Sex abuse victims turn focus to Baptists
By ANITA WADHWANI
A half-decade after the Catholic Church's clergy sex abuse scandal broke open, Southern Baptist Convention leaders are now facing questions about offenders within their own ranks.
Abuse victim advocates who criticized the Catholic hierarchy for years are now confronting the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination, highlighting cases of preachers accused or convicted of child sex abuse, including four in Tennessee in the past five months.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is accusing Baptists of not taking strong enough steps to protect children and has called on the Nashville-based denomination to create an independent review board to act on reports of child sex abuse.
The Southern Baptist Convention is composed of autonomous individual churches and lacks the kind of centralized hierarchy to impose denomination-wide mandates or procedures for clergy sex abuse, said Frank Page, the denomination's president.
Southern Baptist leaders say they are deeply concerned about protecting children and are weighing policy changes. Two Baptist ministers say they will introduce resolutions at the denomination's next national convention in June to do more, such as conduct a study of creating a database of convicted perpetrators.
At the same time, the church's leadership questions the motives of victims' advocates and the media in focusing attention on sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches.
"We believe that Jesus clearly loved children, and we must protect them," Page said.
Lawsuit plan suspected
"But I do not believe we have a systemic problem. Are there instances of sexual abuse on the part of Southern Baptist ministers? Yes, just as there are in schools, government and every denomination that exists on this earth.
"So why would people ask these questions of Southern Baptist ministers and not Methodists or Episcopalians? Is it because we're the largest and possibly a target for lawsuit possibilities?"
The discussion about Baptist clergy sexually abusing children began last September when the priest-abuse survivors group petitioned the convention to create institutional safeguards.
Christa Brown, a Texas-based attorney, holds the newly created position as the Survivor Network's Baptist national coordinator.
She said, "I want to express my sorrow and dismay that the president of this country's largest Protestant denomination would choose to question the motives of a self-help group for child-rape victims rather than addressing the problem."
Brown, 54, said she was abused by a Southern Baptist minister at age 16. In 2005, she settled a lawsuit with her former church, which acknowledged the abuse and apologized for not taking more action in the case.
Brown and other activists in her group are skeptical that there is no systemic sex-abuse problem among the denomination's 43,000 preachers.
"How would anyone know one way or the other, because there is no one in that denomination keeping records." she said.
In the past seven months, Brown said she has received about 90 reports from individuals alleging sex abuse by Baptist pastors.
4 cases are in Tennessee
In Tennessee four cases have publicly emerged in the past five months:
n a Parsons, Tenn., pastor indicted in February on a charge of using a computer to "entice a minor to engage in unlawful sexual activity";
n a Dyersburg youth minister charged in Nashville and Knox County with molesting two teenage sisters;
n a Soddy-Daisy music minister who pleaded guilty to raping a teenage boy;
n an assistant pastor at a Memphis megachurch who was said to have admitted molesting a male adolescent 17 years ago.
In the case of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church involving Paul Williams, an internal investigation report released to the congregation said it was "ill-prepared on several fronts" to deal with the minister who had "engaged in egregious, perverse, sexual activity" with the teen.
Church members have criticized Steve Gaines, the lead pastor, who said he knew about the abuse allegation six months before it became public.
The issue "vividly brought to light the need for change," said the report, which included recommendations on background checks for all employees and procedures for handling sex-abuse cases.
It's those kinds of measures on an individual church level that Page is encouraging.
"Actions must be taken at the local level, where persons guilty of child and youth abuse are prosecuted to the full extent of the law," he said.
The denomination is weighing suggestions such as those from the victims group to create centralized databases and review boards, but cannot impose denomination-wide requirements because those are incompatible with the denomination's "polity and structure," which are "biblically based," he said.
But critics say they don't buy the argument that Baptists can't do more at the denominational level and say Baptists have no measures to prevent an accused pastor from moving from one church to another. Brown said her molester moved from Texas to a Florida child ministry.
The Rev. Thomas Doyles, a Virginia-based Catholic priest and attorney who admonished Catholic bishops to pay more attention to abuse claims in the 1980s, wrote a March 30 letter to Baptist leaders.
Arguments that they lack authority over individual churches are analogous to Catholic leaders' arguments as their scandal unfolded, he wrote. The Catholic Church has since implemented more oversight.
Media attack unwanted
Page said he is trying to take the criticism in stride even in the face of media accounts such as ABC show 20/20's recent report on Protestant clergy sex abuse.
Page called the program an "attack piece" that singled out Baptist ministers and said he believes the media have a "bias against conservative Christians.
"While it is hurtful when one is portrayed unfairly or incorrectly, if this attention brings any protection to precious children and students and any other persons in our churches, I'm glad this has happened," he said.