Sixteenth Street Shows Need for Baptist Cooperation on Sex Abuse

Stop Baptist Predators
April 21, 2009

The music minister at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was arrested and charged with sexual abuse of a high school student.

I felt heartbroken when I saw the news. I guess I still wanted to believe that there might be some church somewhere that would be immune to this scourge. But of course, there's not.

No church is immune, not even one as full of symbolism as this one.

Sixteenth Street is the church where four African-American girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. It became a focal point for rallying people in the fight against institutionalized racism, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke there on many occasions.

More recently, Sixteenth Street hosted the first regional meeting of the New Baptist Covenant on January 31, 2009. That's a new umbrella-style network of Baptist organizations who are trying to unite around social justice issues and to provide "greater opportunities for cooperation among Baptist ministries."

The largest Baptist organization -- the Southern Baptist Convention -- didn't choose to be part of the New Baptist Covenant. But more than 30 other Baptist organizations did.

Sometimes it's easy to forget how many Baptist organizations there are. I've written about quite a few of them, but I've focused most of my energy on the Southern Baptist Convention. After all, with 43,000 churches, they're by far the biggest group, and if they would only choose to do so, they could set a strong example for other Baptist groups.

But let's be clear about something. Despite my usual focus on the Southern Baptist Convention, it's not as if other Baptist groups are doing much about clergy sex abuse either. By and large, they're not, and that's a shame.

Though Baptists are often quick to make distinctions among themselves, I don't think the world at large notices much difference. After all, they all carry the "Baptist" brand. So, when people see a Baptist minister accused of child molestation, they don't ask whether he was a Cooperative Baptist or a National Baptist or a Southern Baptist. What most people see is simply that he was a "Baptist."

This reality should give all Baptists all the more reason to work cooperatively toward effectively addressing clergy sex abuse. Besides, Baptist ministers often migrate from one Baptist group to another.

Though the Baptist groups in the New Baptist Covenant may be smaller in number, maybe it's time for these other Baptist groups to unite in setting an example for the big guys at the Southern Baptist Convention.

In 2008, at the first-ever nation-wide gathering of the New Baptist Covenant, one of the speakers was William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA. He spoke of how Jesus "concretized" his mission by seeking to reverse the structures and situations that caused oppression.

"You can't embrace the mission of Jesus and not encounter the reality of injustice…. He came to change… Justice says we need to change the structures of victimization."

In Baptist circles, there can be no more "oppressed" group than those who have been wounded by Baptist clergy sex abuse. We are the lepers. We are the ones whom no one wants to see. We the ones whom Baptist leaders pass by, kicking their donkeys' dust in our faces, and leaving us to bleed in the dirt.

If Baptists want to "change the structures of victimization," they must change themselves. They must change a structure that uses "local church autonomy" as an excuse for leaders to do nothing when confronted with clergy sex abuse. They must change a structure whose institutionalized self-protection serves only to deepen the wounds of those who seek healing from clergy abuse committed in the past. They must change a structure whose institutionalized inertia betrays the safety of the next generation and assures that many more will be wounded in the future.

The road to change is the road of cooperation. It is the road of cooperation among all Baptists.

In truth, I think Baptists already know this. They know that Baptist cooperation is their best means for more effective ministry. But they haven't yet applied this knowledge to the reality of clergy sex abuse.

What Baptists desperately need is a cooperatively-funded review board to responsibly assess clergy abuse allegations, to inform people in the pews, and to keep records on credibly-accused clergy. So long as there are ministers with the "Baptist" name who sexually abuse the young, there should also be leaders with the "Baptist" name who will care enough to actually do something.

How I wish that Sixteenth Street might be the turn in the road for change in how Baptists handle clergy sex abuse.

It should be, because the opportunity to unite for change is now. Even as the news from Sixteenth Street weighs heavy, the New Baptist Covenant is having its next regional meeting this coming Friday and Saturday, April 24-25, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.