Friday, February 7, 2014

When clergy sex abuse comes to your church

There are around 47,000 churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Most of these are smaller churches that have either a full-time pastor as the only full time staff or a bivocational, part-time pastor.
All the folks in these churches who do the usual ministry to preschoolers, children, students, and adults are volunteers who serve well and faithfully.

But occasionally one of our churches has the horror of a staff member or volunteer who sexually abuses children. Such is the case with a larger church in Alabama just this week where the children's minister was arrested for abusing children. You can read the ABP story here with links to news accounts. Our own denominational news organization, Baptist Press, is unlikely to report such news but may report some aspects of it later.

The case is about as bad a case as can be imagined. The accused, charged with several dozen crimes involving children, was the children's minister. He is reported to have confessed that he could not count the number of times he committed these crimes. He is in jail.

The church involved took the following actions:

1. When possible crimes were made known to church leaders, they did what they should have done without delay, they called the police and cooperated with them in every way.

2. They removed the individual from his position.

3. They issued a statement to the media and posted it online. The statement was focused on victims, known and unknown, included an appeal for information and cooperation with local police, and offered counseling assistance for any children or families.

I commend the church and pastor for taking proper steps. Often churches make typical mistakes in such situations. They may attempt to have an in-house investigation when an incident is reported. This is not only unwise but a criminal act in and of itself. Also, when abuse is uncovered and made known, a church may issue a self-serving statement that focuses on the harm to the church and its ministry and well-being rather than focusing on the victims. And rather than a single statement and spokesperson, the church may have several leaders speaking to the matter, usually making it worse.

This church seems to have taken the proper steps in response to a horrific situation but to be candid there are more churches in similar situations who botch the initial response that those who do it right. Whether or not the church took the proper steps in the past to protect their children will unfold as the case progresses.

There have been and will continue to be calls for an SBC clergy abuse registry and/or a centralized, independent board that would receive and handle such cases. While these denominational steps may be helpful in some ways, it appears that neither would have had any impact on this case. The accused had no convictions nor accusations and was on no organization's registry. There is no indication at this point that church staff, parents, or other volunteers observed things that indicated this staff member was engaging in inappropriate or criminal behavior and then ignored those signals.

The only negative I would note on this case is that when the state convention was contacted they were reported to have stated that each church handles its own business. Perhaps the spokesman said something that indicated concern for the victims but it wasn't reported. Most of us understand local church autonomy but it looks bad to wave this flag in a case such as this without finding a way to express the same concern about victims as did the church.


Valarie Prigg said...

I appreciate your post & pointing out the appropriate way a church should respond to sexual abuse. The court records indicate the church did take 10 days from the day the "incident" was witnessed to do some internal investigating. It was after finding pornography on the pastor's computer that the church then reported him to authorities.
For many years we've seen the SBC churches take no action unless it was to offer support or cover up for the abuser. Very little compassion or concern has been shown towards victims of these predators.
I'd like to think this is a step in the right direction for the Baptist denomination. Maybe this church would have responded in the same way had the Florida case not been in the news so recently & maybe even if they hadn't found pornography on the computer.
I'd really like to believe the church acted appropriately by reporting the abuse because they knew it was the only right thing to do. I hope this will be an example other churches will follow in the future.
Your statement that the minister's name would not have shown up had their been a data base in place because no prior accusations had been made against him may be true in this situation. I believe that as SBC churches respond properly to sexual abuse this will create an environment where victims will feel more safe to come forward. I don't know if victims of abuse will ever be able to speak out as quickly as people seem to expect them to. But when they are able they should not fear they will suffer more betrayal & trauma by those in positions of leadership & trust in the spiritual community.
Thank you for stating your position that churches have a responsibility to immediately report sexual abuse to the proper legal authorities.

William Thornton said...

Thanks for the comment Valerie. If there were "too many victims to count" as the accused stated one suspects that other questionable situations were missed by some on the church. It will come out, I guess.