Friday, August 22, 2014

Baptist Press and reporting child sex abuse in SBC churches

Most observers would agree that there is and has been sexual abuse of children in Southern Baptist churches and that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Unfortunately, our denominational press and public relations arm of the SBC Executive Committee, Baptist Press, has had a practice of ignoring and not reporting cases of such abuse in SBC churches.

Perhaps this practice is changing. Twice recently BP has reported such bad news:

Former Baptist youth minister arrested

Children's pastor pleads guilty to sexual abuse

The most recent case is the first link above, the arrest of a former youth minister in an SBC church in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Contrast Baptist Press' coverage of such bad news with that of Associated Baptist Press, the main daily news outlet for moderate Baptists. Bob Allen of ABP has hundreds of stories on the subject. His story on the most recent Muscle Shoals case: Former youth pastor charged with abuse.

Does it matter whether or not Baptist Press reports such things? Should our people focus on positive news and let others handle the bad news?

Yes and no. It does indeed matter and I commend BP for beginning to cover specific cases in SBC churches. It matters for several reasons:

1. Children should be safe and protected when their parents bring or send them to church. In many cases they are not and every Southern Baptist denominational employee and entity, every Southern Baptist pastor/staff and church, and every Southern Baptist volunteer and church member should do all they can to assure this.

No one likes bad news but who is helped when we ignore allegations and convictions of sex abuse in our churches? Those whose depravity preys upon young, weak, and powerless children.

2. Our churches and church staff should be educated on child protection policies. We understand and value our belief that a church is autonomous and that no SBC leader or organization has any power over even the smallest SBC church. I appreciate that state conventions, LifeWay, and the Executive Committee all dispense advice to churches and ministers on child protection; however, a single news story of abuse in one of our churches does more to motivate ministers and churches to put in place policies than all the sterile denominational advice available. When Baptist Press (and more importantly the state papers) ignores reporting in this area it is irresponsible and harmful. Ministers may blithely assume that child sex abuse is a problem for the Roman Catholics but not in our churches. It is a problem among us.

3. It helps to dispel the criticism that Southern Baptists are unconcerned about the problem. Try an experiment. Do a search on the website for Baptist Press or your state Baptist newspaper for sex abuse and see what you get. Chances are you will get many results that deal with sex trafficking, abuse in Roman Catholic churches and other matters more distant to Southern Baptists than cases of abuse in SBC churches involving SBC ministers.

Take the most recent SBC case of abuse linked above. Bob Terry, editor of the Alabama Baptist, has a 1000 word story yesterday, Allegations don't always equal facts, that deals with a minister accused who was found innocent decades ago. False accusations are a problem but the far greater problem is that most allegations that are true. I suspect that the Alabama Baptist will report on the latest case involving an Alabama Baptist church very soon. The editor will do a far greater service to Alabama Baptists by doing so. We need not choose between the two but absolutely should not ignore cases of abuse.

4. Churches and church staff have a chance to see both proper and improper responses when sex abuse allegations are made.  Most pastors don't have a chapter in their standard guidebook for ministers about how to handle an allegation of sex abuse in their church. We hope such is rare overall and that we never have to deal with the matter. But many SBC church staff and lay leadership will have to deal with an allegation of abuse in their own church. They should learn what to do and what not to do, what to say and what not to say.

For example, in the most recent case the current pastor who has been at the church less than a year and was not present when the former minister allegedly committed the abuse, is quoted as saying "We've been doing some really great things...and now some feel like the wind has been sucked out of our sails." Undoubtedly, this is an accurate statement and reflects an attitude that the pastor must handle in his membership but to present one's church as a victim is inappropriate. The child or children allegedly abused are the victims here and the focus must be on them not on how the church has been harmed. The church can recover and prosper. The victim or victims will deal with it until they die.

5. God is honored and obeyed and we serve the people of our communities best when we hate sin and abuse and uphold righteousness. Those who commit such deplorable and depraved acts and who prey upon our children should be exposed and punished. We sin against God and our community when we cover up or ignore sex abuse in our churches.

6. As a denomination we have lost credibility on this issue and being open and transparent about it helps restore credibility. If we seem to believe that we are addressing sex abuse in our churches by merely formulating sample policies for child protection that are available for churches and staff if they wish to try them or by the occasional informational article that touches on the matter while ignoring concrete cases of such in our churches, we err. The public should see that we are acting as if we take this problem seriously.

I commend Baptist Press for beginning to pay more attention to these cases in our churches. We will all be better served by such.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. In our state a pastor is required by law to report any sex abuse of a minor--no questions asked. There are plenty of laws in place and Baptists just need to learn to obey them. Of course you also know that not all children tell the truth and this is a real problem too. Before one of our news agencies reports something they need to be absolutely sure of the facts beyond a doubt. An accusation will effectively ruin a pastor or staff member's life and ministry so people need to ferret out the truth before making public accusations.

William Thornton said...

If a minister is reported to authorities, investigated, and arrested, that is sufficient for it to be reported in denominational outlets.