Southern Baptist Leaders Blast ABC Sex Abuse Report

Contrary to a recent report claiming little is being done to stop clergy sex offenders in Southern Baptist churches, the denomination's head stressed that Southern Baptist are addressing the problem.

"Much is being done right now and much is being done on the local level," Southern Baptist Convention Frank Page told Baptist Press. "They did not want to include that because it would have tainted their piece."

Page had a roughly two-hour interview for ABC's 20/20 segment on "Preacher Predators" last Friday recognizing recent reported cases of sexual abuse by staff members in SBC churches. He said he does not believe the problem is "systemic and large-scale" but still expressed deep concern, saying even one instance of sexual abuse by a minister is too much.

While exposing several cases of molestation and abuse by local church ministers who moved from church to church, the ABC report left out what the denomination is doing to address the problem and featured only a few seconds of the interview, Page pointed out.

"I felt that it was an intentional slice-and-dice effort to portray the SBC and its president as uncaring and uninformed," he told Baptist Press. "It was more than a two-hour interview reduced to less than 60 seconds of choppy response. It was a prime example of yellow journalism, in which a broad brush was used and the whole truth was denied a fair hearing."

The segment did include "accurate assertions" of failed communication between local churches. "It is true that in some of those instances, abuse had occurred earlier at churches where those men had been previously employed," said D. August Boto, general counsel and vice president for convention policy with the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a statement on Monday.

At the same time, however, the report also had "the effect of misleading at least some of its viewers to believe that the Southern Baptist Convention somehow condones, hides or denies sexual offenses committed by ministers in SBC-affiliated churches," Boto added.

Prior to ABC's report, a network of formerly abused victims called SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) expressed concern over sex abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches and said it remains "unresponsive" to its calls to enforce accountability for the safety of children.

SNAP urged the SBC to establish an independent review board to hear molestation reports and institute a national zero-tolerance policy. Baptist leaders, however, have said because of the autonomy of local churches, the church body does not have the legal authority to create an independent board.

Boto affirmed on Monday that the Convention "does not control a church's employment of its ministers on any basis. A church is free to employ anyone it wishes as pastor."

Nevertheless, while clarifying that the SBC is not hiding behind their polity of the autonomy of the local church, Page said earlier the denomination will do "as much as possible' to assist the local churches on the issue.

He urged churches to require background checks, to develop written policy guidelines for the care of children, to have a system or policy in place to deal with any accusations made, and to utilize resources provided by the denomination.

The Southern Baptist Convention is examining the possibility of a national database of "preacher predators," according to Boto. But "any solution which is of no real benefit holds no appeal for us, especially if it operates to create a false sense of security as people depend on it," he added.

In most of the sex abuse cases that were reported, the perpetrators had no criminal record, thus a database of sex offenders would not have been of any help, Boto pointed out.

Despite dissatisfaction with the report, Boto sees a major benefit to the national airing of the segment on "Preacher Predators" – "that it significantly raised the level of apprehension and wariness among Southern Baptists who have responsibilities in qualifying volunteers and prospective employees."

"Significant impact in reducing instances of sexual abuse must start at the local level. The authority is there, the children are there, the applicants are there, the circumstances are understood better there, and the child's most motivated defenders are there – their parents."

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