Baptists urged to battle sexual abuse by clergy

One leader says churches have been ignoring problem


BYLINE: Kim Sue Lia Perkes   
DATE: November 9, 1999
PUBLICATION: Austin American-Statesman (TX)


EL PASO  --  Southern Baptist churches in Texas must stop hiding sexual abuse by clergy and provide outreach to victims, the social-action arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas said Monday.

Too often, said Phil Strickland, “the response of the church is to sweep it under the rug.”

Strickland, head of the Christian Life Commission, made his remarks during the annual state Baptist convention that ends today. The commission’s report, presented to the more than 2,000 convention messengers, or delegates, said There is increasing evidence that clergy sexual abuse is a significant problem among Baptist ministers.”

The Texas Baptist Convention has no statistics on the number of reported sex crimes involving clergy, but Strickland said it gets a call about once every two weeks from someone wanting to report possible abuse.

In Austin, Rick Willits Jr., a paid youth minister at Great Hills Baptist Church, was found guilty in October of nine counts of sexual abuse. Thomas Reid Jones, a volunteer youth minister at Riverbend Church, pleaded guilty a month earlier in Williamson County to molesting eight teen-age boys. He faces similar charges in Travis County.

Strickland said the convention plans to provide educational materials for churches on how to prevent abuse, a counseling program for victims and a crisis intervention team to help churches faced with the problem. It is also encouraging churches to set up policies about clergy abuse and recommends thorough background checks on ministers before they are hired. Any suspected abuse should immediately be reported to police, Strickland said, adding that the state organization is looking into setting up a reporting bank to log arrests and convictions.

The Christian Life Commission is asking ministers to sign “A Covenant of Clergy Sexual Ethics” that says the minister will refrain from sex outside marriage, unwanted or inappropriate physical contact, overt and covert seductive speech and gestures, and the use of pornography.

“Will this solve the problem?” Strickland asked. “No, but it’s a first step.”