Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page called last week’s “20/20” story on predatory preachers “yellow journalism” and a “slice-and-dice” piece to make it appear Southern Baptists aren’t doing enough to combat sexual abuse by clergy.
Page appeared on Friday’s program, saying he agreed to an interview to provide balance to a story he expected to be “overwhelmingly negative.”
After seeing the program, Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., complained Monday in Baptist Press that ABC News used just a few seconds of his two-hour interview, leaving out his comments about what the nation’s largest Protestant faith group is doing to address the problem.
“Much is being done right now and much is being done on the local level,” Page said. “They did not want to include that because it would have tainted their piece.”
“I felt that it was an intentional slice-and-dice effort to portray the SBC and its president as uncaring and uninformed,” he said. “It was more than a two-hour interview reduced to less than 60 seconds of choppy response. It was a prime example of yellow journalism, in which a broad brush was used and the whole truth was denied a fair hearing.”
August Boto, general counsel and vice president for convention policy with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, issued a statement criticizing what he said were inaccuracies in the report.
“Unfortunately, the ’20/20′ report last Friday had the effect of misleading at least some of its viewers to believe that the Southern Baptist Convention somehow condones, hides or denies sexual offenses committed by ministers in SBC-affiliated churches,” Boto said. “The convention does none of those things. Quite the contrary.”
Boto defended the inclusion, reported by ABC News, of names of convicted sex offenders on an online database of SBC ministers. He said the names are submitted by churches and simply passed on by the denomination.
“It is ironic that a news service would find fault in the SBC’s reporting of a fact,” Boto said. “Imagine what 20/20 would have said had the convention NOT included the names of those men in its list of present church ministers.”
“Whether ’20/20′ approves of the practice or not, we believe it is best to report openly, for the benefit of everyone, INCLUDING VICTIMS, the names of ministers our affiliated churches are employing,” he said.
Boto said the report also “left a misperception” by posing a question to Page about why the denomination does not allow women or homosexual ministers while “allowing” ministers who are convicted or suspected sexual predators.
“The fact is the convention does not control a church’s employment of its ministers on ANY basis,” Boto said. “A church is free to employ anyone it wishes as pastor. All the convention says is that if the church employs a gay person as pastor, then the convention will no longer consider that church to be in friendly cooperation with the convention, but that does not mean the convention can control whom a church employs as its pastor.”
ABC News producer Bonnie VanGilder said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com that SBC leaders “did not address any of the convicted and charged on their own Web site or, more importantly, what they’re going to do.”
Boto acknowledged one “major benefit” of the “20/20” program, raising awareness of the issue in local churches.
“The authority is there, the children are there, the applicants are there, the circumstances are understood better there, and the child’s most motivated defenders are there–their parents,” Boto said.
Christa Brown of Stop Baptist Predators and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the Southern Baptist leaders’ response to the “20/20” program was “both revealing and disheartening,” because it “reflects institutional denial.”
“Most ordinary, decent people might expect that religious leaders would immediately take action, on learning that their ministerial registry included convicted child molesters,” Brown said. “They might expect that someone would be held accountable, that someone would be instructed to get the convicted child molesters off the list, and that someone would be told to do it NOW!
“Decent people might even expect that religious leaders would make a public apology to the families who long endured the salt in the wound of seeing men who molested their kids continue to be publicly held forth as Southern Baptist ministers.”
Instead, Brown said, officials responded by saying clergy predators are “not our problem” and blaming the media for bringing the issue to light.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said, “Rather than attack ABC News, SBC leaders should atone for the lack of accountability for predator preachers.”
“Fundamentalists always assault the messenger, instead of hearing the truth of the message,” Parham said. “ABC News and EthicsDaily.com have told an inconvenient truth that children need protection from preacher predators, and that too many predators take advantage of a system that hides behind local church autonomy.”
Like Page, Brown said, she was interviewed for more than two hours, much of it emotionally wrenching as she was asked to dredge up old memories, and only a couple of minutes made it into the final edit.
“But I am very grateful for the opportunity to have been part of an effort to shine light on this very serious problem,” Brown said. “My constant hope and prayer is that, by speaking about this, I may help people in the pews to understand the extent of the problem so that they will insist on effective denominational action to make kids safer.”
Baptist Press said “20/20” did not report that the SBC adopted a resolution in 2002 on the sexual integrity of ministers. BP also listed five books on the topic available from LifeWay Christian Resources, along with an arrangement allowing churches to do criminal background checks on prospective ministers at a discounted rate.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.