Southern Baptist Abuse Cases Garnering More Attention, Warnings

Clergy sex scandals have widely been exposed in the Catholic Church, but recent media attention has gone toward Protestant churches, mainly the Southern Baptist Convention.
( [email protected] ) Apr 16, 2007 04:30 PM EDT

Clergy sex scandals have widely been exposed in the Catholic Church, but recent media attention has gone toward Protestant churches, mainly the Southern Baptist Convention, which some fear may be developing a similar pattern to the Catholic Church.

A six-month investigation was unfolded Friday night on ABC's 20/20 which found "preacher predators" all over the country and shielding themselves in churches. While the investigation uncovered pastors and ministers convicted of some account of sexual abuse from every denomination, the focus was placed on several cases within the largest Protestant denomination in the United States – the Southern Baptists.

"I predict this program will be a shocker for many around the nation," stated Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., in a Thursday blog post.

The latest case among several involves Shawn Davies, a former music and youth minister at First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Mo., who pleaded guilty to molesting boys ages 12 to 16. His accounts of sexual misconduct occurred at a church in Kentucky along with the Missouri church.

"What's so terrible about this crime is that the weapon is the kids' faith," said Christa Brown, Baptist coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), on ABC. Brown and the network say they are "very concerned about the failure of Southern Baptist leaders to respond effectively to the problem of clergy sex abuse."

A Thursday blog post by the Rev. Marty Duren, lead pastor of New Bethany Baptist Church in Buford, Ga., mentioned receiving an e-mail "purporting to be from ABC News" that informed him of the 20/20 special.

Although at the time Duren wasn't sure if the e-mail was a scam, he stated, "If the charges are true, though, it will be worth the skewering to help us be better prepared to stop a pedophile’s ability to jump from church to church with no coordinated process for protection."

Duren's is known to be perhaps the most influential blog page in the Baptist blogosphere.

While some responses to Duren's recent post said it is not the job of the Southern Baptist Convention "to police at all the local church's selection of pastors," others expressed that the SBC could still have a role in setting a policy for hiring staff to protect the children. Still others mentioned the autonomy of the local churches and that the convention exists for only three days a year.

Southern Baptist leaders, including SBC President Frank Page, have repeatedly pointed to the autonomy of the local church in the wake of sex abuse cases.

The problem is not "systemic and large-scale," said Page. But the Baptist head expressed deep concern, saying "even one instance of sexual molestation is one too many" and calling its 43,000 independent churches to enforce accountability and develop policy guidelines for the care of youth.

Yet Father Thomas Doyle of Vienna, Va., a former Vatican canon lawyer, fears he could see a similar pattern develop in the SBC as he did in the Catholic Church.

In a Mar. 30 letter to Page and Dr. Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, Doyle pointed out that the SBC's "'no authority' over autonomous churches" argument is "actually quite analogous to what Catholic bishops were espousing prior to 2002."

"Much misunderstanding exists about the structure of the Catholic Church and the way in which it functions both nationally and internationally. The USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) has no direct authority over any bishop or eparch in the United States, nor does it have an infrastructure that is interconnected with the management or operations of the country’s 194 dioceses and eparchies, each of which is civilly and canonically independent," he clarified.

Doyle had warned Catholic bishops about the "looming clergy sex abuse nightmare" in the mid 1980s, but his warning went largely unheeded until 2002, he stated. That's when the USCCB established the Office of Child and Youth Protection. The latest annual review that the bishops commissioned found that for the second consecutive year, the number of clergy sex abuse claims received by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops and religious orders has dropped.

It wasn't the structure of the Catholic Church that allowed for the creation of an oversight mechanism, but rather, "the desperate need for a system of accountability that drove the creation of an oversight mechanism, and that mechanism was created outside the usual structure," he said.

Ken Ward, a Southern Baptist pastor in East Texas who admitted to molesting more than 40 boys, told ABC that he stayed under the local church radar and moved from church to church for years. He said the church can't handle these cases alone.

"If children in Southern Baptist churches are to be made safer, accountability for Southern Baptist clergy may also need to be established 'in a new way,'" said Doyle.