This colum was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on February 26, 2007.
Last Monday, the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a Chicago-based organization that has been working to hold the Roman Catholic church to some kind of account for its mishandling—and often cover up—of sexual abuse by priests, delivered a letter to the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, asking the leaders of America’s largest Protestant body to take responsibility for sexual abuse committed by Southern Baptist pastors.
It turns out that the Southern Baptists, like the Roman Catholics, have a bad habit of covering up for abusive clergy, often sending pastoral perpetrators of abuse to new congregations rather than to jail where they belong. In one particularly troubling case, a children’s minister with a record of abuse seems to have found his way onto the staff of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, a congregation whose pastor, Charles Stanley, is a well-known author and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Often I hear it said that sexual abuse by clergy is a Catholic problem, the result of a celibate priesthood, comprised of a large number of sexually-repressed gay men, but I would wager that Catholic priests are no more likely to be sexually abusive than any other group of clergy. In my life’s journey among the religious, I’ve met and heard the stories of people abused by religious leaders from a long list of faith traditions: Catholics and Protestants, Mormons and Unitarians, Buddhists, Jews, and New Age Seekers. Clergy sexual misconduct is a problem inherent to any and every religious tradition that invests individuals with spiritual power. That SNAP has expanded the scope of its work to include a non-Catholic denomination is an important acknowledgement of this fact.
In one of the odd twists of my work in the Church, I served for two years as a prosecutor in the Presbyterian ecclesiastical court in a matter involving a pastor who abused the power of his office to seduce women in his community. His behavior was not criminal, but it was destructive and often it was tawdry. It was an embarrassment to the Presbyterian church, and it gave me a healthy respect for the problem of sexual predation in religious communities.
After leaving the ministry, the former pastor I helped to prosecute became a girls’ water polo coach at a high school in Southern California, where he was eventually arrested for possession with intent to sell enough cocaine and ecstasy to keep a large party wild for quite some time. The ranks of the clergy are peopled with frail, imperfect folk. Usually no harm comes of it, but sometimes abuse occurs, and religious people simply must take responsibility for those we ordain.
The Southern Baptists, thus far, have refused to accept such responsibility, asserting in response to several letters sent by SNAP over the past year, that because the Southern Baptist Convention is a body made up of independent churches, the denomination has no legal standing to exercise discipline in matters of clergy sexual misconduct. (The fact that the Southern Baptist Convention has found a way legally to discipline congregations that ordain women or welcome openly gay members is a double standard worth noting, if just in passing.)
My hope is that by turning its attention to sexual misconduct in Southern Baptist churches, SNAP will inspire religious institutions of every kind to take seriously the problem of clergy sexual misconduct.
The day is long since past when religious bodies should have been setting up systems for accountability and justice without the prompting of groups like SNAP. Since clergy sexual misconduct will not go away so long as there are men and women of the cloth, more must be done now to limit and mitigate the extent of the damage caused by abusive behavior. We who are religious should settle for no less.