier indication of moral failure,” Boto said. “It may be true that other churches have similarly failed to communicate.”

But “it is not true,” Boto said, that any of the ministers had been “qualified or endorsed” by the Southern Baptist Convention. Local churches, he said, “do the qualifying.” The SBC website referenced in the program included a list of ministers across the SBC, with some on the list having been convicted of sexual abuse. The convention, Boto said, “merely shares information provided by its affiliated churches.” In other words, the list is a compilation of names given to the SBC.net website by churches.

“I do, however, see a major benefit to the airing of the 20/20 segment — that it significantly raised the level of apprehension and wariness among Southern Baptists who have responsibilities in qualifying volunteers and prospective employees,” Boto said. “Significant impact in reducing instances of sexual abuse must start at the local level. The authority is there, the children are there, the applicants are there, the circumstances are understood better there, and the child’s most motivated defenders are there — their parents.”

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