Former SBC president defends denomination's record against clergy sex abuse

By Bob Allen

Friday, March 2, 2007

Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines defended the denomination's current leaders against charges they are being soft on sexual abuse by clergy.

Despite "genuine concern" by SBC leaders, the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., told Agape Press, there is little the 16 million-member convention can do to police autonomous local churches.

 

"The denomination has no authority over local churches but can provide resources to help us face this problem and deal with it," Vines said. "As a denomination, we do make resources available."

 

Vines speaks from experience. In 2002, two months before his widely reported denunciation of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile," one of Vines' deacons was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of lewd and lascivious acts against minors.

 

Vines was out of town at the time of Stephen Lee Edmonds' arrest in April 2002. "I was deeply saddened when I learned of the heartbreaking reports involving one of our 25,000 members," Vines said later in a one-paragraph statement. "I immediately visited the man and his family when I returned to the city."

 

"He has resigned his position as one of our 285 deacons and all other places of leadership in the church," Vines said. "While I do not minimize nor condone sinful behavior, I continue to pray for the family and all who have been hurt. We are all reminded that Jesus said he came to heal the brokenhearted."

 

Police said Edmonds, a businessman who was also president of Northeast Florida Builder's Association, fondled and sent explicit Internet messages to three boys over a course of three years, starting when the boys were 11 and 13. None of the boys was thought to be a member of First Baptist Church.

 

"This is the worst thing that could ever happen to your child, to be sexually assaulted by an adult," the mother told WorldNetDaily.com. One of her sons, she said, talked about killing himself.

 

Originally facing 13 felony counts and up to 70 years in prison, Edmonds agreed to a plea bargain sentencing him to a year in county jail and five years of probation. The prosecutor justified the deal, not uncommon in such cases, saying it would spare the boys from having to testify in court.

 

The mother of two of the youths said the light sentence victimized them all over again. "These sex offenders are being sentenced like they stole a car and not like they have stolen and desecrated the innocence of a child's life," she was quoted as saying.  

 

Defending current SBC leaders against criticism by a victims' group called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Vines this week told Agape Press, "It's always a terrible, terrible thing when children are abused or anyone is abused, and we must stand against it."

 

"We must preach against it, we must have standards against it," he said. "And there's a lot going on now--you need screenings, you need training, and people need to know what the laws are in these areas."

 

Christa Brown of SNAP-Baptist told EthicsDaily.com that "no amount of preaching against it" will protect kids, but what is needed is a system of accountability both for predators and those who turn a blind eye.

 

"If indeed there is little the SBC can actually do, then perhaps that is exactly what parents in Baptist pews should be told in all candor," Brown said. "If I were a parent with kids in a Southern Baptist church, I would choose to compromise on my faith practice a bit for the sake of better protecting my kids."

 

"I would pick myself up out of that Baptist pew and march my family down the street to a Presbyterian church, where they are at least attempting to make a concerted and united effort at addressing the problem," she said.

 

Vines passed on one opportunity to "preach against it" when he recently spoke as a guest at a Florida mega-church in the center of a high-profile scandal involving clergy sexual abuse.

 

At a church Bible conference in November, Vines praised ministries of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville for its ministries without mentioning the fact that a local TV station was accusing it of covering up sexual abuse committed by a longtime former pastor.

 

When Vines made his widely quoted remark denouncing Islam's Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile," it was against a backdrop of news dominated not only by 9/11 but a year-long pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

 

Speaking to the 2002 SBC Pastors Conference, Vines said people promoting "religious pluralism" were the source of many of America's problems.

 

"Today, people are saying all religions are the same," Vines said. "They would have us believe Islam is just as good as Christianity. But I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that Islam is not as good as Christianity. Christianity was founded by the virgin-born Lord Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives and his last one was a 9-year-old girl."

 

"And I will tell you Allah is not Jehovah, either," Vines went on to say. "Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist."

 

Later that week the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution urging sexual integrity for ministers that mentioned sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

 

"We shouldn't enjoy this Catholic mess too much," future SBC President Bobby Welch advised messengers. "We're waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it does, don't be surprised if there is more and more within our ranks."

 

SNAP claims Southern Baptists' hands-off form of governance allows clergy sexual predators to remain undetected. Seeking to avoid embarrassment, many churches do not publicly state allegations of sexual abuse but rather allow an offending pastor to resign quietly and go to another church. Victims are pressured to remain silent to protect the church, sometimes through use of secrecy contracts providing them some help with the expense of counseling.

 

SNAP recommends establishing an independent review board to investigate allegations of abusive clergy and to make that information available to churches.

 

SBC officials said that is impractical but pledged to consider new ways to address the problem that are consistent with Baptist polity.

 

"Whether or not the SBC has any 'authority' over churches, it could provide an independent objective review board as a resource for autonomous congregations," Brown said. "And if a congregation chose to retain a minister even after an objective review board concluded a report of child molestation was credible, then I expect the church's insurance carrier might step in and exercise some influence."

 

Brown said instead of learning from the Catholic Church scandal, SBC leaders are imitating the same mistakes. 

 

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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