NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Churches must act decisively against sexual abuse by clergy

New revelations have once again shamed our churches due to sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the failure of leadership to deal with the crimes properly.

On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News released the first of a three-part series from their investigation into sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. A team of journalists found about 380 SBC church leaders and workers who were accused of sexual misconduct against more than 700 victims since 1998.

The newspapers also reported that victims have accused past SBC presidents and prominent church leaders of concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their churches or seminaries.

Last August a 900-page grand jury report was released accusing senior Roman Catholic Church officials of covering up complaints about some 300 priests in Pennsylvania who molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.

In September, an article in the Washington Post revealed that Protestant churches across the country are also failing to protect victims of sexual abuse among their members.

Next to the often-irreparable harm done to victims, as we have written here before, the outrageous truth is that clergymen often get away with sexual abuse because victims, their families and church leaders are reluctant to say anything.

Churches are supposed to teach us how to live by Jesus’ example. Sexual abuse by members of the clergy affect the community of faith — whether Catholic or Protestant — as well as the secular world, and when they are exposed they must not be denied, ignored or silenced.

But the evidence has shown the failures by evangelicals to report sexual abuse within the church, to respond appropriately to victims and to change the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place. So wrote former evangelical pastor Joshua Pease in the September Washington Post article entitled “The Sin of Silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church.”

The Houston Chronicle-San Antonio Express News investigation not only uncovered a shocking number of abusers and their victims, but also, writes Relevant magazine, “a chilling pattern of church authorities scrambling to discredit the accusers, protect the attackers, rebuff attempts to involve local law enforcement and, in several cases, continue to employ known abusers.”

Six of the 220 known abusers convicted or forced to register as sex offenders who are included in the Chronicle’s new database are from Indiana, but none from Allen County.

Throughout Sunday’s article, church leaders blame church autonomy — the practice of letting SBC churches police themselves — as the reason they haven’t taken action against the abusers.

But that excuse must no longer be accepted. Churches have an incredible responsibility to be above the norm in dealing with sin. How can their message of forgiveness and redemption hold any meaning to those who have been victimized by the leaders they trust to teach them?

In response to the article, recently inducted SBC president J.D. Greear tweeted a response, expressing remorse and promising to address the crisis.

“There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable,” he wrote. “The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists. The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity toward abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing: to obey Christ–in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse.”