So far so good, right? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Southern Baptist officials were denying there was even a problem. So the fact of a “sexual abuse summit” sponsored by a statewide denominational entity is a small measure of progress. Some officials have apparently moved past the denial stage ... finally.
As part of the summit, the Georgia Baptist Convention posted resources on its website, including an analysis done by a couple attorneys called “Standards of Care Are Rising.” The attorneys wrote at length about a clergy sex abuse lawsuit in Florida in which liability was assessed, not only against the local church, but also against the Florida Baptist Convention. As monetary damages to the victim, the jury awarded $12.5 million.
It was a game-changer of a case. I said so at the time. Baptist officials’ “local church autonomy” defense failed. The court refused to allow them to distort this doctrine of polity into a legal strategy for the denominational evasion of accountability. I praised the decision and my prediction was that the Florida case would trigger more lawsuits.
But hey -- you don’t have to take my word for it. In the analysis recently posted on the Georgia Baptist Convention’s own website, attorneys said this:
and we will see more like it."
So make no mistake about it: Southern Baptist denominational officials know that they are not doing enough for the protection of kids against clergy predators. Attorneys have flat-out told them that it was “appropriate” for the court to impose liability on denominational officials in Florida and that we will see more of such cases.
The question now is whether denominational officials will heed the words of the attorneys and take seriously their own responsibility, or whether they will they continue to insist that it’s all up to the local churches.
Sadly, I think it’s going to take many more lawsuits before Baptist denominational officials will actually step up to the plate. While the fact of a “sexual abuse summit” shows progress, I haven’t seen any change in how the denomination actually responds to reports of clergy sex abuse. This is critical. Response protocols are just as important as child safety protocols. And in other faith groups, denominational response protocols are becoming standard.
The surest way for faith groups to prevent clergy molestations in the future is to responsibly listen to those who are trying to tell about clergy molestations in the past. Yet, Southern Baptists persist in pretending that “local church autonomy” is a valid reason for refusing to develop denominational protocols for hearing clergy abuse reports or for even keeping systematic records on them. When abuse survivors try to report a Baptist pastor, denominational officials claim powerlessness and tell them to go to the church of the accused pastor. This is like telling abuse survivors that they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them.
It is a system that doesn’t work. It is a system that is designed to fail. It is a system that inflicts enormous additional harm on greatly wounded people. And it is a system that does no good for the local churches, either.
In a denomination whose average church has about 100 people in the pews, the local churches don’t have the ability -- or the objectivity -- to adequately respond to clergy abuse reports on their own. A realistic response protocol must include the use of outsiders. As is done in other major faith groups, Baptist denominational entities should provide the local churches with the resource of trained outsiders for responding to clergy abuse reports and for facilitating the denominational sharing of information about abusive clergy.
Imagine a three-legged stool. In most of this country’s major faith groups, clergy sex abuse survivors have three main ways for exposing their perpetrators and warning others: (1) criminal prosecution, (2) civil litigation, and (3) ecclesiastical process. With Southern Baptists -- and with most other Baptist groups -- that third leg is missing.
Yet, as the Georgia Baptist Convention’s own posted resources recognize, less that 10 percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. This means that, if a faith group waits for a criminal conviction before removing a suspected molester from ministry, at least 90 percent of child-molesting ministers will slip through the cracks. And though time limitations in civil lawsuits are sometimes more flexible, civil lawsuits also face many hurdles that may make their pursuit unfeasible. Besides, many clergy molestation survivors don’t want to pursue a lawsuit. What they want is for their perpetrator to be removed from a position of ministerial trust so that he can’t hurt more kids. In other denominations, an ecclesiastical process can often do just that, but for those abused by Baptist clergy, it’s typically not an option.
With respect to the “sexual abuse summit,” Georgia Baptist Convention executive director Robert White announced plans to repeat the event in 2016. That sounds good, but while it may indicate that denominational officials now realize there’s a problem, there remains a vast chasm between realization of the problem and realization of their own responsibility.
Ten years ago, Mr. White was one of the “blind Baptist leaders” to whom I sent my own report about a Southern Baptist minister’s abuse of me as a kid. Even though my perpetrator had worked in a Georgia church and was continuing to work in children’s ministry in Florida, Mr. White did nothing to help me. Would he do anything any differently now? I doubt it because I’ve seen no documentation of any response protocol offered by the Georgia Baptist Convention.
The fact that the first Southern Baptist “sexual abuse summit” was held at First Baptist Church of Atlanta is also of interest. My own perpetrator worked as a children’s minister there, after leaving churches in Texas and before moving to churches in Florida. After I had written to the chairman of the deacons, and had received no help, and after a second certified letter had been sent to FBC-Atlanta officials, I finally went in person to FBC-Atlanta to hand out flyers so that parents could know that their church’s prior childrens’ minister had been a man with a substantiated report of child molestation. I figured parents needed to be able to talk with their kids about it. But officials at First Baptist Church of Atlanta ran us off the premises, sent out a tough-guy to try to intimidate us, and finally called the police on us. (Since we were on a public sidewalk, the police had no problem with us being there.)
So, my question for FBC-Atlanta is similar to my question for Mr. White: Would the church do anything differently today than what it did eight years ago? What response protocol does it have to assure that any clergy abuse report, whether for a prior minister or a current minister, would receive an appropriate and compassionate response?
So long as Southern Baptists refuse to develop realistic denominational response protocols -- protocols that include the involvement of outsiders -- children in Baptist churches will remain at undue risk. When denominational officials have no process for doing anything about clergy child molesters they’re specifically told about, why should anyone imagine that they will be able to prevent the clergy child molesters they don’t yet know about?
11/20/2015: Thanks to Baptist News Global (a news site that is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) for picking up this column and publishing it under "Perspectives."