Many Churches Haven't Been Vigilant, Southern Baptist Official Says
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is a reckoning afoot in the Southern Baptist Convention. It's the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., and it's now in the middle of a sex abuse crisis. This week, the Houston Chronicle published a comprehensive investigation that counts more than 700 victims of abuse by church leaders over the last two decades.
ROBERT DOWNEN: There was a huge diversity, both in the abuse type, the age of victims. But virtually all of the victims were children.
MARTIN: That's Robert Downen, one of the reporters on that investigation. While there have been high-profile and individual sex abuse allegations against Southern Baptist leaders in the past, the Houston Chronicle report lays out just how widespread the abuse has been.
DOWNEN: What knowledge exactly leaders had, I don't know. But I think that it's pretty fair to say that this stuff was out there. And there was a group of vocal people who were basically yelling as loud as they could that this was a crisis.
MARTIN: To find out how church leaders are responding to the results of this investigation, I spoke with Russell Moore. He heads the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
RUSSELL MOORE: It's shocking and scandalous, and it's a real crisis.
MARTIN: So how could this kind of abuse go on for so many years in so many different congregations?
MOORE: Well, there are a number of reasons and none of them good - and none of them excusable. One of the things that's happened is that a church, which is supposed to be and should be the safest place in the world for vulnerable people, has often been a place where predators believe that they can hide. And unfortunately, too many churches have either had the understanding that these sorts of things couldn't happen to them because they're churches and haven't been vigilant. And churches that have taken a wrongheaded and unbiblical view of grace to believe that somehow that means an excusing of predatory behavior or of not seeing the role of the civil authorities in reporting right away. There are so many horrific reasons behind this happening.
MARTIN: So you're suggesting that internally, each church - which has a lot of autonomy - even if they were aware of the allegations, they may have put religious doctrine and religious notions of forgiveness over accountability.
MOORE: Well, I think in many cases, there was an understanding of forgiveness and grace and reconciliation that doesn't match up with what the Bible teaches. Jesus never, in any place, excuses the harming of vulnerable people and children and others. And so this is a human crisis, and it's also a theological crisis.
MARTIN: The Houston Chronicle, as part of the report, says church officials did know, were encouraged to make reforms and were not interested in doing so. Do you know why?
MOORE: Often, church autonomy has been used as an excuse for a lack of accountability. Our polity does make this harder because each church is independent, and a church doesn't answer to a bishop or anyone above us. But that doesn't mean that there aren't things that can and should and must be done. And so that means that the hard work has to be done to see how that can happen, not to use church autonomy as an excuse.
MARTIN: So what are some practical steps that churches and the broader Southern Baptist Convention can take in this moment? It's one thing to say, this is a sin; this is an outrage. How do you make sure it doesn't happen again?
MOORE: Well, there are a number of steps. One of those has to do with training churches to know how to respond when there is a case or a suspicion of a case. That has to do with also training ministers at the very front end of their ministries, and we're working with seminaries and universities to do that. And then there has to be a way to connect churches to one another to know when there has been an incident or an allegation of abuse happening at another church to prevent someone from simply moving from one church to the other under cover of darkness.
MARTIN: The Houston Chronicle says in its report that at least one accused sex abuse offender remains to this day in his church position. Do you think that should be the case?
MOORE: Absolutely not. I think that in every case, someone who is a sex offender should not only be removed from any ministry leadership and disciplined by a local congregation but should also be handed over to the civil authorities.
MARTIN: Does that mean you will follow up on the Houston Chronicle's reporting and try to pass that message down to the local church?
MOORE: Yes. If I have any inkling as to who this is, I'll call the congregation directly.
MARTIN: Do you see parallels to what's happening within the Southern Baptist Convention and the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church?
MOORE: Yes, I do because both are a crisis of credibility. Someone should know that when they step into a church, that they're in a place that is going to be safe and a place that is going to be advocating the most strongly for those who are the most vulnerable. And so there very much is a parallel there. What I hope is that what happens out of that is genuine reform that will ensure that the next generation of people don't have to face these questions at all.
MARTIN: Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Moore, thank you for your time.
MOORE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.