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Report shows horror of church sex abuse, need for newspapers

February 12, 2019

The stunning report by the Houston Chronicle on the hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors and officials proves again that this pervasive crime is not limited to any one segment of our society. It is all too common, even among church leaders who hypocritically claim to uphold the highest moral standards.

The first part of the report, published Sunday by the Chronicle and other Hearst newspapers such as the Beaumont Enterprise, also reinforces the value of newspapers in these troubled times. Only a few news outlets like the Chronicle, with vast experience and commitment to first-rate journalism, could put together an overview like this so readers can fully understand it. In turn, this kind of exposure can help church officials and prosecutors take the action needed to end this abuse.

The Chronicle reported that at least 700 people were sexually assaulted by 380 Southern Baptist authority figures over the last 20 years. As with similar reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, the study shows how these crimes were often covered up or ignored, their victims shamed, the offenders enabled or transferred. That tragic pattern caused even more anguish to people who had already been violated in one of the most terrible ways possible. It also shielded the abusers from consequences for their crimes. All too often, they found new targets, acting as if they were above suspicion for offenses that deserved prison sentences.

Many of the victims were children or adolescents, too young to fully comprehend what was happening to them, virtually devoid of any way to defend themselves. Sadly, this is why many abusers seek victims like this, because they know their chances of being found out are small. Experts also say that many victims of sexual assault don’t report what happened to them out of fear or guilt, struggling to deal quietly with their terrible memories.

Eventually, reports of these crimes by Southern Baptists did begin to filter out, spurred in part by similar disclosures about Catholic clergy. But the Chronicle’s analysis brings a perspective and understanding to this problem that had been lacking. Readers can see how top Southern Baptist officials refused to take this problem seriously or kept trying to blame the victims for causing controversy.

At a time when journalism is under attack from the highest level of politics, reports like this prove why we still need newspapers. The depth and breadth of this study is impressive by any standard. Chronicle staffers interviewed police officers and prosecutors in more than 40 Texas counties and filed dozens of public records requests to expose the scope of these crimes. In doing do, they shined a spotlight on a dark and disturbing corner of modern life, and it was long overdue.

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