Clergy abuse survivors have been asking Southern Baptists for several years to implement denominational safeguards against clergy child molesters. Southern Baptists have refused.
Confronted with people trying to report clergy child molesters, Baptist leaders retreat behind the legalism of their autonomous polity as an excuse for why they are powerless, Brown observes. (Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt)
The requests are nothing radical. We asked for the sorts of safeguards that already exist in other major faith groups. We asked that the denomination provide a safe place for the reporting of clergy abuse, a denominational panel for responsibly assessing abuse reports, and an effective means, such as a database, of assuring that assessment information reaches people in the pews.
In 2008, Time magazine ranked Southern Baptists' rejection of a sex-offender database as one of the top 10 underreported stories of the year.
Now here we are in 2010, and Southern Baptists are still sitting on the sidelines when it comes to protecting kids against clergy sex abuse.
A faith group that so devalues its children must change. So we know where this is going. Change is inevitable.
Sooner or later, Southern Baptists will learn the lesson that pious preaching won't protect kids against clergy predators. What we don't know is how long the lesson will take.
Maybe it will take 10, 20 or 50 years. But we know how this ends. Southern Baptists will come up to speed with what other faith groups are doing to assure that predators cannot easily hide among their clergy ranks.
It is inevitable. A future is coming when children in Baptist churches will be a great deal safer than they are now. A future is coming when those who report clergy abuse will be met with ministry and outreach rather than minimization and denial. A future is coming when people in the pews will be able to find out about credibly accused clergy so that predators cannot so easily church-hop.
When that future arrives, we will all look back with a vague sense of wonder at why it took so long.
But there is always someone who fights a rear-guard action to preserve the status quo. And it doesn't matter how irrational or dysfunctional that status quo may be.
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More and more, when it comes to dealing with clergy sex abuse, it looks as though the rear guard will be Southern Baptists.
While other major faith groups have recognized the need for clergy accountability mechanisms, Southern Baptists persist in denominational do-nothingness. Worst of all, they claim religious principle as the reason. Confronted with people trying to report predatory clergy, Baptist leaders retreat behind the Pharisee-like legalism of their autonomous polity as an excuse for why they are powerless.
It might be comical if it weren't so dangerous.
But someday, even this most recalcitrant of faith groups will see the light and take action. It is inevitable.
Meanwhile, the rear guard is convening in Orlando this week. How many more conventions will it take before Southern Baptists provide their kids with the same sorts of safeguards as kids in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches?
Most clergy child molesters have multiple victims, and people who have been victimized by clergy are often capable of speaking about it only after many years have passed. This means that the best way to prevent clergy sex abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past. This is what Southern Baptists refuse to do.
Many Baptist leaders have told me to be patient. They say change will happen with time.
It is a seductive notion, this belief that change will happen on its own with the passage of time. If people think that time alone will take care of things, then they don't have to feel as much personal responsibility for taking action.
But any comfort Baptists may gain from believing that time will take care of things is a comfort that must be tempered by the recognition of how many more kids will be molested by clergy while time marches on.
We know where this is going. But that does not alter the fact that Southern Baptists should have been there long ago but for their own ignorance, intransigence, arrogance and fear.
There is no honor for Southern Baptists in being the rear guard in the battle for clergy accountability. There is only more suffering for "the least of these."
Christa Brown is a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Denver and Iliff Theological Seminary. She maintains the StopBaptistPredators Web site and blog.