Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Blog Section Banner
You are here: Home >> Blog >> Blogs by Marie Fortune (retired) >> Southern Baptists: Yes, but . . .

Southern Baptists: Yes, but . . .

Aug 22, 2008 — Categories:

“One sexual predator in our midst is one too many,” said Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee. “Sexual predators must be stopped. They must be on notice that Southern Baptists are not a harvest field for their devious deeds.” Good so far.

“One sexual predator in our midst is one too many,” said Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee. “Sexual predators must be stopped. They must be on notice that Southern Baptists are not a harvest field for their devious deeds.” Good so far.

But the Southern Baptist Executive Committee has determined that the denomination will not create a database to identify sexual predators nor establish a national office to respond to complaints. Not so good.

Their reasoning: polity problems. They say local autonomy of their congregations precludes a centralized list or investigative body. The Convention does not have the authority to prohibit known perpetrators from doing ministry. The local church can hire anyone it wants as a pastor. Now I appreciate the value of a congregational polity. My denomination, the United Church of Christ, also uses this way of organizing itself.

But I also have spoken with victims and survivors of Southern Baptist pastors who are very frustrated with the unwillingness of their church to take some institutional action to stop clergy offenders. The words are important. The SBC statement is strong. Their website provides some excellent articles on the sexual abuse of children. But words are not enough.

When the study began in 2006, Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson suggested the database to track ministers who are “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.” The Executive Committee nixed that idea and now urges local churches to use the U.S. Dept. of Justice database of sexual offenders to do their background checks.

So here’s the problem: the Department of Justice database or any state police database will only include convicted sex offenders. A minister will only show up in that database if he has been reported, prosecuted and convicted of a sex offense. The database will not include ministers who offend against adults and may have been fired by their local churches. So how is another Baptist church to know that their pastoral candidate is in good standing if there is no Baptist database?

Local churches need all the help they can get to deal with a complaint about clergy misconduct, even if it is finally their decision what to do about it. The national denominational structure can and should make resources available for training, preparation of local church policies, etc. It is interesting that when the Southern Baptist Convention decides to do a mission project, it doesn’t worry about local church autonomy. It provides a mechanism for its local churches to participate in mission efforts.

Yet here when the health and wellbeing of its members is on the line, it has chosen to speak but not to act. It was 4th century Bishop John Chrysostom who said, "At all times it is works and actions that we need, not a mere show of words. It is easy for anyone to say or promise something, but it is not so easy to act out that word or promise."

This is an issue that independent, non-denominational churches struggle with all the time. They literally have no denominational structure to turn to for support. Their independence means they are isolated and often lack policies when a complaint comes to them. Even if they want to, they often lack the capacity to act to remove an offending pastor. A lawsuit is in their future.

Victims have no other recourse. The Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. has put in place a mechanism with standards and policies to address the abuse of children by clergy. Because of its hierarchical polity, it can mandate action by the dioceses and provide resources to assist them. In responding to clergy misconduct, this is an advantage. Of course one still wonders why it has taken the Catholic Church so long to begin this process.

All of which serves to remind us that polity is not the problem. Regardless of the structure of a religious institution, it has the capacity to act to address clergy misconduct. It is a matter of using the structure and values it has to guide its action. It is a matter of the will to use every institutional resource available to try to insure that congregations will be safe places for congregants rather than looking for structural excuses why church leaders don’t have to act.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute

Document Actions

CSA and the law

Posted by Linda maue at Aug 09, 2010 02:02 PM
It is all and well for church organizations to do whatever they do in cases of CSA, but until CSA is considered a crime in the legal sense of the word, these perps are free to go about and abuse and exploit again. Maybe they can no longer be clergy, but there are some, such as my perp, de-frocked by the ELCA, who now is there to help the grieving with a local funeral home.

Not only do these abusers need to be removed as clergy from whatever denomination they work for, but they need to be convicted of sexual abuse and listed as sexual predators on the data base.

Thank you for all you do, Rev. Marie. and all you have done.

Linda G. Maue, CSA survivor