Betrayed trust: The recycle of abuse continues at Baptist churches

By Greg Warner

June 11, 2007

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (ABP) -- Secrecy about clergy sexual abuse may protect an abuser’s current church from embarrassment but often comes at the expense of his next church -- and its children.

Like many small, rural congregations that find themselves without a pastor, East Bonne Terre Baptist Church had a small budget and few options. So when church members heard there was a new preacher in the area who was seeking a pulpit, it looked like God’s timing.

When somebody comes along who has experience, can talk the language of love, and is a good preacher, its easy for them to believe God has called him to be their pastor,” recalled Randy Black, a member of the Missouri church.

The preacher was “a smooth talker” who impressed the congregation as “a godly man,” Black said. When his references checked out, the man was hired. One day before he was to preach his first sermon, however, the church received a tip. Their new pastor was a convicted child-molester.

“He ran a deaf ministry and took advantage of those boys who were deaf and mute who couldn’t tell anybody,” Black reported. When the layman called one of the references back, he was told, “‘He’s an excellent pastor and he preaches great messages. He just has that one problem that he says he’s dealt with and put behind him.’”

This far-too-common episode demonstrates why clergy sexual abuse -- which some say has reached epidemic proportions -- seems so insidious and hard to stop.

The situation in East Bonne Terre included many factors that make Baptist churches a breeding ground for clergy sex abuse: a trusted ministerial position, a winsome authority figure, an inadequate background check, church members who want to believe the best, a church’s fear of embarrassment and liability, a tradition of autonomy, no denominational certification or safeguard, and no clearinghouse to identify repeat abusers.

Baptists might be tempted to think the recent high-profile scandal and cover-up of abusive Catholic priests resulted from a moribund church hierarchy bent on self-protection. But experts warn the lack of such a hierarchy in Baptist life gives abusers free rein -- and makes Baptist churches unwitting accomplices to predator pastors who are recycled from one unsuspecting congregation to another.

While the Missouri episode is now two decades old, it’s as fresh as today’s newspaper. Accounts of sex abuse of minors and adults by Southern Baptist clergy have made national headlines in recent months, sparking widespread calls for reform -- so far unanswered.

-- In the most notorious case, Shawn Davies, a 33-year-old former music and youth minister, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in January after molesting at least 13 children while working in four churches in Missouri, Kentucky and Michigan, police said. Davies’ last employer, First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Mo., hired him in 2003, while he was under investigation by police in Kentucky, and allowed Davies to work around children for four months after the church was notified of the investigation.

-- At the 25,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., a longtime assistant pastor was dismissed recently after admitting to sexually molesting his young son years earlier. The pastor had to fend off accusations he tried to cover up the offense.

-- Last year Larry Reynolds, pastor of Southmont Baptist Church in Denton, Texas, for 28 years, was accused by former member Katherine Roush, now 37, of sexually abusing her for several years, also beginning when she was 14. Reynolds apologized to the church, which allowed him to retire, even giving him a retirement party and a gift of $50,000.

While these dramatic cases have grabbed headlines, most clergy abuse remains cloaked in secrecy, which is the ally of predators and first instinct of many offended congregations.

The Journal of Pastoral Care reported in a 1993 survey that 14 percent of Southern Baptist senior pastors have engaged in “sexual behavior inappropriate for a minister.” Those statistics include sexual misconduct between adults. But 70 percent of reported sexual assaults involve minors, according to the victim-advocate group Darkness to Light, and an estimated 30 percent of child victims never report their abuse. Most abusers will have multiple victims, and serial abusers can have 40 to 400 in a lifetime.

The toll of abuse on children is devastating -- one-fourth of girls and one-sixth of boys are sexually abused, according to long-term studies.

But why churches? Experts say all sexual abuse involves broken trust.

“Churches have always been a place where everybody trusts everybody,” said Robert Leslie, a detective with the Greenwood Police Department who investigated the Shawn Davies case. “Everybody feels safe there. If you think about it, what better place for a predator to go?”

Too often, a church that discovers a predator in its midst tries to minimize the damage by keeping the incident secret. Whether intended to protect the church, the victim or the rare wrongly accused, that approach only compounds the abuse, experts and victims say.

“The tendency has been to bend over backwards to protect the good name of the church or the reputation of the minister charged with clergy sex abuse…,” said ethicist Joe Trull of Denton, Texas. “Often the victim is re-victimized by the church.”

Because most Baptists have no system of ministerial ethical review or power to rescind ordination, we are vulnerable to terrible life-shattering situations,” said retired pastor Michael Olmsted of Springfield, Mo., who twice in his long career had to intervene when abusers were discovered in his church.

When he later refused to provide positive references for two pastors who had ethical failures, he “was treated as though I didn’t believe God forgives sin,” Olmsted said. “A good-old-boy system that rewards people for denominational service and recommends them to other churches, while ignoring immoral and abusive behavior in our churches, neither honors God nor represents the God of grace.”

Now there is a new urgency in Baptist life, but for all the talk, little has been done. The Southern Baptist Convention has said it is powerless to impose a sex-abuse policy on its 42,000 churches, citing local-church autonomy. But at its annual meeting in San Antonio, the SBC will be asked to consider developing a public database of ministers convicted of sexual abuse or harassment.

The U.S. Catholic Church has responded to its national abuse scandal with a systemic solution. Each diocese must have a molestation policy that requires an investigation by a lay-dominated review panel, care for the victims, defrocking of abusive priests, and protection of the rights of the accused and accusers.

The reform measures under consideration by Baptists don’t go nearly as far. Congregational autonomy is usually the reason offered for Baptist inaction, but it can also be a tool of reform. Unlike Catholic parishioners, Baptist laypeople hold the power to punish abusers, intervene to prevent abuse, and short-circuit the system that recycles abusers from church to church.

Dee Ann Miller, one of the first to bring Southern Baptist sex abuse to light decades ago, said autonomy need not stand in the way.

“There are ways to take advantage of the polity,” said Miller, a mental-health nurse and writer who herself was abused by a Southern Baptist missionary and says the denomination covered it up. “The problem is that minds and hearts have to be in gear to do it.”

While the Catholics’ system of governance is quite different, their abuse scandal shares a scary similarity with the Baptist experience, warned Thomas Doyle of Vienna, Va., a Catholic and former Vatican canon lawyer.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s argument that it has “no authority” over autonomous churches is “actually quite analogous to what Catholic bishops were espousing prior to 2002,” Doyle said in a March 30 letter to SBC leaders. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no direct authority over any bishop, Doyle said. Each of the 194 U.S. dioceses “is civilly and canonically independent.”

Doyle’s early warning in the mid-’80s about a “looming clergy sex-abuse nightmare” went unheeded until Catholic laity and activists became insistent. In the end, it was “the desperate need for a system of accountability that drove the creation of an oversight mechanism, and that mechanism was created outside the usual structure,” he said.

Miller has been petitioning the SBC’s “usual structure” for decades now. She’s not holding her breath for systemic change any time soon. But she’s hoping for improvement even closer to home -- perhaps in the heart.

“The best that can happen now -- without a lot of discussion and change in attitudes as well as some creation of new structures -- is for individuals to put ethics above their fears for self-protection and institutional protection.”

It starts with talking and with openness, she said. “Freely talking, and being willing to go to anyone who may be concerned, works if enough people who know the truth will really talk, and keep talking.”

“That’s how we learn -- when victims are allowed to speak,” Miller concluded. “A victim’s story is a big part of her or his life. It is a valuable witness for us all. …”

-- This story is part of a six-part series on clergy sex-abuse. Bill Webb of Word and Way and Jim White of the Religious Herald contributed to the article.