A national support group formed amid the Catholic Church’s cover-up of abusive priests planned today to canvass members of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee seeking action to protect children against sexual predators posing as Baptist ministers.
“No one wants to see a repeat of the Catholic sex-abuse and cover-up scandal, but unless Southern Baptists start dealing with the problem effectively and compassionately, that may happen,” said Christa Brown of Austin, Texas. Brown runs a Web site called StopBaptistPredators.org. It contains numerous documented stories of abuse–including her own account of being sexually assaulted by a minister at the Southern Baptist church she attended as a child.
Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clergy scheduled Monday sidewalk press conferences outside SBC Executive Committee headquarters and in front of the Renaissance Hotel, where members of the SBC’s top decision-making body stay when they attend regular meetings twice a year in Nashville, Tenn.
The advocacy group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), also planned to hand-deliver 80 copies of a letter to Executive Committee members urging creation of an independent review board to investigate and inform church members about incidents of clergy abuse and adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse by Baptist preachers.
Five months ago SNAP delivered a similar letter to three SBC leaders–Morris Chapman of the Executive Committee, Richard Land of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and SBC President Frank Page. So far the officials have ignored their request.
“It’s discouraging when men who profess to follow Jesus Christ don’t even answer their mail from deeply wounded victims of horrific child sex crimes,” said David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP national director. “If they won’t respond to actual victims, who can believe they’ll protect potential child victims?”
Since hand-delivering their letter at the SBC headquarters Sept. 26, SNAP representatives say there have been numerous news reports of child-molesting ministers working in Southern Baptist churches across the country.
Since only a fraction of abuse cases make the news, Brown said, those stories probably are only the tip of the iceberg of the scope of Baptist clergy abuse. “We implore the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, leaders of this country’s largest Protestant denomination, to take immediate action,” she said.
Baptist leaders often cite autonomy of the local church as a hindrance in ridding the SBC of abusive ministers, but Brown says Southern Baptist churches manage to retain their autonomy while working together on all kinds of cooperative endeavors and could do the same with sexual abuse.
“One thing we know for sure,” Brown said. “Silence won’t make kids safer.”
On Sunday SNAP released a letter asking U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to broach the subject when he speaks to SBC leaders Tuesday. According to a press release, Gonzales is scheduled to address the Executive Committee about a Justice Department program titled “First Freedoms.”
Reforms requested by SNAP are similar to those enacted by the Catholic Church after the Boston Globe wrote stories in 2002 about cases where priests molested children but were allowed to remain in ministry, because superiors who knew about the abuse transferred them to other parishes.
Two weeks ago Brown and other SNAP members sought to hand out leaflets at First Baptist Church in Atlanta informing church members that a former staff member who worked in their church for nearly 20 years had been accused of sexually abusing a minor at a church where he previously worked in Texas. The group distributed only about a dozen flyers, Brown said, before church leaders ordered them to leave. Brown said she couldn’t understand why church leaders seemed so intimidated by a couple of women handing out flyers or why they wouldn’t want church members to have the information.
While at FBC Atlanta, the minister, Tommy Gilmore, worked alongside two-term SBC president Charles Stanley. Gilmore was in charge of arranging child care for 50,000 messengers at the 1986 SBC annual meeting in Atlanta.
Brown says she knows about Gilmore’s past, because he was the youth minister who abused her in 1969. Gilmore was married and a parent. She was 16.
After she broke down during a piano lesson and confessed about what had occurred, she says, another staff member confronted Gilmore and told him if he didn’t leave he would bring the matter to the attention of the church. Gilmore moved on to a larger church, with praise from the pulpit about being a man of God.
Brown says she didn’t understand the “soul-murdering impact” the episode had on her life until years later, when her own daughter turned the same age she was when her abuse accused. She set out to discover if Gilmore was still a minister and to warn Baptist leaders about the possibility there was a child molester in their midst.
Believing parents in churches where Gilmore had served over the years would want to know the information, she says, she contacted 18 Baptist leaders in churches, state conventions and the SBC. All responded by turning a “blind eye.” Only after learning through her own efforts that Gilmore was working at a church in Florida and publicity about a 2005 lawsuit she filed against him in the Orlando Sentinel did Gilmore leave church work.
Gilmore, who now works in real estate, did not respond to a Feb. 6 e-mail asking him to comment about Brown’s allegations. Brown says she eventually dropped the lawsuit against Gilmore, because it became clear he wasn’t going to cooperate and it became too expensive to pursue.
Brown settled a lawsuit with First Baptist Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, however, which included an apology letter from the church acknowledging a “very serious sexual abuse” had apparently taken place on their watch, and they handled it poorly.
“Clergy sexual abuse of the young is a scourge,” the letter said. “It must be confronted and condemned. Church secrecy is not a responsible option. Instead, churches should respond with outrage and righteous anger at such crimes against kids committed by church leaders they trust.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.