Editor's note: In February, the Associated Press released a story by Rose French that implied the Southern Baptist Convention is sheltering pastors that have a record of sexual abuse and that the SBC is resisting attempts to address the problem of clergy abuse. Ms. French's article made no reference to materials provided directly to her by the SBC Executive Committee — materials that specifically addressed every concern presented in her story — materials that demonstrate the SBC's ongoing concerns and efforts to address this moral travesty. The following are articles printed in Baptist Press following the AP story.
The Southern Baptist Convention "deplores and condemns" child sexual abuse and provides resources for its member churches to battle it, an attorney with the SBC's Executive Committee said in a statement February 22.
The statement by D. August Boto was in reference to an Associated Press story about a victims' group — SNAP — that is asking the denomination to launch an independent review board to look into cases concerning child sexual abuse. A SNAP coordinator, Christa Brown, was quoted in the story as saying Southern Baptist leaders "don't want to see this problem" as true. (SNAP is an acronym for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and other Clergy.)
Boto, though, in a 1,300-word statement, said the denomination is addressing the problem, and has long been doing so.
"Such criminal acts by those in ministerial positions are abhorrent — they violate a myriad of biblical commands and principles and even the most basic standards of human decency — and we believe such behavior should be prosecuted to the fullest," Boto wrote. "Our hearts are truly broken when we hear of such abuse, and we will continue to encourage Southern Baptist churches to address this deplorable behavior."
Boto provided several examples of SBC action, including the fact that LifeWay Christian Resources of the SBC provides guidelines for screening preschool and children's workers and encourages churches to do background checks on all ministers and workers. State conventions, such as the Georgia Baptist Convention, also have resources in place.
The SBC's unique structure — churches within the denomination are autonomous and voluntarily choose to participate — could prevent "most of the specific requests" from SNAP from being implemented. But Boto said the requests that "are feasible" are being studied.
"We have repeatedly encouraged our churches to exercise due diligence in background research when considering a prospective minister or volunteer, but that due diligence cannot be mandated," Boto wrote. "… The Southern Baptist Convention structure leaves the responsibility for such matters in the hands of those most motivated and capable of addressing it — the members of the local churches — many of whom are parents and grandparents."
The SBC "strongly advises the immediate report of suspected child abuse, sexual or otherwise," Boto said.
In 2002, the messengers at the denomination's annual meeting approved a resolution calling for churches and civil authorities to hold accountable clergy members guilty of sexual abuse.
Addressing the SNAP Claims
The following are specific claims and allegations by SNAP and its representatives about the Southern Baptist Convention, with response from the Executive Committee:
1 An independent review panel is necessary: Any such panel, to be effective, would need authority to investigate and act. Baptists would never authorize or recognize such a panel if it were composed of people outside their local church. Inside the local church, it is often the case that Baptists have formed deacon subcommittees, personnel committees, legal committees, and other such bodies to authorize prevention policies and deal with specific instances of criminal, abhorrent, or impermissible conduct. And with regard to criminal matters, the proper investigatory panel for Baptists should be law enforcement officials. The SBC strongly advises the immediate report of suspected child abuse, sexual or otherwise.
2 A no-tolerance policy should be adopted: While there may be some merit in local churches including a bold statement against child abuse in any employee policies they may adopt, stating the obvious would be more in the way of a public relations move than one of real substance. The SBC does not tolerate or condone crime of any kind. The suggestion that adoption of a no-tolerance policy would be helpful implies that the SBC approves ministers of local churches, or certifies ministers for service, which it does not.
3 The SBC should be able to track its ministers: Churches choosing to affiliate with the Convention to cooperate in mission endeavors employ their own ministers, who may choose to inform the Convention of their whereabouts, though many do not. The ministers are not the Convention's. They are (or ought to be) the Lord's. The Convention, as already explained, has no basis upon which to require ministers to update their employment status or address. In a sense, the SBC is as capable of controlling or knowing the whereabouts of 'its' ministers as a university might be of 'its' alumni. Sexual predators are not well known for their propensity to publicly declare their intentions, identity, or location.
4 Christa Brown's assertion that "kids are not safe in Southern Baptist churches": Statements such as this have implied that the Southern Baptist Convention is somehow irresponsible regarding child safety. The Southern Baptist Convention structure leaves the responsibility for such matters in the hands of those most motivated and capable of addressing it — the members of the local churches — many of whom are parents and grandparents.
5 Christa Brown's assertion that nothing is done until the press becomes involved: Examination of the cases reported discloses that in the vast majority of them, the news article is reporting about lawsuits and criminal actions that have already been filed as the result of a local church (or victim) having acted.
6 The SBC should employ a registry be to blacklist perpetrators: There is already an abundance of such registries. Any church desiring to qualify a potential employee or volunteer has access to them. The answer lies more in exercising the due diligence of qualification than it does in creating another list. SNAP appears to recognize this, in that, as yet, it has posted no such list.
7 Christa Brown's assertion, as reported by Rose French for the AP, that in the last six months, SNAP has received reports of about forty cases of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist ministers — with some of the incidents dating back many years: SNAP did not share that claim, nor the underlying information, in our meeting with them on Tuesday, February 20. But statements such as this are misleading if they are not read carefully. In the days following the release of the AP report, the statement has been misunderstood and improperly recast as "40 cases in the last six months." The SBC's response to the challenge of moral failure and crime in church settings must be crafted on dependable information, and the public's perception of the SBC in the process should be also. If SNAP cares to catalog the information it is referring to, of course we will review it, but for it to be usable it should take a reliable form, bereft of generalization, innuendo, and presumption. In our correspondence with SNAP, we asked for their data six months ago, but did not receive a reply. Nevertheless, published reports (taken from the Internet and available to anyone) concern us. Almost all of them involved either a civil lawsuit, an arrest and prosecution, or both. And, whatever the actual number, we know that every single instance of child abuse, occurring anywhere, is a deplorable tragedy. We know that children are especially precious in God's sight. For a child to be abused in a place where the child should be most safe is terribly troubling to us. We cannot overstate the depth of our grief for each victim. We cannot overstate our sense of condemnation of such behavior.
8 Sexual abuse of children is more likely in a Baptist context because of Baptist polity: It is ironic that SNAP, an organization most of whose members were abused in a hierarchical ecclesiastical framework (Catholic) now believe that victimization is more likely in a congregational one (Baptist, Bible church, etc.) and that hierarchical solutions may be best. They quote one ethicist for the proposition that the Baptist context may make victimization more possible, but when that quote is read closely, it becomes apparent that the problem being complained of is the exercise of unbridled authority. This can occur in ANY setting — school, church, employment, or government. The Baptist context includes congregations exhibiting a full range of willingness and ability to correctly relate to their ministers. Some do it very well and some do not. And those which do not often suffer, and allow suffering by victims, as a result. Tragically, even some of the most vigilant congregations have also fallen victim to an occurrence. We must improve wherever we can.