Clergy Sexual Abuse

‘Sexual abuse can happen in your church, too’: A Response by Suzii Paynter, Stephen Reeves and Pam Durso

We read yesterday with deep sadness the article in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reporting on their investigation of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. Our hearts break for the victims and survivors of this abuse and for the trauma that has been inflicted.  We are grateful for the bravery of survivors coming forward to share their stories, and we applaud the good work of investigative journalists, who have shed light on what has been a dark secret in so many Baptist churches.

Sadly, abuse is not confined to Southern Baptists. Sexual abuse happens in churches of every denomination, and it happens in Baptists churches of all affiliations. It happens in CBF churches.  The factors that make a church susceptible to abuse, including a culture of “niceness,” complete trust in pastoral authorities, and a lack of accountability, can be present in any congregations regardless of denominational affiliation.

Baptist congregational polity and local church autonomy, which we fiercely champion, can make a coordinated, effective response to the abuse more difficult, but polity must never be used as an excuse for inaction. We also know that no ecclesiastical structure has been sufficient to prevent abuse as has been evidenced by the recent history within the Catholic Church. The standard institutional response has been to consider it a risk matter. This stands in stark contrast to the biblical model of true assistance to a victim—the practice and example of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:30. The Samaritan extends care and seeks restoration of the victim, not risk mitigation. A denomination or church might consider risk, but a good Samaritan goes beyond assessing risk to generous restoration; if there are wounded ones (and we know there are) healing takes time and investment.

Three years ago the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Women in Ministry formed a Task Force on Clergy Sexual Misconduct in order to address the sexual abuse of adults. We formed this Task Force in honor of Dr. Diana Garland, whose groundbreaking work in researching the prevalence and causes of clergy sexual abuse guided our work and continues to challenge us to keep moving forward.  In these past few years, the Task Force has continued to be shaped by women. God-gifted leaders including CBF’s executive coordinator, Suzii Paynter, and CBF’s past-moderator, Shauw Chin Capps, have pushed us to action, and we are grateful for their voices and leadership. Research has shown that the presence of women in leadership roles reduces sexual harassment and abuse in the church and beyond.

From the beginning, our Task Force has intentionally listened to the voices and experiences of victims. We have survivors and family members of survivors serving on the Task Force. We have space for victims and survivors to share their stories—through confidential conversations and through our shared blog posts. Sadly, standard responses to reports of abuse from churches and denominational bodies often retraumatize victims and leave them feeling betrayed. No plan to address abuse is adequate without hearing victims and survivors and allowing their insights to influence the response.

We are fortunate that some of the foremost experts on clergy sexual abuse have lent their expertise to this work.  Dr. David Pooler of the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University has served on our Task Force and has shared his extensive research, including interviews with hundreds of victims. His guidance has been invaluable as we seek to equip churches to prevent and respond to abuse.  Our Task Force has also benefited from the expertise of its members, past and present: two attorneys, two pastors, four church staff members, four leaders trained in social work, two seminary professors, two leaders of CBF partner organizations, and one pastoral counselor.

As our Task Force continues to raise the visibility of clergy sexual abuse and to work to improve the response of institutions, we believe that the local congregation remains the best hope for preventing abuse, and we know that a cultural shift must happen in our churches so that sexual abuse will no longer be swept under the rug or ignored. Our contribution to this needed cultural shift are the resources we have produced in the last year, resources intended to educate churches and to equip them to be safe for all those who walk through their doors. Every church, every single church, has to be committed and vigilant. Every church must pay close attention to the possibility of abuse. The hard truth is that sexual abuse can happen in your church.

To churches struggling to respond or to know how to act responsibly, our Task Force is here to help. To our Southern Baptist sisters and brothers in these challenging days, we pledge our prayers, our assistance, and our support. As painful as these revelations are, we pray they are a turning point. These reported cases demand action. Sadness, even shame, is not adequate. We know that the task of responding is difficult. Confronting the reality of sexual abuse is never easy, but the gospel calls us to provide comfort, care, and resources for those who have been victimized and to create healthy, safe churches. The consequences of ignoring this call are too great and terrible. Silence is no longer an option.

Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Stephen K. Reeves
, associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Pam Durso, executive director, Baptist Women in Ministry.

The CBF/BWIM Task Force on Clergy Sexual Misconduct has prepared resources to help churches prevent and respond to clergy sexual abuse. Designed to be part of a one-hour program, Safe Churches is an educational video, leader guide and group discussion guide to help congregations navigate this difficult topic. The Prevention Policy Guideline assists churches in creating policies to establish a healthy environment and promote accountability. Resources are available at www.cbf.net/safechurches.

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