Baptist churches more vulnerable to clergy sex abuse, experts say
By Hannah Elliott
Published January 23, 2007
DALLAS (ABP) -- A recent sex scandal involving two North Texaspastors and the women who accused them of molestation is unusualbecause the victims -- by now beyond the statute of limitations forsex-abuse cases -- urged authorities and media to publish their namesin conjunction with the case.
Typically, the names of sex-abuse victims are not publicized in aneffort to spare the victim more emotional trauma. But Katherine Roushand Debbie Vasquez agreed to be identified in order to call attentionto an increasingly prominent scathe of clergy sex-abuse cases inBaptist churches.
Larry Reynolds of Southmont Baptist Church in Denton, Texas, andDale Amyx of Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger, Texas, were accused inseparate civil lawsuits of molesting Roush and Vasquez, respectively,during counseling sessions when the girls were 14 years old. The abusecontinued for several years, according to charges.
Had the women, now adults, reported the molestation at the time ofthe crime, each man could have faced first-degree felony charges. Injuvenile cases, victims can report a crime until 10 years after their18th birthday.
Instead of the possible life sentence that would have gone with hisfelony charge, Reynolds issued an apology at a church Thanksgivingbanquet as part of a settlement agreement. His suit was settled out ofcourt. Vasquezâ€™s lawsuit has yet to be resolved.
Sex-abuse charges like the ones in North Texas have becomeincreasingly common, with cases in Missouri, Kentucky and Floridamaking regional and national news. And some experts have said Baptistchurches may be particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse.
Inappropriate behavior by clergy cuts across all denominational tiesand theological positions, ethicist Joe Trull said. But he says a casecan be made that â€œnondenominational churches and Baptist churches whohave autonomous church government are more vulnerable and susceptibleâ€to instances of sexual abuse.
â€œIn a sense, every one of these situations has certaincommonalities,â€ he said. â€œBut on the other hand, each one has its ownunique face. In a sense, theyâ€™re all different, but in a sense, theyâ€™reall alike.â€
The editor of Christian Ethics Today, Trull co-wrote Ministerial Ethics in 2004 and taught Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
â€œPossibly if you looked at the statistics, I think there would be ahigher incidence [in nondenominational and Baptist churches] because ofa lack of accountability,â€ he said. â€œ[Pastors there] have not beenprepared by their denomination. There is still that attitude inseminaries and colleges that prepare these pastors that theyâ€™re ontheir own. Itâ€™s that CEO mentality. And the thing that grieves me isthat thereâ€™s absolutely no sense of how this [misconduct] affects otherministers and churches.â€
While Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestant denominationshave â€œspelled-outâ€ obligations for ministerial ethics, Baptist clergylack a code of ethics to which they can be held accountable.
â€œIn other denominations, [pastors] know that if charges are brought,truth will win out,â€ Trull said. â€œDoctors and psychologists know ifthey are caught, they will lose their credentials and there willprobably be a malpractice suit. Most Baptists and nondenominationalministers know that â€˜If I get caught, I can move to California andstart a new church.â€™â€
The increased instances of sex-abuse stories in the news may notnecessarily mean itâ€™s happening more than in prior decades. It oftenmeans people are simply talking about it more openly, according to someexperts. And victims like Rouse and Vasquez have encouraged others tocome forward with their own stories of abuse.
Studies documenting the trend consistently find that roughly 12percent of ministers have engaged in sexual intercourse withcongregants. The Journal of Pastoral Care reported in a 1993survey that 14 percent of Southern Baptist senior pastors had engagedin â€œsexual behavior inappropriate for a minister.â€ In a 1988 studycommissioned by Christianity Today, 17 percent of pastors surveyed admitted to having sexual contact with a counselee.
Lee Orth, chairman of the litigation committee at First BaptistChurch in Greenwood, Mo., recently helped his church wade through a sexabuse case of its own. A long-time Presbyterian, Orth said the lack ofa clear chain of command in Baptist churches means reports of abuseoften go overlooked.
â€œAny time you donâ€™t have to report to anyone what is going on, thechances for abuse are going to occur,â€ Orth said. â€œStrangely enough,Baptists are so big on following the Bible exactly, but they completelyignore the part about having elders and deacons [to help lead thechurch].â€
Pastors must be exceedingly clear in understanding who theyâ€™reaccountable to and who reports to whom, he said. If more Baptistpastors knew they had to meet regularly with a central body oraccountability board, they would be less likely to commit the abuse.
â€œI really think that the autonomy is part of the problem,â€ he said.â€œI think there is too much that is put into the hands of the preacher.What youâ€™ve got is a lot of little popes sitting out there, and theyâ€™reinfallible, and they know what the word is. Itâ€™s almost like littlekings, little fiefdoms.â€
Another situation that can lead to sex abuse is a false sense ofsecurity people have when it comes to churches, Robert Leslie, adetective with the Greenwood Police Department, said. Itâ€™s somethingsometimes neglected by personnel committees that receive littleoversight from outside sources.
Church leaders and parents must demand due diligence when checkingthe background and references of anyone working around children, hesaid.
â€œChurches have always been a place where everybody trustseverybody,â€ he said. â€œEverybody feels safe there. If you think aboutit, what better place for a predator to go?â€
Megachurches in particular can attract the â€œcharismatic,predator-typeâ€ minister who repeatedly takes advantage of the power hehas over congregants, especially emotionally vulnerable women. Theadvantage of being a solitary figure at the head of a group bringsopportunities for moral failure. Although the number of congregants ishigh on the weekends, many megachurch pastors lead relatively isolatedlives with few, if any, close friends.
â€œ[Pastors of] megachurches and growing Baptist churches are thetypes that go for predator abuse,â€ Trull said. â€œThey tend to be loners.They donâ€™t have close friends to keep them accountable.â€
The imbalance of power between pastors and victims also plays alarge part in the relationship. Bruce Prescott, executive director ofMainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said the abuse often isnâ€™t about sex atall. Itâ€™s about power.
A former police officer, Prescott has counseled many victims ofsexual abuse and found that the perpetrator often has an unhealthy viewof power, sex and social interaction.
â€œWhat outrages me is when a church doesnâ€™t do something,â€ Prescottsaid. â€œThatâ€™s outrageous. You perpetuate that. Somebody has got stopit, because if you donâ€™t there will be other victims. Somebody has gotto accept the responsibility to get [the predator] off the street orget them help.â€
What needs to be done, others stress, is to educate seminarians,enlighten congregations, establish codes of conduct, and publishcomplete lists of pastors guilty of sexual infractions -- no small taskfor autonomous Baptist churches.
Christa Brown, an attorney from Austin, Texas, insists that Baptistleaders would not let autonomy delay action if they truly cared aboutprotecting children from abuse.
Brown works with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests,an organization of clergy sexual-abuse survivors. She maintainswww.stopbaptistpredators.org and has asked the Baptist GeneralConvention of Texas to hire independent experts to investigatesexual-abuse cases within the convention.
SNAP volunteers have also petitioned BGCT leaders to publish aconfidential file that lists clergy members guilty of inappropriatesexual behavior.
If a Baptist minister is convicted of an indecency or confesses toone, church leaders can report the act. Other churches can have accessto the file if they submit an official request. But the information isnot published.
BGCT leaders say the file is proof theyâ€™re doing more than otherBaptist groups in trying to stop sexual abuse. Indeed, the BGCT is theonly Baptist group publicly to acknowledge having such a file.
Oklahomaâ€™s Prescott said church people should be concerned wheneverany kind of sexual problem emerges. They have a responsibility to otherchurches to make that problem public knowledge, but the effectivenessof a master file of offenders depends on the integrity of those makingthe list, he said.
Trull seconded the call for a list, saying that anyone convicted ofsexual abuse or declared guilty by the church should be on a â€œreadilyavailableâ€ list. Even a periodic news bulletin of offenders sent tochurches might be in order, he added.
â€œToo often, people opt to do nothing out of fear,â€ Trull said. â€œIpersonally think the Baptist convention has got to find some way ofmaking it more accessible, in light of the crucial nature of thisproblem and the devastating effect on these churches. It is hurting theconvention, it is hurting income. [They] have got to do something.â€
Trull supports creating a code of ethics in Baptist life. Baptistsare â€œreally, really weakâ€ on codes of conduct -- â€œa lot of youngministers today donâ€™t have the foggiest idea of ethical expectations,not just sexual but financial,â€ Trull said. He added that the trainingshould start before young ministers enter a church.
As a professor, Trull had his students write their own code ofethics and list of obligations to model what they might present tochurch deacons later in life. Incorporating clauses that require doorswith windows and more than one adult present with children and thatprohibit closed doors, hugs and prolonged counseling sessions can beincluded in that code agreement, he said.
New ministers need to know their limitations too, especially ascounselors. Lengthy counseling sessions required over a long period oftime should often be left to a professional counselor, he said.
Churches should also take the initiative to enact well-publicizedand non-negotiable policies for dealing with sexual misdeeds beforethey even happen. Even with the best of intentions, tragedies canhappen unless common sense procedures are enacted in a church, saidOrth, the Missouri layman.
Prescott agreed. Heâ€™s seen what can happen when congregations donâ€™tknow or donâ€™t understand the precursors for sex abuse. When the churchdoesnâ€™t know how to respond after the fact, the toll is even greater.
â€œCongregations themselves need to have some sort of understanding ofthese things,â€ he said. â€œThe churches have a responsibility when theyknow that theyâ€™ve got someone [with a history of inappropriate sexualbehavior] to not just release them but they have a responsibility toother Christians and other churches to make sure that person getswhatever help is needed.â€
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