While the Catholic bishops of the United States convene in Baltimore this week, with the addressing of clergy sex abuse scandals high on their list of priorities, another religious group will convene to discuss the same issue, from their side of the pew - the Southern Baptist Convention.
In their annual convention, which begins this week in Birmingham, Ala., leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention will discuss policies, such as the expelling of churches that fail to report abuse, for handling sex abuse allegations against leaders in the ecclesial community, the AP reported.
In February, in the wake of nearly a year of high-profile Catholic clergy abuse scandals, two Texas newspapers published a three-part investigation into the SBC, uncovering at least 700 cases of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and volunteers.
The joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed that since 1998, around 380 SBC leaders and volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct – some resulting in lawsuits and convictions, others in personal confessions and resignations.
“For years, there were people who assumed abuse was simply a Roman Catholic problem,” Russell Moore, who heads the SBC’s public policy arm, told the AP. “I see that mentality dissipating. There seems to be a growing sense of vulnerability and a willingness to address this crisis.”
According to the AP, clerical abuse within the SBC was already a priority at the annual convention in 2018, but the recent investigative report has made the topic all the more urgent.
While the sex abuse scandals in the SBC resemble those within the Catholic Church in many ways, there is one notable difference - a lack of centralized authority, which makes the handling of abuse across the 47,000-some churches that belong to the community all the more difficult, as multiple SBC members have noted.
"It's a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he's been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister," Christa Brown, an activist who wrote about her own experience being molested by an SBC pastor, told the Houston Chronicle in February.
In an essay about the abuse scandal published on his website, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called for a third-party investigation of all cases of abuse within the SBC. He also lamented that “the SBC ecclesial structure directly contrasts with the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church,” making reforms difficult to enforce. SBC churches are united only by “friendly cooperation with and contributing to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he noted.
In response to the abuse crisis, J. D. Greear, President of the SBC, commissioned a Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, which last weekend released a report after examining how the SBC can “at every level can take discernable action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse, as well as to foster safe environments within churches and institutions.”
The 52-page document includes testimonies from survivors of abuse by SBC leaders, as well as recommended protocols for the handling of abuse allegations within congregations, which includes establishing “care teams” that will accompany sex abuse victims through steps such as reporting abuse and seeking psychological help.
“We must filter every decision with this question: How does this decision protect and care for the alleged victim?” the report states.
“Only when sin is exposed to the light of truth, true repentance, healing, and change can begin,” Greear told the AP.
According to the AP, the SBC anticipates several protestors at their annual convention, in part due to the sex abuse crisis, and in part because of an ongoing debate about the all-male leadership of the ecclesial community.