The religious denominations that have been caught up in sexual abuse scandals have fallen prey to the same unholy temptation.
They have worried about their reputation, their image or their money more than they have worried about those who have been victimized.
The Catholic Church, of which I am a member, has been paying for these sins, both monetarily and internally. With thousands of priests and other members of the clergy credibly accused of abusing minors dating back several decades, the church has collectively paid out more than $4 billion in settlements in the United States alone since the 1980s, according to Wikipedia. Along with the financial losses has been the loss of trust among the faithful. Even those who did not leave the church over the scandal do not hold priests, the vast majority of whom have been blameless, with the same regard as in generations past.
Although the Catholic Church seems to have gotten its act together, with policies and procedures in place to swiftly and openly address credible accusations of sexual abuse, it will be a long time, maybe decades, before the church regains the full trust of its flock.
Southern Baptists are now going down that same troubled road.
After years of dragging its feet on numerous allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and church employees within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention finally commissioned an independent investigation into the scandal. The final push for that investigation was the work of the Houston Chronicle, which dug into the allegations and found more than 700 victims of sexual abuse within the denomination over a 20-year period.
Guidepost Solutions, which conducted the investigation for the Southern Baptist Convention, confirmed the Houston’s newspaper’s findings and sharply criticized how the Baptist leadership dealt with the problem.
The SBC put a priority on protecting the denomination’s treasury over its members, the report said, with church leaders worrying more about the potential for lawsuits than the potential for irreparable emotional harm to the victims.
“Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches,” the report said.
After the nearly 300-page report was released last weekend, the SBC followed that up by releasing a few days later a secret internal document listing the names of credibly accused ministers that its staff had kept for more than a decade but did nothing about.
Of the 703 names on the list, 409 were believed to be affiliated with SBC churches at some point, but only two were still affiliated, according to Guidepost’s research. It is somewhat miraculous there weren’t more still in ministry, considering the disbelief or antagonism with which the accusations were often received. Guideposts singles out one such instance in which the Baptist Press, the SBC news service, published a heavily edited account from a female executive at an SBC publishing house of an allegation of sexual abuse. The story made it appear as if the relationship was consensual. The result was a social media savaging that libeled the woman as an adulteress.
For the longest time, it seemed that sexual abuse was mainly a scandal within the Catholic church. Other denominations with married clergy even postulated that Catholics had this problem because their priests are not allowed to marry.
It is now clear, though, that clergy betraying their vows is not the province of any one religious tradition. It is a universal weakness, and it’s not just related to sexual transgressions. Members of the clergy, like the laity, are not immune to being tempted by riches and power as well.
What is most disappointing in these scandals is how those who could have minimized the damage of wayward clergy instead made matters worse.
Catholic bishops did it by reassigning pedophile priests — after putting them through supposed rehabilitation programs — back into parish life, where they would again have the opportunity to prey on children, while leaving their new congregations in the dark about the priests’ past.
Southern Baptists, by listening to their lawyers rather than their consciences, produced an atmosphere that made it harder for the victims to come forward. When survivors spoke out in criticism for the SBC’s lack of action, they were accused of doing the devil’s work and distracting the denomination from bringing in new adherents.
As Catholics learned, the failure to forthrightly address a scandal within the church may buy some time, but ultimately it backfires. The large settlements Catholic dioceses and various religious orders have had to pay to victims reflect not just the misdeeds of the abusers but of their higher-ups who failed to take the steps that might have stopped the abuse.
Southern Baptists are about to find out the same.
Among its recommendations, Guideposts proposes that a compensation fund be created for survivors of abuse by SBC clergy. The anticipated avalanche of lawsuits has only just begun.
Other denominations should take note.
It is not enough for religious leaders to say that the clergy are sinners like everyone else. When those sins are exposed, especially when they involve victimizing children and other vulnerable persons, those in leadership positions within the church have an obligation to act aggressively to protect current and potential future victims. A denomination’s reputation and its finances are secondary considerations at that point.
To do otherwise betrays the God these churches say they are following.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.