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SBC Leaders Deny Charge of Unresponsiveness about Clergy Sex Abuse

A lengthy discussion Tuesday about clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention was long on criticism of tactics used by a victims’ advocacy group to draw attention to their cause and short on specifics about how the nation’s largest Protestant faith group might address the problem in the future.

A work group of the SBC Executive Committee put an item on its agenda for discussion of requests made by Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Other Clergy. A SNAP spokesperson visiting Nashville, Tenn., Monday to deliver information packets to Executive Committee members did not know about the agenda item until notified by EthicsDaily.com. She changed travel plans to return Monday afternoon to her home in Austin, Texas, in order to attend the Tuesday morning session.

Committee members discussed briefly whether to allow Christa Brown of SNAP-Baptist to remain in the room and if she would be permitted to speak. Over minor objections, she–along with SNAP’s Middle Tennessee representative, a Catholic–was invited to make an opening statement and respond to several comments made by Executive Committee members.

Work groups of the SBC Executive Committee are open to the press under background reporting rules. That means there can be no direct quotation or attribution.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion involved letters provided to work group members from Executive Committee vice president Augie Boto. They were reportedly dated Sept. 18 and Sept. 29 and addressed to Brown and other SNAP leaders.

Brown has been quoted repeatedly as saying SNAP never received an answer to a letter delivered Sept. 26 to SBC leaders by hand and certified mail containing specific requests related to the denomination’s response to clergy sex abuse.

Brown said Tuesday she had no prior knowledge that either letter from Boto existed. A copy of the Sept. 29 letter handed to her criticized her “adversarial tone” in taking complaints about inaction by denominational leaders to the media. It did not address her specific proposals for establishing an independent review panel and adopting a “zero tolerance” policy for churches harboring ministers credibly accused of abusing minors. She was not given a copy of the Sept. 18 letter, which would have been written prior to the Sept. 26 letter from SNAP.

After the meeting Brown told EthicsDaily.com she would look into whether letters cited in the discussion were received by SNAP’s main office. “If they were, we are sorry that we haven’t seen them,” she said.

However, she added: “We’re not looking for words, because words will not make kids safer. We’re looking for deeds.”

Several work group members took offense at SNAP’s portrayal of SBC leaders as unresponsive to concerns about protecting kids from clergy predators. They told her they agreed that more should, and likely will, be done to help churches deal with the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors, but it might not be on her timetable and that Southern Baptists’ system of local church autonomy limits what the national convention can do.

Brown, a survivor of sexual abuse by a Southern Baptist minister, refused to apologize for taking her case to the media. After learning through her own time and expense that more than 20 years after her assault her perpetrator was still working with children in a Southern Baptist church in Florida, she says, it took a story appearing in the Orlando Sentinel to finally force him to resign. Before that, she says, she contacted 18 Baptist leaders in four states who told her they sympathized but there was nothing they could do.

Brown says she has a general understanding of the SBC’s system of local-church autonomy, but the denomination finds ways to work together in other endeavors its deems important without violating congregational polity. While unique, she says, local-church autonomy should not be used as an excuse for doing nothing.

Some members expressed interest in further conversation with SNAP and more study by staff, but there were no specific recommendations.

After the session, SBC President Frank Page told EthicsDaily.com he believed the conversation “fell on fallow ground.”

While SNAP may not be satisfied with every aspect of the SBC’s approach to the problem, he said, Page pledged Baptist leaders would “do whatever possible” to protect children in Southern Baptist churches.

“We have a deep concern for the welfare of children,” Page said. “We are hurt when any other impression is given.”

Bylaws work group chairman Mitch Gavin, a lawyer from Alexander City, Ala., who moderated the discussion, declined afterward to comment on the record. Other work group members are Stephen Wilson of Kentucky, David Shepherd of New York, Martin Davis of California, Randall James of Florida, Chris Osborne of Texas, Doug Passmore of Oklahoma, Stephen Rummage of North Carolina, Royce Sweatman of Arkansas and C.J. Bordeaux of North Carolina.

Work group members were told that discussions of such topics usually are referred to the Executive Committee after a motion is made by a messenger at the SBC annual meeting. Occasionally, however, the Executive Committee is forced to deal with secular concerns requiring immediate response. Previous examples include responding to actions by Soulforce, a Christian gay-rights group that has picketed SBC annual meetings over policies they view as harmful to homosexuals.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.