Thomas Reese on What Catholics and Southern Baptists Can Learn From Each Other About Sex Abuse Crisis

This collection of mug shots includes a portion of the 220 people who, since 1998, worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches and were convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published the first part of an investigative series on SBC abuse on Feb. 10, 2019. Screenshot from Chronicle website

Seventeen years after the Boston Globe exposé of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, two Texas newspapers have published a similar exposé of abuse in Southern Baptist churches.

Although the National Catholic Reporter had reported on sex abuse by priests since the mid-1980s, it was the Boston Globe reporting in 2002 that captured the attention of the nation. Likewise, there have been stories about Baptist ministers in the past, but they had not captured national attention like this month’s coverage by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.

The existence of clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention provides no satisfaction to us Catholics, but it does allow us to test our theories about the causes of abuse.

The Baptist scandal shows us that at least five explanations of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church don’t hold up:

  1. It is not celibacy. Many liberal critics tried to blame the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church on priests’ vow to abstain from sex, yet Baptists are having the same problem, and there is no equivalent requirement for SBC ministers. Most Baptist predators are married men. There are good reasons for married priests in the Catholic Church, but marriage does not prevent a man from abusing.
  2. It is not homosexuality. Many conservative critics tried to blame the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church on homosexual priests, but most of the Baptist ministers alleged to have committed abuse are heterosexual. Studies have also found that most of the priests abusing boys were heterosexual.
  3. It is not just the hierarchy. Most commentators, myself included, have quite rightly been very hard on the Catholic bishops for not dealing with abusive priests. But the SBC is very decentralized in governance, and it has also had problems. Neither governance structure has done well in dealing with abusive clergy or protecting children.
  4. It is not the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Many conservative Catholics tried to blame the sex abuse crisis on the reforms that came from the Second Vatican Council, the meeting of bishops from all over the world from 1962 to ’65 that attempted to update the church to deal with the modern world. Southern Baptists had no council, and they are having the same problems.
  5. It is not the lawyers. Many priests and bishops blame the crisis on lawyers who have gotten very rich from suing the Catholic Church on behalf of victims of abuse. So far, lawyers have not played a major role in the Southern Baptist crisis. Baptist finances are very decentralized. There are few deep pockets. There is little incentive for a lawyer to sue a small Baptist congregation. Survivors have come forward without lawyers, just as they did early in the Catholic crisis before episcopal stonewalling forced them to get lawyers.

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Source: Religion News Service