In many Catholic dioceses across the country, we have seen a similar pattern. And lately, we have begun to see this tragic pattern among Southern Baptists.
The largest Protestant denomination in the country has no policies or procedures for protecting kids against sexual predators who wear the mask of a minister. There is no effective system of accountability, nor any independent review process for those who attempt to report clergy sex abuse.
In SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, we know the human cost this lack of accountability carries with it.
That is why we have repeatedly asked Southern Baptist leaders to institute specific accountability measures for the protection of kids. Specifically, we asked them to create an independent review board so that those who seek to report abuse would have somewhere to turn.
This isn't a radical notion. Catholics began implementing review board procedures in 2002. And Texas' capital-city newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, recently suggested an independent oversight process for imposing accountability at the Texas Youth Commission. (Editorial, Fixing TYC mess is next order of business, 3/18/07)
Yet Southern Baptist officials have repeatedly responded to SNAP's request with excuses similar to those made by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who reportedly said there was nothing he could do with information about TYC abuse unless a local prosecutor asked for help. (Editorial, TYC details, response are equally disgusting, 3/10/07)
Similarly, Southern Baptist officials assert there is nothing they can do about clergy abuse because ecclesiological authority remains at the local level in autonomous churches. This means there is no process for independent review of complaints about clergy sex abuse. Instead, a complaint against a minister is reviewed by his own colleagues within the church, if indeed it is reviewed at all.
As the Statesman rightly recognized, the Texas Attorney General may have given the legally correct answer in deflecting responsibility, but "that's not good enough" when what's at stake is protecting adolescents against sexual abuse. (Editorial, 3/10/07) Likewise, Southern Baptist officials may be giving an ecclesiologically correct answer in asserting their lack of authority over autonomous churches, but "that's not good enough" when what's at stake is protecting kids against clergy child molesters.
Whether or not they have any legal obligation, Southern Baptist leaders have a moral obligation.
Independent oversight is what's needed to prevent abuse. University of Texas professor Michele Deitch emphasized this reality in her Statesman commentary about the TYC scandal. (TYC facilities need independent oversight, 3/22/07) It holds equally true of churches.
If it is left to church leaders to review allegations of abuse against one of their own colleagues within an insular system, then we will continue to see too many cases of abuse going unchecked and of ministers being allowed to move on to new churches where they find fresh young prey.
As Professor Deitch pointed out, an independent agency for oversight need not have management authority. Even if it cannot order any changes, it can serve the very valuable function of investigating and providing objective information.
Similarly, even if Baptist ecclesiology will not allow for an independent board to have authority over the autonomous churches, an independent review board could still provide a valuable resource to the 16 million people who sit in Southern Baptist pews. It could provide them with the expertise of an investigatory body that would report back with objective information about ministers alleged to have sexually abused kids.
The only way church kids can be made safer is if that sort of information sees the light of day. Independent oversight could assure that it does.