Friday, December 2, 2011

Prominent Baptists weigh in on culture of silence in sex abuse cases

In the last week, several leading Baptists have discussed the role of churches in concealing sex abuse.  In articles and comments to the media, many of these Baptists have referenced the developing Langworthy/Morrison Heights/Gunn story.    

Bob Allen, the managing editor of the Associated Baptist Press has followed this story closely.  In his November 22 article, Allen notes that churches are typically not the first reporters of sexual abuse.  Allen cites the situation at Morrison Heights as an example:
Much more recently, police in Clinton and Jackson, Miss., launched an investigation after John Langworthy confessed to “sexual indiscretions” committed decades earlier with younger males. A few weeks earlier Langworthy had resigned as longtime associate pastor of music and ministries of Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton. He now faces eight felony charges and is scheduled to stand trial April 2.
Church elders conducted their own investigation and resisted sharing what they learned with law enforcement, citing clergy-penitent privilege. After Langworthy’s confession, it became public that he was fired in 1989 over abuse allegations at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, but church leaders including future SBC president Jack Graham failed to report it to the police as required by law.
Graham has not commented publicly on the revelation. Greg Besler, senior pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church, was guest preacher for chapel at Southern Seminary on Oct. 25, one week after Langworthy pleaded not guilty in court. 
Allen points out that, “In light of the recent Penn State scandal, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler and Ethics and Religious Liberty head Richard Land have made public comments that it is imperative for Christians who suspect abuse to go immediately to the police.

In his Wednesday article “Church leader questioned about handling of sexual abuse allegation”, Allen explores Philip Gunn’s involvement in the Langworthy matter and closes the piece with this quote from Dr. Mohler, “We all know more than we knew before, and we are all responsible for that knowledge.  The costs of acting wrongly in such a situation, or acting inadequately, are written across today’s headlines and the moral conscience of the nation.  The tragedy of Penn State is teaching the entire nation a lesson it dare not fail to learn.”

In another Wednesday article, the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Peter Smith explored the call of numerous Baptist leaders for the immediate reporting of all information pertaining to sexual abuse to law enforcement. 

In an op-ed piece by Christa Brown that was recently published by the Associated Baptist Press, Brown says that preaching about reporting is not enough:
Just as internal reporting is not enough, neither is it enough for denominational authorities to simply preach to local churches about reporting to the police. To pretend otherwise is an abdication of institutional responsibility and an abandonment of moral responsibility.
In the real world, Southern Baptist churches are rarely the first party to report child sex abuse by clergy to the police. The fact that churches typically don’t report their pastors is what often allows the limitations period to run so that criminal prosecution becomes impossible.
This reality must be dealt with, and preaching about it isn’t enough. There must be institutional consequences for church leaders who don’t report child sex abuse and for churches that engage in keep-it-quiet cover-ups.
And no one -- no one -- should be above scrutiny.
This means that even high honchos such as former Southern Baptist president Jack Graham should be subjected to scrutiny. With Graham at the helm, leaders of the 27,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church failed to report child sex abuse allegations against one of its ministers, allowing the man to move on to other churches and placing other kids at risk. That minister now faces child sex charges in Mississippi.
The Southern Baptist Convention should follow the example of Penn State and engage a team of independent outside professionals to conduct an internal investigation of how and why allegations of child sex crimes were kept quiet at one of its most prominent and powerful churches. How did the system allow for such an abysmal failure, and how should the system be restructured to make such failures less likely?
After dealing with Prestonwood, the SBC should then use the team to establish an independent denominational review board with the power to receive, assess and track clergy abuse allegations, and to investigate other accounts of church cover-ups.
Accountability systems are essential for child safety, and accountability systems require outsiders.
Brown is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang, and the blogger over at Stop Baptist Predators.

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