December 26, 2012

Southern Baptists and Clergy Abuse

Southern BaptistCatholics are not the only Christian denomination with problems related to the sexual abuse of children by clergy. Southern Baptists have been on the radar quite a bit too.

While the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has worked tirelessly to conceal sexual abuse by priests, sometimes transferring them, paying off victims' families, and the the like, the Baptists appear to have a different sort of problem. In addition to their tendency to deny that abuse is occurring, it appears that the manner in which the Southern Baptist church is structured may prevent accountability.

According to Tim Townsend (The Post-Dispatch, St. Louis and available through CNN), Rev. Travis Smith only has to face his own congregation after his arrest for sexual abuse and statutory rape.
Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.

Instead, authority resides at the local church level. And that’s true even amid allegations of clergy misconduct.
Unlike the Catholic Church, where an individual bishop would have the authority to remove a priest following allegations of abuse, the Southern Baptists appear to have no such mechanism aside from the congregations of each church. Anyone who has followed the many reports of clergy abuse will recognize the problem here.
In any denomination, Christians confronted with the shocking news that a pastor has been accused of sexual misconduct, many congregations circle the wagons, some experts say.
As Townsend asks, what do you suppose might happen when those rallying around their beloved pastor are the ones responsible for deciding whether the pastor remains? Right. Nothing happens. He reports that nobody from Smith's church has initiated the process to have him removed. And this is in spite of the fact that these are not the first complaints against Rev. Smith.

Christa Brown of the excellent www.stopbaptistpredators.org website was quoted in the article as well. I've been a fan of her work in advocating for victims of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist clergy for some time, and it was nice to see her receiving some recognition. It is too bad that her work is necessary, but since it is, I'm glad that she's there.

I wonder if more cases like this one out of Florida are necessary to convince the Southern Baptists to figure out an alternative to placing something so important in the hands of individual congregations.

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