Southern Baptists Trample the Rights of the Accused

Wall Street Journal [New York NY]

May 31, 2022

By Matthew Schmitz

America’s Catholic bishops also employed a self-serving standard, deeming nearly all sex-abuse claims credible.

Southern Baptists received a warning in 2007 from Fr. Thomas Doyle, a priest who had spent years drawing attention to claims of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. In a letter to the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Fr. Doyle warned that the denomination was headed for a similar reckoning—unless it acted quickly. Inaction would lead to the same “incredible harm to your Church that the Catholic Church did not avoid.”

Fr. Doyle’s warning went unheeded, a fact that Southern Baptist leaders must now regret. Last week a 288-page report on sex abuse commissioned by the convention charged its leaders with myriad failures over the past 20 years. Among other things, the report faults the convention’s leadership for dismissing Fr. Doyle’s invitation to “learn from Catholic mistakes.”

This is ironic. For if Southern Baptists follow the report’s recommendations, they will repeat one of the most grave mistakes that Catholic leaders made: ignoring the rights of the accused in a rush to restore their public image and minimize their liability.

On May 26, the convention made public an initial list of people it regards as credibly accused of sex abuse. Gene Besen, a lawyer for the convention, had urged publication of the document, noting that “promptly releasing that list is in our best interest.” This is a first step toward fulfilling one of the report’s central recommendations: the creation of an “offender information system,” an online database that would include people who have been “credibly accused” of sex abuse and those who have “aided and abetted” the credibly accused by failing to fire them.

The report defines as credible any accusation that is “not manifestly false or frivolous.” Under this standard, many false accusations would be deemed credible, including the one made by Potiphar’s wife. In the early days of #MeToo, an anonymously sourced Google document listing “s—y media men” destroyed reputations and careers based on unsubstantiated claims. If the Southern Baptist Convention follows the report’s recommendations, it will soon be publishing a list of s—y ministry men.

Once again, the Catholic experience provides a warning. After clergy sex abuse became a national story in 2002, Catholic bishops adopted the Dallas Charter, which promoted a “zero-tolerance” approach to sex abuse. As the eminent Catholic theologian Avery Dulles noted in 2004, accused priests were routinely described by dioceses as having been “removed from public ministry because of a credible accusation of sexual abuse of a minor.” Accusations were treated as credible as long as they weren’t “manifestly groundless.”

This approach ran counter to the Catholic Church’s stated commitment to human rights, Dulles argued. It defied the very principles the Church invoked when it offered critiques of the secular criminal justice system. And it “inflicted a serious blow to the credibility of the church.”

If once the Catholic Church had been too reluctant to address claims of abuse, it now was too quick to assume the guilt of the accused. Despite the apparent reversal, there was a deep continuity between the two approaches. Both served the interests of the bureaucracy. Both were intended to reduce work and minimize liability. Both sought to relieve Catholic bishops of the awful burden of judgment. What was presented as a new day in the life of the Church was in fact something much more ambiguous. Rather than undergo a moral transformation, the Church’s leadership adopted a more perfectly self-serving policy.

Twenty years later, Catholic bishops continue to pursue this approach. It is easy to understand why. Judging individual cases is costly and difficult. It takes time and money to gather evidence, and at the end of that process the truth of the matter will often remain obscure. Saint Augustine of Hippo, who himself judged cases as a Catholic bishop in the fifth century, lamented the difficulty of weighing accusations and evidence. It tore at his conscience to think that he sometimes might have punished an innocent man or disbelieved someone who was telling the truth. Human life remains “shrouded in darkness,” he wrote. Justice is blind not only because it aspires to impartiality, but because human judges can’t see all of reality. Nonetheless, the responsible man knows that “human society claims him as a judge,” and he doesn’t shrink from his unhappy duty.

Southern Baptist leaders now face a test. How they respond will determine whether they are more interested in avoiding bad publicity or in offering justice to accusers and accused. Ed Litton, the Southern Baptist Convention’s president, said in an interview with, “I believe this convention of churches has the capacity to change its culture . . . the trauma of what we’re seeing at this moment is waking people up to the need for culture change.”

One hopes he is right. But true transformation would mean rejecting self-serving policies—including some recommended by the report. Deeming men “credibly accused” simply because the accusation is not “manifestly false or frivolous” is no better than dismissing all claims of abuse. If the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t careful, it will soon have more to apologize for.

Mr. Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.