AP NEWS

Churches complicit in failing to address sex abuse

February 20, 2019

For decades, Southern Baptist Convention leaders have used the lack of a central authority within their organization as an excuse for avoiding dealing directly with the sex abuse crises in its midst.

They used local church autonomy policies to shirk their responsibilities, and in the process they lost sight of who they are serve. Their failure to protect its most vulnerable members from sex predators who used their positions of trust to access their victims left a trail of shattered lives.

Church leaders’ supposition that there was nothing they could do to permanently banish those credibly accused of sexual misconduct from their ranks had become part of the problem.

It is refreshing that Southern Baptist Convention leaders are finally publicly acknowledging the problem following the publication of a monthslong investigation by the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle exposing the depth and scope of the problem. Church leaders have vowed to create a registry of church employees and volunteers credibly accused of sexual misconduct and remove from the convention churches that knowingly hire from that list.

We can all agree these troublesome activities in Southern Baptist churches demand more transparency. Creation of a sex offender registry is a positive first step.

In addition, there needs to standard internal polices that ensure those credibly accused of illegal acts will be terminated and not sent off with letters of recommendation. Without exception, all credible cases of suspected sexual misconduct must be turned over to law enforcement for investigation.

And, in the process, we must not forget the needs of the victims, whose lives were shaken by this shameful behavior.

It is regrettable that it has taken a monthslong investigation to even begin to shed light on the vast numbers of victims this festering problem has created.

While the number of cases is alarming, they are by no means a surprise. The problem has been an open secret for decades. Pleas for help from the victims and their families have been sounding for years.

Formal appeals made to the Southern Baptist Convention for reforms in 2008 aimed at addressing the abuse were rejected. They were viewed as flawed because SBC’s Executive Committee did not have the authority to enforce them. The committee ended up drafting a report acknowledging the problem but made no effort to address it.

Public records show ignoring the problem has not made it disappear.

The newspapers’ investigation found at least 700 people, mostly minors, who reported sexual abuse by someone tied to a Southern Baptist church since 1998. During that same time, there are documented cases of at least 220 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers who were convicted of sex crime or entered into plea agreements. Among them are 90 who are in prison and another 100 who are registered sex offenders.

The abusers included more than 100 youth ministers but also many ordained preachers or pastors.

The numbers uncovered by the newspapers’ investigation only hint at the scope of the problem. Many sexual abuse victims never make an outcry. Many cases handled in small, rural communities never make into a newspaper, and civil suit settlements often come with nondisclosure agreements.

August “Augie” Boto, interim president of the SBC’s Executive Committee, initially defended the SBC’s lack of action on the issue based on it not having the authority to force its 47,000 churches to participate in any effort to track sex abuse.

But as the Catholic Church scandal has proven, a centralized institution does not always make it any easier. The Catholic Church has been dealing with its sex abuse problems for decades, and they remain far from resolved. Dioceses in Texas only recently made public a list of priests credibly accused of wrongdoing. That list is expected to continue to grow.

Abuse by a sexual predator using the church as a cover is no minor matter.

Southern Baptists have a serious problem and have known about it for decades. The concern has always been about the reputation of the church rather than reform, holding abusers accountable or reaching out to those affected by rape, molestation and inappropriate behavior.

We look forward to learning more about the reforms Southern Baptist leaders plan to put in place.