Think piece on SBC sex abuse scandal: What Baptists and Catholics can learn from each other


In today’s San Antonio Express-News, there’s a front-page story on Southern Baptist leaders promising reforms after a bombshell newspaper investigation into sex abuse within that denomination.

In a three-part series last week, the Express-News and its sister newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, revealed that more than 700 people had been molested by Southern Baptist pastors, church employees and volunteers over a span of two decades. (See our previous analysis of the Texas papers’ reporting here, here and here.)

Sadly, the Baptists aren’t the only religious group making sex abuse headlines this weekend: On the same Express-News front page, there’s the breaking news — via the New York Times — of Pope Francis’ decision to expel Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., from the priesthood:

As noted by the Times, the decision announced by the Vatican on Saturday “came after the Catholic Church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades.” My GetReligion colleagues Terry Mattingly and Julia Duin have been following the McCarrick story for months. Look for additional commentary this week.

But since this is Sunday, when we like to delve into think-piece territory, I wanted to call attention to a Religion News Service column by Jesuit priest Thomas Reese that seems especially timely in light of today’s headlines.

In the column, Reese writes about “What Catholics and Southern Baptists can learn from each other about sex abuse crisis.”

Reese’s big question: How can Southern Baptists — freshly embroiled in scandal — avoid making the same mistakes that Catholics did?

He offers five key pieces of advice:

1. Don’t think it is going to blow over. When victims come forward and scandal erupts, it is just beginning, not ending. As bad as the reports in the Texas newspapers sound, this is the tip of the iceberg. After the Boston Globe exposé, several thousand more victims came forward to tell their stories. Victims get angry and empowered by seeing stories of abuse survivors. There is every reason to believe that the current media coverage of abuse in Southern Baptist churches will stimulate more survivors to come forward. Get ready.

2. Report all accusations of abuse to the police. Abuse is not just a sin, it is a crime. Don’t think it can be dealt with internally by the church.

3. Adopt and implement a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive clergy. Christians are supposed to be forgiving, but that does not mean returning abusive men to ministry. No one has a right to be a minister. No one is indispensable. The protection of children is paramount.

4. Establish a system for transparent and credible investigations of clergy accused of abuse. I don’t know enough about the governance of the SBC to recommend a procedure, but I can tell you that leaving it to the other clergymen or members of the accused’s congregation will not work.

5. Put the victims first. In every discussion, the central issue should be what will help the survivors of abuse in healing and recovery. The reputation of the church, the rehabilitation of the minister, church finances, and the possibility of scandal must give way to the priority of helping the victims.

Reese’s entire column is worth your time.

Go ahead and read it all.

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