Clergy from various denominations are urging the head of the Southern Baptist Convention to reconsider the "harsh rhetoric" he has expressed toward a group of clergy abuse victims who have pushed for more response against sexual abuse.
In a letter sent to Dr. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, on Thursday, 10 clergy members from the Catholic, Presbyterian, United Methodist and Southern Baptist churches said survivor groups such as SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) are not out to attack the church.
"Survivor groups like SNAP would not need to exist if church and denominational leaders responded in truth and acted with wisdom and compassion to address this great challenge of clergy sexual abuse," the letter stated.
The letter was in response to Page's comments that were published in April regarding the increasing public attention on cases of clergy abuse in SBC churches. An ABC report on the matter had featured SNAP which has in recent months expressed concern over sex abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches and made a couple of recommendations to the denomination, such as instituting a national zero-tolerance policy. SNAP members, however, have found the SBC to be "unresponsive."
"We have been very poorly received by Southern Baptist officials," said SNAP's national director, David Clohessy of St. Louis.
SBC leaders explained that the local churches are autonomous and that the church body does not have the legal authority to control a church's employment of its ministers. But acknowledging that there have been several reported abuse cases, Page said the denomination will do "as much as possible" to assist the local churches. He called every local church to step up its protection of children and youth and to prosecute those who take advantage of the trust of children.
"Even one instance of sexual molestation is one too many," he said.
While expressing gratitude for the attention that has heightened the level of awareness among SBC churches, Page went on to note that "there are groups who claim to be one thing when in reality they are another."
"It would be great if the many groups who are claiming to be groups of advocacy and encouragement in ministry were that which they claim. Please be aware that there are groups that are nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain," he said in his released statement, according to Florida Baptist Witness.
Clergy members in the letter believe Page's "very negative comments" were directed toward SNAP and called it "sad" and "disappointing."
"Your comments ... are misguided and misinformed," clergy members told Page in the letter as they defended SNAP as a self-help group that works "tirelessly" to comfort the hurt and educate the public.
"You may not agree with all of their methods or their particular requests, but to question their motives and assume ill will seems inappropriate for the leader of a religious body."
Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre, a Southern Baptist ordained minister and associate professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology, said there was no gain for him to have signed the letter. But he stated, "I signed it as an issue of justice and am disappointed that Dr. Page dismissed child abuse by questioning the integrity of those bringing the issue to light."
The issue of clergy sex abuse was brought up at SBC's annual meeting last month when thousands of representatives from SBC churches around the country, called "messengers," unanimously passed a resolution expressing moral outrage and concern and urging the utilization of resources to protect children.
De La Torre doesn't believe a resolution is enough.
"SBC leadership in general and Dr. Page in particular need to clearly state that zero tolerance exists for child abuse," he commented. "Furthermore, zero tolerance is measured by what is done, not what is said. Resolutions are meaningless words unless specific actions are being taken."
Action has already begun in some Southern Baptist regional bodies. The Louisiana Baptist Convention recently posted a link on its website directing visitors to Child Guard Systems – a Texas-based company that offers a comprehensive child protection program for churches. And the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) posted last month a list of registered sex offenders who were on staff at its affiliated churches and announced that it will also create a list of offenders who are currently serving in its churches.
"The BGCT is concerned about the problem of clergy sexual misconduct, and we care deeply about its victims," said Emily Prevost, associate coordinator of leader research and product development in BGCT Congregational Leadership Team.
In the letter to Page, church leaders have asked the Southern Baptist head to consider meeting with the SNAP leadership to come up with "effective remedies" that will provide help and healing for clergy sex abuse victims.
The following are clergy who signed the letter:
Fr. Gary R. Hayes
Pastor, St. Alphonsus Catholic Church
Owensboro, KYand Survivor of clergy sexual abuse by two Roman Catholic priests
Rev. Dr. Michael Granzen
Moderator of Elizabeth Presbytery,
Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church
Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre
Associate Professor of Social Ethics &
Director of the Justice and Peace Institute
Iliff School of Theology
Rev. Karl Harman, PhD (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary)
Pastor of Dallas Center United Methodist Church
Rev. Mark J. Powell
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christian Theological Seminary
Rev. Aaron Turner
Minister of Worship
New Beginnings Baptist Church (SBC-affiliated)
Rev. John Harrison
Ordained Southern Baptist minister, retired
Rev. Gene Scarborough
Ordained Southern Baptist minister, retired
Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
William H. Edwards