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Pastors Seek Action on Clergy Sexual Abuse

Two reform-minded Southern Baptist pastors said Thursday they plan to ask the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to get tougher on the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., plans to make a motion at this summer’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, calling for a feasibility study about developing a database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been convicted of sexual harassment and abuse.

Benjamin Cole, pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, meanwhile, said he plans to submit a resolution condemning sexual abuse by clergy.

“Southern Baptists must be proactive when it comes to protecting children under our ministerial care,” Cole said in a press release. “Our convention cannot retreat behind claims of ecclesiastic polity, and we are encouraged by SBC President Frank Page’s tough stance on clergy sexual abuse.”

Burleson is an International Mission Board trustee. He started blogging last year about his disagreement with narrowing theological parameters within the denomination. Attempts to silence him prompted a network of bloggers critical of Baptist leaders who defend a system they say excludes too many Southern Baptists who believe the Bible is inerrant and agree with the Baptist Faith & Message.

“There is no credible reason why Southern Baptist churches cannot look to our convention headquarters for assistance in scrutinizing candidates for ministry positions,” Burleson said.  “What was once believed to consist of a few isolated cases has emerged as a more serious threat to our convention’s ministries and our churches’ health.”

Cole, a former protege of SBC fundamentalist leader Paige Patterson turned leading critic of the status quo, drafted a resolution titled “On Clergy Sexual Abuse” that he said he intends to submit for consideration at this year’s annual meeting.

Saying Southern Baptists “have not fully explored every option to protect our churches and our children from the threat of potential victimization and abuse at the hands of predatory clergy,” Cole’s resolution calls on churches “to pursue every possible avenue in determining the moral character and ethical conduct of ministry candidates.”

It calls on convention leaders “to take bold steps to educate Southern Baptists concerning the indications associated with and the reporting of child victimization.” It calls for ministries of pastoral care for victims of clergy abuse and acknowledges “the immediate need that our convention churches, agencies, institutions, and commissions act with sincerity and urgency in accord with the spirit and intent of this resolution, sparing no effort to preserve the integrity of our witness and the security of our children from the tragic consequences of our potential neglect.”

Burleson’s motion would request the SBC Executive Committee to “conduct a feasibility study concerning the development of a database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been convicted of sexual harassment and abuse, and that such a database be accessible by Southern Baptist churches seeking to maintain the highest standards of sexual ethics for its ministry candidates.”

Cole and Burleson said their initiative is in response to a number of recent news reports about ministers being arrested on sex charges. SBC President Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., recently called on churches to develop guidelines for care of children and youth and to have a policy in place for knowing how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse.

“Even one instance of sexual molestation is one too many,” Page said. “Jesus set the example in His deep love and care for the innocent, the young and the hurting. Let our churches be an example of Jesus’ ministry.”

Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the group “applauds any apparent step forward, no matter how small or belated.”

“Resolutions, however, are non-binding and thus ineffective,” she said. “Likewise, addressing only convicted abusers is also ineffectual.”

“We are grateful, however, that some Baptist leaders are, perhaps for the first time, acknowledging that predatory clergy are more that just ‘a few bad apples,'” Brown said. “We encourage Baptist leaders to actually move forward and ‘take bold steps’ instead of merely talking about it.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said Page’s stance on sex abuse of children by preachers “can hardly be interpreted as a strong commitment within the SBC to take the necessary steps to advance accountability for their clergy.”

“Pious comments do not alter the dynamic of the powerful preying on the powerless,” Parham said. “Resolutions and feasibility studies may have value. But unless these efforts address forthrightly the misuse of local church autonomy, behind which SBC leadership has hidden to evade responsibility, then achieving needed institutional and attitudinal changes will be most unlikely.”

The Southern Baptist Convention meets June 12-13.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.