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Clergy Predators Lurk Like Online Predators

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Online predators. They lurk in teen chat rooms, watch for vulnerabilities, gain a teen's trust, and then lure her into a sexual encounter. It's a terrible crime. So parents and politicians insist on safety measures for We want protection for our kids.

But what happens when the predators are not anonymous?

Long before there were teen chat rooms on the internet, there were teen prayer groups in churches. Predatory ministers could lurk there, listening to kids' vulnerabilities as they spoke their hearts to God, and then lure them into sexual encounters. These predators don't even have to work at gaining a teen's trust. They're men of God.

There's no doubt such dreadful crimes are committed by ministers. I know the truth of this first-hand because I was sexually abused and assaulted by a Southern Baptist minister when I was a church girl in Texas. But you don't have to believe me. In a recent book, two prominent Southern Baptist scholars report that clergy sex abuse is as prevalent among Protestants as among Catholics. (Trull and Carter, Ministerial Ethics, 2004) So believe them. Southern Baptists have a problem with clergy sex abuse.

What are they doing about the problem? Virtually nothing. Again, you don't have to believe me. Believe what Southern Baptists say about themselves: "Southern Baptists...have no national policies....Sexual misconduct is routinely covered up....Church officials largely have not been responsive." (Trull and Carter at p. 162) Given that Southern Baptists have over 100,000 clergy in this country, those are scary statements.

And those statements certainly reflect my experience. Another minister knew about the abuse at the time, but I was told not to speak of it, and the perpetrator was sent on his way to a bigger church. Years later, when I resurrected the memories, I reported the abuse to church and denominational leaders. My report could be readily substantiated because the same minister who knew about the abuse years ago was still at the same church. So, I assumed Baptist leaders would take action to assure other kids' safety.

Here's what they did instead. The church threatened to seek recourse against me if I pursued the matter. That nearly scared me right back into my quiet corner of shame, but I worried about how many others may have also been silenced. And how will kids be protected if those who report the predators are bullied back into silence?

State and national leaders didn't engage in raw bullying, but they didn't help any either. The national Southern Baptist organization wrote that it had no record the man was still a minister in any church. Yet, I found him working in ministry at a megachurch in Florida. Apparently, the denomination cannot even track its own ministers.

The state-wide Baptist organization eventually wrote that it had placed the perpetrator's name into its file of "known offenders." I breathed a sigh of relief. By published policy, a minister's name gets into that file only when a church reports the abuse (the word of a victim isn't enough) and when there is "substantial evidence the abuse took place" or a confession. But my sigh of relief was too soon. The file of "known offenders" is kept secret. So, even with his name in that Texas file, the man still continued in ministry in Florida.

A year later and after 18 Southern Baptist leaders in four different states had been put on notice of my substantiated report, I gave up and filed a lawsuit. Only when a reporter wrote about my lawsuit was the man finally made to resign. Were they more worried about bad publicity than about harm to kids?

In settlement of my lawsuit, the church distributed a written apology. An apology extracted in a lawsuit doesn't seem genuinely remorseful, but it does constitute a public document acknowledging the truth of what the church knew all along - that its prior minister had sexual contact with me as a minor. They knew it, and yet they focused more on silencing me than on stopping him.

When 18 denominational leaders can be informed of a substantiated report involving a minister's sexual abuse of a minor...and the man remains in ministry...parents and politicians should demand change. Insist on safety measures for Southern Baptist churches. How many more kids will be hurt before Southern Baptists begin to make some united and effective effort at ridding their ranks of clergy predators?

Ninety-five percent of kids who are sexually abused know and trust their attackers. ( Few are more trusted than ministers; yet predators are among them. Until Southern Baptists are willing to lift their blinders and see the hellish reality of that evil, church kids will not be safe.
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Christa Brown is the national outreach director for SNAP-Baptist and maintains the website. She is a wife, mother, attorney, jazz-lover, slow-runner, and a Southern Baptist abuse survivor.
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