State, The (Columbia, SC)
BAPTISTS ADDRESS ISSUE OF CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE
Southern Baptists are calling on seminaries to teach sexual integrity and are urging church staffs to cooperate with civil authorities when sexual abuse allegations arise.
The move came Wednesday in a resolution on the final day of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in St. Louis. "We acknowledge our own fallenness and the need to prevent such appalling sins from happening within our own ranks," reads the resolution.
Resolution Committee Chairman Frank Harber said the statement was written for Southern Baptists and not as a commentary about Roman Catholics, who are in the midst of scandal. Catholic bishops are meeting today in Dallas to discuss a policy on handling sexual abuse allegations.
"It is a message to ourselves . . . to have the highest standards of integrity, of accountability, that we would police ourselves," Harber said. "(This is) in no way a charge to the Catholic Church, but an alert to ministers of our own denomination."
The Rev. William A. Merrell, vice president for SBC relations, said the issue has implications for all religious groups.
"Whether Baptist or Catholic, we don't believe religion should be a cloak for nefarious behavior," Merrell said. "Churches should cooperate in every way with legal authorities as it pertains to this matter."
Pedophilia or sexual impropriety among ministers should be viewed as "a virtual professional death penalty," Merrell added.
The issue has implications in South Carolina, where the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston recently put on temporary leave an Aiken priest accused of abusing a parishioner in the 1970s and is investigating another allegation.
First Baptist Church in Columbia faces a lawsuit from a family alleging their teen-age daughter was abused by a church deacon, John Hubner, who was not adequately screened before being allowed to work with children.
Criminal charges also have been lodged by a second teen-ager, a member of the church, who alleges Hubner, of West Columbia, fondled her.
Hubner, now listed on the state sex offenders registry, served a sentence in Maine for a similar charge involving teen-age girls there. He is awaiting trial for the South Carolina charges.
South Carolina Baptists said the resolution is an appropriate, timely issue for church members to address.
"I don't know any church in any denomination that's not dealing with it," said the Rev. Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the S.C. Baptist Convention.
Convention staff members routinely respond to calls from church members and ministers requesting information about establishing policies for their churches.
For a number of years, he said, convention staff have been sponsoring workshops and bringing in experts to speak on the topic.
While resolutions are not binding on Southern Baptist churches, they can provide a moral and instructional impact, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Resolutions "don't just live for three days and die," Land said. "Resolutions are instructive to both the world and Southern Baptists."
Seminaries are already teaching the principles proposed in the resolution, and the church's publishing house, LifeWay, has materials available for church use, Land said.
The Rev. Mike Hamlet, pastor of First Baptist Church, North Spartanburg, and a member of the SBC Resolutions Committee, said he expects churches across the country to re-evaluate their policies as a result of the Roman Catholic scandal.
"This is not directed to a crisis in Southern Baptist life, but an acknowledgment that this is on the minds of many people in America," Hamlet said. "We need to be mindful."
Newly elected Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham.