As if anybody needed convincing by now, it’s not just the Catholic Church. The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News blow the roof off of sex abuse within churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Excerpts:
In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.
It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.
They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.
About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.
Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.
Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.
The investigation reveals that:
• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.
• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.
• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.
• Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms. A few were adults — women and men who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.
The story explains that SBC leaders declined act against sex offenders in local churches because the denomination’s structure grants full autonomy to local congregations. But:
Other leaders have acknowledged that Baptist churches are troubled by predators but that they could not interfere in local church affairs. Even so, the SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.
Look at this instance:
In Illinois, Leslie Mason returned to the pulpit a few years after he was convicted in 2003 on two counts of criminal sexual assault. Mason had been a rising star in local Southern Baptist circles until the charges were publicized by Michael Leathers, who was then editor of the state’s Baptist newspaper.
Letters from angry readers poured in. Among those upset by Leathers’ decision to publish the story was Glenn Akins, the interim executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.
“To have singled Les out in such a sensationalistic manner ignores many others who have done the same thing,” Akins wrote in a memo, a copy of which Leathers provided. “You could have asked nearly any staff member and gotten the names of several other prominent churches where the same sort of sexual misconduct has occurred recently in our state.”
Akins, now the assistant executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, declined an interview request.
Leathers resigned after state Baptist convention leaders told him he might be fired and lose his severance pay, he said. Mason, meanwhile, admitted to investigators that he had relationships with four different girls, records show.
Mason received a seven-year prison sentence under a plea deal in which investigators dropped all but two of his charges. After his release, he returned to the pulpit of a different SBC church a few miles away.
“That just appalled me,” Leathers said. “They had to have known they put a convicted sex offender behind the pulpit. … If a church calls a woman to pastor their church, there are a lot of Southern Baptist organizations that, sadly, would disassociate with them immediately. Why wouldn’t they do the same for convicted sex offenders?”
The story quotes Southern Baptist leader Wade Burleson saying that in the past, when he brought up to denominational leadership the urgent need to do something to police their own ranks better, they always found reasons not to do it. Burleson says they cited rules of the church’s polity, and other things — but he sensed there was something else going on. The legendary Catholic victim’s advocate Father Tom Doyle says he has seen this before:
Doyle, the Catholic whistleblower, was similarly suspicious, if more blunt: “I understand the fear, because it’s going to make the leadership look bad,” he said. “Well, they are bad, and they should look bad. Because they have ignored this issue. They have demonized the victims.”
Read the whole thing. There is so much more. It is all crushingly familiar to anyone who knows anything about the Catholic scandal. To borrow a line from Solzhenitsyn, the line between pastors and sex abusers does not run between denominations, but right down the middle of each and every one. There is no place to hide from sin, including the sins of covering up and suppressing evil for the sake of protecting those in power.
Let us Christians sincerely thank God for journalism like what the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News have done here. The series continues on Monday.
UPDATE: Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore offers a powerful response. Excerpts:
So how should Christians think about this latest revelation?
The first is to see with clear eyes what is before us. Some have ridiculed this concern as being some irrational sweep into a secular #MeToo moment, implying that the problem is “political correctness” over an issue that is no real problem within church life. Others have suggested that the church should not concern itself with questions of “justice,” and that preaching the gospel itself will resolve matters of injustice. Others have implied that the horrific scandals we have seen in the Roman Catholic church are due to the theology of Catholicism, the nature of a celibate priesthood and so forth. All of these are not only wrongheaded responses, but are deadly dangerous both to the lives of present and future survivors of these horrors and to the witness of the church itself.
Moreover, church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability. Yes, in a Baptist ecclesiology each congregation governs its own affairs, and is not accountable to anyone “higher up” in a church system. And yet, the decisions a church makes autonomously determine whether that church is in good fellowship with others. A church that excuses, say, sexual immorality or that opposes missions is deemed out of fellowship with other churches. The same must be true of churches that cover up rape or sexual abuse.