SBC pres­i­dent gets blunt on sex­ual abuse. What now?

The Saline Courier Weekend - - OPINION - TERRY MATTINGLY

For decades, South­ern Bap­tist lead­ers rolled their eyes when­ever there were head­lines about clergy sex­ual abuse cases.

That was -- wink, wink -- a Catholic thing linked to celi­bate priests.

Then there were those main­line Protes­tants, and even some evan­gel­i­cals, who mod­ern­ized their teach­ings on mar­riage and sex. No won­der they were hav­ing prob­lems.

This was a pow­er­ful, un­bib­li­cal myth that helped South­ern Bap­tists ig­nore their own preda­tors, said South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion Pres­i­dent J.D. Greear dur­ing a re­cent na­tional con­fer­ence. The event was hosted by the de­nom­i­na­tion’s Ethics & Re­li­gious Lib­erty Com­mis­sion and the new SBC Sex­ual Abuse Ad­vi­sory Group.

“The dan­ger of this myth is that it is naive: It rel­e­gates abuse to an ide­o­log­i­cal prob­lem, when it should be most prop­erly seen as a de­prav­ity prob­lem . ... It fails to rec­og­nize that wher­ever peo­ple ex­ist in power with­out ac­count­abil­ity, abuse will fos­ter,” said Greear, pas­tor of the Sum­mit

Church near Raleigh­durham, North

Carolina.

“What part of so­ci­ety has not been af­fected? It hap­pens on Wall

Street, in Hol­ly­wood, on Capi­tol Hill, in aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, sports pro­grams, Catholic and Protes­tant churches, lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive,” he added. “I want to say some­thing as an evan­gel­i­cal to evan­gel­i­cals: We evan­gel­i­cals should have known this. Didn’t Je­sus say there would be wolves in sheep’s cloth­ing that would come into the flock in or­der not to serve the flock, but to abuse the flock?”

The shame­ful truth, said Greear, is that vic­tims in­side Amer­ica’s largest Protes­tant flock tried, in re­cent decades, to awaken SBC lead­ers. Then alarms sounded last Fe­bru­ary, when the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle and the San An­to­nio Ex­press-news re­vealed that sev­eral hun­dred South­ern

Bap­tist lead­ers and vol­un­teers had been ac­cused of sex­ual abuse, with 700-plus vic­tims.

This cre­ated an­other myth: that these news re­ports marked the be­gin­ning of the cri­sis. Some South­ern Bap­tists, said Greear, also sug­gested that vic­tims should learn to prac­tice for­give­ness, im­ply­ing that their cries for jus­tice were “at­tacks from ad­ver­saries, in­stead of warn­ings from friends.”

The SBC pres­i­dent be­came emo­tional at this point: “It’s wrong to cat­e­go­rize some­one as ‘just bit­ter’ be­cause they raised their voice when their im­por­tant warn­ings were not heeded. Anger is an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse -- a BIB­LI­CAL re­sponse -- in that cir­cum­stance . ... It is dou­bly bad when we use their anger to sim­ply reaf­firm our myths.”

The ul­ti­mate ques­tion is whether SBC lead­ers have the au­thor­ity to force lo­cal churches to take these is­sues se­ri­ously. For cen­turies, Bap­tists have stressed the au­ton­omy of in­di­vid­ual con­gre­ga­tions when deal­ing with is­sues of doc­trine and dis­ci­pline. Lo­cal churches or­dain, hire and fire their own clergy -- pe­riod.

“It will take no small amount of courage to con­front the cri­sis of abuse amidst ram­pant skep­ti­cism,” said na­tion­ally known Bi­ble teacher Beth Moore, a child­hood sex­ual abuse sur­vivor who spoke dur­ing the con­fer­ence. “The skep­ti­cism is fair, be­cause talk is cheap. We earned dis­trust, and now we must take the long road of earn­ing trust and walk for­ward in a pos­ture of hu­mil­ity. It will take much courage not only to re­sist de­fen­sive­ness, but to re­sist de­flec­tion. If we are cow­ards, the gen­er­a­tion com­ing up be­hind us will ei­ther de­spise us or be like us.”

There is no ques­tion, Greear ad­mit­ted, that sex­ual abuse has hurt the church and its mis­sion. Polling by Life­way Re­search found that 1 in 10 be­liev­ers un­der the age of 35 who had fled SBC churches said they did so be­cause they “felt abuse had not been taken se­ri­ously.”

Why did so many South­ern Bap­tists look the other way? Far too many lead­ers em­braced other myths, said Greear. Some ar­gued that church lead­ers should han­dle ac­cu­sa­tions pri­vately, keep­ing scan­dals out of the pub­lic eye. Some claimed that scrip­ture for­bids us­ing sec­u­lar laws to pun­ish stray­ing be­liev­ers. Greear probed that myth verse by verse, con­clud­ing that, if “we are deal­ing with a crim­i­nal is­sue, we dis­obey scrip­ture in not get­ting the au­thor­i­ties in­volved.”

Some South­ern Bap­tists have even ar­gued that a few hun­dred abuse cases isn’t that big of a prob­lem in a de­nom­i­na­tion with nearly 15 mil­lion mem­bers and thou­sands of pas­tors and church work­ers.

Once again, Greear was blunt: “What if one of those sta­tis­tics in­volved your son? What if one of those data points was your daugh­ter? Doesn’t Je­sus leave the 90 and nine to pro­tect the ONE?”

Terry Mattingly is the ed­i­tor of Ge­tre­li­gion.org and Se­nior Fel­low for Me­dia and Re­li­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee.

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