DALLAS -- Recent sex scandals among Catholic and evangelicalleaders are prompting renewed calls for action against clergy sexualabuse. But with research indicating such abuse is more prevalent amongclergy -- including Baptists -- than other counseling professionals,abuse-victim advocates are asking if enough is being done.
Comprehensive studies are difficult to find. But a 1993 survey bythe Journal of Pastoral Care found that 14 percent of Southern Baptistministers admitted to engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior.Seventy percent said they knew another minister who had.
A 2000 Baptist General Convention of Texas report indicated morethan 24 percent of ministers said they had counseled at least oneperson who had sexual contact with a minister. The BGCT report calledthe level of sexual abuse by clergy “horrific” and noted that “thedisturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence forclergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians andpsychologists.”
Christa Brown, an attorney from Austin, Texas, maintainswww.stopbaptistpredators.org. She works with the Survivors Network ofthose Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a volunteer self-help organization ofsurvivors of clergy sexual abuse. She also recently handed outbrochures at the annual BGCT convention Nov. 13 in Dallas.
“We call upon the Baptist General Convention of Texas to stopshielding clergy predators and to take action for the protection ofkids,” the SNAP leaflet said. It called on the BGCT to hire independentexperts to investigate sexual abuse cases within the convention, whichmaintains that autonomy among local churches -- a Baptist tradition --sometimes makes it difficult to ferret out and prosecute sexualpredators.
Brown, 54, who said she was abused by a Southern Baptist youthminister in 1968, insists if Baptist leaders cared enough aboutprotecting kids from clergy abuse, they would not let congregationalautonomy be an impediment to action.
But representatives from the Baptist General Convention of Texastake issue with Brown’s characterization. They say they’re actually theonly Baptist group to take a proactive stand against clergy abuse --all the while working within a denominational structure built tomaintain autonomy in local churches and resist top-down management.
Emily Row, coordinator of leader communication for the Texasconvention, said her initial reaction to hearing from any victims groupis one of sadness. She acknowledged that “there have been and continueto be gaps within the system,” and said she understands “the grief andthe anger and the frustration that is bound to be a process of havingbeen a victim.”
Still, she said, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about how the BGCT deals with clergy misconduct, and some of it is hearsay.
“Groups like SNAP say that we are harboring people guilty of sexualmisconduct,” Row said. That’s not the case, she added. Instead,churches can report sexual misconduct to a confidential file on avolunteer basis. “What happens is that duly-elected members of a churchprovide us with information of incidents of sexual misconduct…. It hasto be in writing.”
That practice is intended to protect both the accuser and the accused, Row said.
The issue of confidentiality versus secrecy has remained a largepart of the debate, especially concerning the BGCT's file of ministerswho reportedly committed sexual misconduct. SNAP officials criticizedthe Texas file in a letter they delivered Sept. 26 to the SBC ExecutiveCommittee in Nashville calling for an independent review of Baptistabuse.
But BGCT leaders point to the file as proof they’re doing more thanother Baptist groups in trying to stop sexual abuse. Indeed, while thefile remains confidential, it is a step that others have not yet taken,Row said.
Row stressed that the “file of incidents” is often misunderstood. Ifa minister is convicted of any indecency or confesses to such, thenchurch leaders can choose to report it to the list. And other churchescan have access to the file as well, if they submit an official request.
To check the “confidential, not secret” BGCT file, an elected memberof a church must submit a written request inquiring about a particularperson. Should that specific person appear on the list, BGCT officials“respond with a form that says if the person indicated has an incidenton record in that file.”
“Because we’re autonomous as Baptists, we can’t make anyone tell usanything,” Row said. “Our information is only as good as the churchinformation that is provided, which means that when a church doesn’treport to us what has happened, we don’t have any way of knowing, andthat information is not in the file.”
Any clergy members recorded as public sex offenders against childrenare listed in public records, and churches “are encouraged” toreference those lists. Those names are not listed on the BGCT filebecause “it’s already part of public record,” Row said.
Christa Brown, however, called that limited availability a “verydangerous way of thinking.” FBI reports say less than 10 percent ofchild molestation cases are ever detected, much less prosecuted, sohundreds of cases go unreported in public databases every year.
“The contents of that file are kept secret from the very people whoare most in need of knowing what’s in it -- the parents in the pews ofBaptist churches,” Brown said. “In my own case, the perpetrator’s namesat in that secret file at the BGCT while he continued working inchildren’s ministry in Florida. If I was a parent in one of thoseFlorida churches, I would be outraged to learn that Baptist leaders inTexas knew about a minister with a substantiated report of havingsexually abused a minor….”
Secrecy contracts, or agreements that forbid the victim fromspeaking about the inappropriate contact, have contributed to theproblem, Brown said. Often, women who had an affair with a pastor areasked to quietly leave the church in order to save themselves -- andthe church -- the embarrassment of a scandal.
“Even if [Baptist leaders] can’t actually remove men from ministry,they could at least take on the obligation to inform people in the pewswhen there is information about a minister reported for molesting akid,” she said. “To keep that kind of information a secret from parentsis unconscionable.”
For her part, Row stressed that not all of the people in the filewere guilty of child abuse. Some are included because of adultery withconsenting adults, for instance. Others may have looked at legalpornography. And she urged churches to contact authorities immediatelyin cases of illegal behavior, harassment or rape.
What’s more, the BGCT has an “intervention specialist” who dealswith cases of clergy misconduct, Row said. And the convention haspublished several guides on ministerial ethics, one specifically aboutpreventing and confronting clergy sexual misconduct.
In June 2002, the Southern Baptist Convention also passed aresolution on the sexual integrity of ministers. It urged seminaries toemphasize ministerial integrity in the training of pastors and otherleaders, and called on civil authorities to punish to the fullestextent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors.
“We call on our churches to discipline those guilty of any sexualabuse in obedience to Matthew 18:6-17, as well as to cooperate withcivil authorities in the prosecution of those cases,” the resolutionsaid. “…[W]e pray for those who have been harmed as a result of sexualabuse and urge our churches to offer support, compassion and biblicalcounseling to them and their families.”
Phil Strickland, in a letter of introduction for Broken Trust: Confronting Clergy Sexual Misconduct,wrote that 96 percent of sexual exploitation by professionals involvesa man in power capitalizing on a woman’s trust. The late director ofthe BGCT’s Christian Life Commission, Strickland said clergy sexualmisconduct happens when a person in a ministerial role engages insexual contact, threats or sexual behavior with a congregant, client,employee, student, staff member, colleague or volunteer.
Sometimes it’s done once, spontaneously, by a leader who isemotionally vulnerable and lonely. Other times, the abuse happens froma leader who has a pattern of abusing power -- a serial abuser whoactively looks for opportunities to take advantage of congregants.
“Congregations should conduct background checks on prospective staffand assure appropriate supervision of all staff,” said Strickland, whodied last year. “If there is a complaint of sexual misconduct, thechurch must act immediately to investigate and intervene properly andresponsibly.”
Dee Ann Miller, an author and former Southern Baptist missionary,has worked with people affected by clergy abuse for more than 15 years.Of the 2,500 clergy-abuse survivors she has helped, she said on Brown’swebsite, at least 300 of them claim to have been abused by SouthernBaptist clergy.
Miller, who wrote How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct,said she had good response from Baptists when she first got involvedwith the issue in 1995. But she sees little progress toward trainingministers and lay people to prevent and deal with sexual misconduct.
“I could not understand then and still have only partialunderstanding of the rationale that would put other individuals andcongregations at risk while giving ‘opportunity for restoration’ to aperpetrator with multiple victims…,” Miller wrote in a series of essaysfor Baptists Today.
In an issue so mired in hurt and mistrust, solutions seem few andfar between. Miller and Brown have repeatedly and emphatically said theBGCT’s action is “not even close” to proper investigation andprevention of misconduct. Brown has called it “a bit of talk and somewords on paper” that effectively recycle predators from church tochurch.
Row maintains that the convention has committed to improving“communication and to make use of our clergy sexual-misconduct file.”Convention leaders truly want to prevent sexual abuse and help thosewhom it affects, she said.
“My hope is that as more of these instances are made publicknowledge, that churches will see the need to begin to report thesethings,” Row said. “That they will see that they can be a part ofbringing about a solution. My hope is that those who have been boldenough to step forward and say something will be rewarded.”