Tuesday, June 7, 2016

SNAP prediction: Next "Spotlight"-style exposé will focus on Baptists

David Clohessy
Executive Director, SNAP
On June 3, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released a letter to top officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, calling on them to create a "safe place" office to which clergy sex abuse survivors can file reports about their alleged perpetrators and predicting that, without action, Baptists will become the next target of a "Spotlight"-style exposé. The letter, from SNAP's Executive Director David Clohessy and Outreach Director Barbara Dorris, was directed to SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page and SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore. Here it is.

Dear Dr. Page and Dr. Moore:

With the approach of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2016 annual meeting, we are writing with two requests:

First Request.  We ask for the creation of a denominationally-funded “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may file a report about their alleged perpetrators and that the “safe place” office be widely publicized.

Reason for First Request. It is flat-out cruel for Baptist denominational officials to persist in telling clergy abuse survivors that they must go to the church of the accused pastor if they want to report him within the faith community. This is like telling abuse survivors that they must go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. It is a response that inflicts additional harm on greatly wounded people and that turns a cold shoulder to those who seek only to protect others. To avoid the hopelessness that often besieges survivors who see no realistic avenue for even making a report, and to encourage Baptist clergy abuse survivors to speak out, the SBC needs to provide a “safe place” where survivors may report their perpetrators to people who have the professionalism and experience to receive those reports with compassion and care.

Because of the traumatic damage that is done to them, most clergy abuse survivors are well into adulthood when they seek to formally report those who abused them in childhood. Often, their claims can no longer be criminally prosecuted. Indeed, most experts estimate that less than 10 percent of child molesters wind up in the criminal justice system. Church cover-ups frequently contribute to the failure of prosecution because many survivors made some outcry in childhood only to have their outcry suppressed within the church while the perpetrator was allowed to move on. Yet, despite these harsh realities, many survivors still strive in adulthood to protect others by reporting their perpetrators within the faith community. By providing a “safe place,” the SBC could facilitate their reports rather than stifling them.

As you know, in the past, we requested that the SBC provide its affiliated churches with the resource of trained outsiders for assessing clergy abuse reports that cannot be criminally prosecuted and for informing congregations about credible allegations. These were reasonable requests because realistic response protocols are essential to the prevention of clergy sex abuse, and realistic response protocols require the use of outsiders. Sadly, the Executive Committee declined those requests, claiming that “local church autonomy” precluded them, and that is why we are now making this smaller request for the creation of a “safe place” to receive reports. The mere fact of denominational record-keeping -- i.e., of receiving reports and logging allegations -- presents no plausible possibility of interfering with local church autonomy.  

Frankly, our hope is that, if the SBC Executive Committee would simply begin to receive reports and systematically log allegations, there would eventually come a point when SBC officials would realize the need to provide churches with a professionally-staffed office for responsibly assessing those reports and for informing churches about credible allegations -- and would also realize that providing churches with this kind of information doesn’t violate their autonomy. In other words, we hope for incremental change. Our view is that an outsider’s assessment should happen whenever a minister has even a single allegation, but even if you disagree with us on that, surely you would agree that there would be some point at which multiple allegations against a minister should be responsibly assessed and churches should be warned. For example, if a minister had accrued 3 abuse allegations in 3 churches in 3 different states, would you think this was enough to warrant a denominational assessment as to whether churches should be informed? What if the minister had accrued 10 allegations? 20? Surely there would be some point at which you would agree that denominational officials should help churches with the provision of information about church-hopping ministers who have multiple credible accusations of child sex abuse? Whatever that point may be, the place to start is with receiving reports and systematically logging the allegations.

The SBC Executive Committee has the power. Dr. Page, your predecessor, Morris Chapman, described the role of the Executive Committee as the “fiduciary of the Convention” and as the denominational entity “empowered to function” on behalf of the SBC. Therefore, we ask that the Executive Committee exercise its power for the creation of a “safe place” office for receiving reports about clergy sex abuse in SBC churches.

Alternatively, the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has the power. In 2008, when the Executive Committee rejected the proposal for a denominational database of admitted and credibly-accused clergy sex abusers, it pointed to the existence of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and said that no additional office was needed because the ERLC was “fully capable” of “the provision of ministry called for by sexual abuse victimization.” The Executive Committee further stated that “should the ERLC arrive at a different conclusion in the future about the advisability of receiving reports of sexual abuse … and desire to serve as the office of receipt, it may so advise the Convention….” Dr. Moore, although your ERLC predecessor chose to do essentially nothing for the provision of ministry to clergy abuse survivors, we are asking you to choose differently and to “serve as the office of receipt” for reports about clergy sexual abuse in SBC churches. Put an end to the dysfunctional denominational cruelty of insisting that survivors report to the church of the accused perpetrator.

Second Request.  Dr. Page, nine years ago on April 19, 2007, you wrote a column, published in the Florida Baptist Witness, in which you demonstrated the antithesis of compassion and care for clergy sex abuse survivors, and once again, we are asking for an apology.

Reason for Second Request. Writing as the president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country, you labeled those who were speaking in the media about Baptist clergy sex abuse as “nothing more than opportunistic persons.” As was noted in EthicsDaily at the time, the only group that was publicly speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse was our organization, SNAP, whose members are, for the most part, people who were molested and raped by clergy when they were children. Your words were extremely hurtful, set a terrible example, and helped to foster within your faith group a climate of hostility toward clergy abuse survivors. We are still hoping that, someday, you will understand the harm of what you wrote and will make a public apology, which we would be happy to receive.

Conclusion. Data gathered by the Associated Press demonstrated that clergy sex abuse is not only a Catholic problem but also a huge problem for Protestants. If the SBC persists in denominational do-nothingness, we predict that the next “Spotlight”-style exposé will be focused on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Before that time comes, we earnestly implore you to at least take the step of creating a “safe place” for denominationally receiving clergy abuse reports.

Reported by Baptist News Global, "Victims' group asks Southern Baptists to create 'safe place' for reporting sexual abuse," June 3, 2016.