Shining light on Baptist clergy sex abuse  
  HOME   | The voice of SNAP Baptist | 
 
 
Baptist Hide & Seek


Ever wonder why there are so many stories about child-molesting priests and not many about child-molesting Baptist ministers? It's not because there are less predatory clergy among Baptists. It's because there are easier hiding places among Baptists. "It's harder to track down sexual abuse allegations involving children in Protestant denominations."

Baptist scholars confirm this: "The problem of clergy sexual abuse is not just a Catholic issue...Studies have shown no difference in its frequency by denomination, region, theology, or institutional structure." But while Catholics and most mainline Protestant denominations have developed national policies to deal with the problem, "decentralized denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention...have no national policies" and "sexual misconduct is routinely covered up in these settings." Trull & Carter, Ministerial Ethics at p. 162 (2d ed. 2004).

Remember: Most clergy child molesters have never been convicted of anything. Of all the Catholic priests who have been removed from ministry, only 3 percent were able to be criminally prosecuted and only 2 percent were ever jailed. If Catholics themselves had not taken action - finally - over 700 child molesting priests would still be working in ministry. The largest Protestant denomination needs to do something about this problem as well.

How do the cover ups happen with Baptists?

The buck stops nowhere.
For a Baptist minister, there is no one with the power to remove his credentials or to say that he can no longer be a minister. This is unlike the Catholic system where, if a bishop suspected a problem with one of his priests, and did nothing about it, he could be held accountable.

If a Baptist minister began to suspect a problem with one of his colleagues, it would be far easier for him to simply suggest that the problem minister move on. Though irresponsible, it would be much more comfortable to choose not to look too closely. If no investigation is done, and no record made, there’s nothing to tell to the man’s new church. So rather than going through the difficulty of determining the facts, the problem minister is simply allowed to go on his way to a new congregation, where he may find fresh young prey.

In "Where Does the Baptist Buck Stop?" columnist Terry Mattingly explained how the Baptist system leaves a void in accountability. The buck stops nowhere.

The church where it happened says "not our problem."
Most clergy abuse victims do not speak of the trauma at the time. This is normal and well-documented. If they speak of it at all, it is usually many years later.

At that point, the victim goes back to the church where it happened, and that church effectively says, “Not our problem - he’s not here.” (That’s the good-case scenario; in some cases, the church also tries to intimidate the victim, presumably so that the church's complicity in the cover-up will not be revealed.)

No denominational help for finding the hiding predator.
If the perpetrator has moved several times, as is often the case, the victim may not be able to find him, and there is no denominational office to turn to for help. (The SBC’s ministerial database is not reliable and is easily manipulated. Even prominent ministers may not appear in it, and a minister’s name can be readily removed to avoid detection.) Without denominational assistance, locating the perpetrator can take a lot of time, money and energy, and many victims will give up.

This is a hide & seek game in which the clergy-predator gets a many-years-long head start and the hiding places span the country.

No systematic record-keeping

Catholic canon law requires record-keeping. So, they keep records on virtually everything, including where priests are located and including any abuse reports. So, it's easier to track priests, and when lawsuits are filed, there are often documents that show the history of accusations against a priest. But with Baptists, no one is keeping any records. How would anyone know whether a particular minister had any abuse reports made against him? Even if someone made a report, where would it be filed? Would it even be kept? What system is there?

Who's a "minister"? It's a word-game that can throw victims off-track.
Denominational leaders may play games that throw the victim off-track. For example, the victim may be told that the man isn't an "ordained" minister, and the victim may walk away thinking this means he is no longer a minister. But that's just a word-game. A great many Baptist ministers are not formally ordained, but people in the pews still see them as ministers. (For example, First Baptist Church of Farmers Branch initially said that James A. Moore is "not an ordained minister." Yet, Moore was listed in the SBC's online registry of "ministers", and then temporarily removed, and then returned to the registry when the lawsuit was over. And the church itself now lists Moore on its website as "minister of music.")

This ease of being (or not being) a "minister" is also why it's easier for predators to infiltrate Baptist clergy ranks than Catholic ranks. Priests go through a definite period of training, but with Baptist clergy, almost anyone who can convince a dozen deacons that he's been called by God to serve their church can be a minister.

Similarly, a man can be moved from being a minister "on staff" at a church to being a "consulting" minister. Because he isn't on staff, it may make it harder to track him and it allows leaders to play word-games with whether he is in a ministerial position. Of course, most people in the pews will simply view the man as a minister and may not have any idea whether he's on staff or merely consulting. Again, this sort of gamesmanship about what constitutes a "minister" wouldn't be possible in the Catholic system. A priest is a priest until he's defrocked.

The man's current church says "not our problem."
If a victim gets lucky and, even with no help from the denomination, still manages to find the perpetrator, she may then attempt to contact the man’s current church. But the leaders of that church will probably say something like, “Not our problem - we only deal with things that happen in our own church.” That's if they respond at all. The current church is just as likely to completely ignore this stranger from the outside, who is trying to warn them about their much-loved minister, and there is no denominational process that would compel them to investigate.

Denominational leaders say "not our problem."
Ignored by the churches, the victim may then turn to denominational leaders at the state and national level. They wash their hands of it and say, “Not our problem - congregational autonomy.” This assumes that they say anything at all. They may be just as likely to simply ignore the victim. So the minister may have been found, but his predator persona still remains well-hidden.

Dee Miller has written at length about how Southern Baptist structure allows denominational leaders to turn a blind eye to clergy sex abuse. See her article, "The Collusion Act of the Southern Baptist Convention and Clergy Sex Abuse."

Absent denominational action, the press is less likely to publish.
What about the press you say? Most newspapers won’t take the risk of writing about clergy abuse claims unless there is a conviction, some denominational action, or a lawsuit. For clergy child molesters, there are few convictions because the nature of the psychological damage is such that victims often don't report it until after the period for prosecution has passed. Most of the news reports you read about Catholic priests are NOT reports about convictions but are instead about action taken by a bishop, such as suspending a priest or removing a priest from duties. Catholics have a hierarchy and they have an abuse review board, and so they have the possibility of denominational action that can serve as the impetus for a news report. Southern Baptists don’t have a hierarchical structure or any sort of abuse review board. Since there’s no possibility of any denominational action that a reporter can use as a launchpad for an article, the news about a reported clergy-perpetrator never makes it to the people in the pews.

Lawsuits are also less likely with Baptists.
The remaining possibility for disclosing the hiding clergy-predator is a lawsuit, and that too is far more problematic with a Baptist predator. The autonomous structure makes it much easier for a Baptist church to reorganize and present itself as though it were an entirely new entity with no connection to the church in which the perpetrator previously worked. Catholic dioceses endure. By comparison, a Baptist church can exist or not exist almost at whim.

This means that, in many cases, an attorney will size up the situation of a Baptist abuse victim and see that, no matter how horrible the crime and no matter how certain that it occurred, the odds are nevertheless great against ever obtaining any monetary recovery. Even if the attorney thinks he can get past the very significant limitations hurdle that presents itself in most cases, there may still be the additional risk that the church will be able to evade liability by contending that it’s not the same church. And even if the attorney thinks he can get past both of those front-end hurdles, he may look down the road and see that, even if he takes the case to the limit and flat-out wins, the autonomous individual church could still restructure post-trial and avoid payment of any judgment far more easily than a Catholic diocese would be able to.

Not only is it easier for an autonomous Baptist church to restructure itself, but the entire Southern Baptist denomination is set up in a way that provides an almost perfect wall for allowing the state and national organizations to avoid liability. It is much easier to get at deep-pockets in a hierarchical system than in a system of autonomy.


Like anyone else, attorneys are people who need to make a living. Most cannot afford to work several hundred hours on a case without a reasonable likelihood of obtaining some income out of it. That’s just reality. So, most attorneys cannot take on a case if they see that the odds are too greatly stacked against obtaining a financial recovery - and that evaluation may have nothing at all to do with the merits of the case or the truth of the claim, but instead may turn on these sorts of technicalities.

The increased difficulty of recovery in a suit against a Baptist church may also make the attorney very reluctant to put the client through the additional anguish that a lawsuit would bring to her, particularly when the victim has already been told by confident church leaders that they will “crucify her” if she pursues it. Why put the client through hell if you can’t foresee a strong possibility that she’ll be able to impose some accountability and achieve some closure via the lawsuit?

So, even with respect to the viability of a lawsuit, Baptists' autonomous structure works against the possibility that a clergy predator will ever be exposed. And without a lawsuit, it is very unlikely that a reporter will be able to print a story about the victim’s report of sexual abuse. The people in the pews in all the congregations where the man has worked will remain unaware.

Bottom line: The Baptist system shields clergy perpetrators.
Every step of the way, the Baptist clergy-predator stays well-hidden in the layers of autonomy. As Marv Knox, editor of the Baptist Standard wrote, Baptists' disconnected system is a structure that "indirectly shields perpetrators."

The only way this problem will be solved is if denominational leaders make protecting kids the paramount priority and impose a system for accountability. Tragically, it seems that so long as state and national organizations perceive that they are at little risk of legal liability, they lack the motivation to be proactive in taking steps to protect kids.

Kids in Baptist churches would be a great deal safer if denominational leaders would recognize that, whether or not they have any legal obligation, they have a moral obligation to congregations and to the public to investigate and disclose admitted, proven and credibly accused child molesters hiding among the ranks of Baptist clergy.