Baptists Urge Abuse Awareness

The Courier-Journal
November 14, 2007

KENTUCKY — The state's largest religious body is urging its churches to take sweeping steps to prevent sexual abuse in its congregations — an action that an advocate for victims calls a good first step but fails to enact other needed policies.

The Kentucky Baptist Convention approved a resolution yesterday that urges churches to increase their awareness of the issue and to obtain professional background checks on all staff members and volunteers who work with minors. The resolution (seen on page 4 of this link) came a day after the convention's executive Mission Board adopted a more detailed report calling for such policies.

The convention also says it will use ads, news stories, direct mail and training sessions to educate churches about the threat of sexual abuse and how to detect it.

Peter Smith

And it has brokered a deal with Protect My Ministry, a company that does background screening, to give Kentucky Baptist churches reduced rates for checks of potential workers.

"Churches are more than wanting to deal with this, but they don't always know how," said Robert Reeves, director of communications for the Baptist group. "That's where the convention can play a role in helping them do what they want to do."

The Kentucky convention also considered a proposal to create a registry of sexual abusers in the ministry but decided against it, saying that its registry could create a "false sense of security" because it may not be up to date, and it would be difficult to decide what to do with accusations that haven't been confirmed in court.

But professional background checkers could use existing public registries of sex offenders, and the convention plans to provide links on its Web site for churches to use such registries themselves, Reeves said.

Peter Smith has covered religion for The Courier-Journal since 2000. He'll be blogging about religion and spirituality and how they intersect with our ethics, our work, our schools, our government and other areas of our lives.

He has more than 20 years of experience as a journalist and also worked on the "God beat" as a correspondent for Religion News Service in North America and Europe, where he wrote about papal trips and the revival of religion in the former communist bloc.

He has received awards in reporting from the American Academy of Religion, the Religion Communicators Council and the Louisville chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a graduate of Oral Roberts University and is studying for a master's of arts in religion at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The resolution follows growing attention to incidents of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the national affiliate of the Kentucky convention and which is also considering establishing a registry.

While the Roman Catholic Church underwent a massive crisis in 2002 following revelations of a widespread cover-up of sexual abusers in in the priesthood, it's not alone. News reports and court cases have revealed numerous other instances of cover-up of abuse among Baptist and other religious denominations.

The Kentucky convention's new policy also urges churches to establish safeguards for counseling by ministers and others in church-based settings — seeking to curb sexual misconduct by therapists with vulnerable clients.

It's also urging polices for Internet use on church computers, reflecting growing concern about the use of Internet pornography by Christians.

The report to the Mission Board states:

    "Despite the sex abuse scandals experienced by the Roman Catholic Church and news media attention given to troubling examples of abuse having taken place in evangelical churches as well, some churches may feel they are not vulnerable.

    "Comments such as: 'It won't happen to us,' 'We are just a small congregation and know all of our people,' 'That kind of thing doesn't happen here,' may reflect a lack of awareness of the potential hazard facing a church.

    "Volunteer-hungry churches are also especially sensitive to doing anything they feel may offend a potential volunteer or church member."

Convention president Bill Henard, who served on a committee that prepared the recommendations, said it was important to find ways to prevent abuse.

"If it's only one child who's been abused, it's one child too many," he said.

Christa Brown of the group SNAP Baptist — which advocates for victims of abuse by Baptist clergy and works with the Catholic group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — said the convention could go further.

Most sex crimes against children never result in a court conviction that would place someone on a registry, said Brown, who said she was sexually abused by a Southern Baptist minister when she was a child and that the man remained in the ministry even though another minister knew of his actions.

Brown added that Baptist associations and conventions should have a process where someone can report abuse "within the faith community," even years after the fact.

"Until they (victims) are received with compassion and with some system in place for allowing that, other steps will never be adequate," she said.

She said that because Baptist churches are self-governing, victims who report abuse to these larger bodies are told to bring their allegations to the congregation where the abuse allegedly occurred — and often meet a hostile reaction from those who know and admire the accused.

"Even to those who are skeptical of whether a registry or whether a review board could serve a preventive function (should decide) what Christian and moral response should be made to wounded people who bring forth these allegations," she said.

A convention or association review board could respond compassionately to the victim and report its findings to the congregation, she said.

She cited the recent decision of the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of churches that have cut or loosened ties to the Southern Baptist Convention, to adopt a policy for investigating abuse allegations.

"That is certainly what I would urge the Kentucky Baptist organization to do — look at that Alabama policy and ask themselves why they can't do something like that," Brown said.


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