A Pennsylvania grand jury’s report alleging unprecedented levels of sexual abuse and cover-up by Roman Catholic clergy has drawn reaction from Southern Baptists.
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear said Southern Baptists should respond to the report by taking all steps necessary to eradicate sexual abuse “from within our community.” Commentators from two SBC seminaries noted both the unique ways Roman Catholic doctrine may have contributed to the alleged offenses and the ways evangelical Protestants likewise have shamed themselves through sexual misconduct.
The 900-page grand jury report, released Aug. 14, named more than 300 Catholic clergy members in Pennsylvania – though some names are redacted – who allegedly abused more than 1,000 victims over seven decades, beginning in the 1940s. The victims, “most of whom were boys,” were “brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all,” the report stated.
On a positive note, “much has changed over the last fifteen years” in the Catholic Church, according to the report, including better reporting to law enforcement by church officials and the establishment of “internal review processes.”
Yet “child abuse in the church has not yet disappeared,” according to the report. The grand jury charged two priests earlier in its investigation with sexual abuse.
Many of the accused priests are dead or their alleged crimes are beyond the state’s statute of limitations for prosecution, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Some accused clergy disputed the report’s allegations, and their responses were included in the report. A spokesman for one accused cardinal told The Inquirer the grand jury investigation involved a “flawed process” aimed “unwaveringly toward a predetermined result.”
Greear, who announced in July he would form a Sexual Abuse Prevention Study Group, told Baptist Press, “We grieve over this report from the grand jury. The safety and healing for victims is paramount.
“I also recognize that this is not an isolated problem. We must ask ourselves what bold steps need to be taken in eradicating this horrific sin from within our community. Over the last several weeks, I have heard from many advocates, victims, counselors, denominational leaders and legal experts and look forward to unveiling new steps that we as Southern Baptists can take together,” said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the grand jury’s allegations are “absolutely, undeniably horrifying.” The alleged longstanding cover-up of abuse may have been facilitated by Catholic doctrine and practice, he said.
“One of the reasons why the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, was able for so long to cover up these allegations and documented cases of abuse is because, after all, the Roman Catholic Church is built upon a hierarchy,” Mohler said Aug. 15 in his podcast The Briefing.
“Explanations of the scandal and its persistence must at least deal with certain questions of Roman Catholic theology, the existence and authority of what is called canon law, the culture of seminarian and priestly life and furthermore, the entire sacramental system and the magisterial authority claimed by the Roman Catholic Church.”
But the recent “humiliation to evangelical Protestantism” caused by sexual abuse and misconduct also must be addressed, Mohler said. He noted specifically turmoil at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, where the entire elder board, lead pastor Heather Larson and lead teaching pastor Steve Carter all resigned this month after confessing that leaders at the influential megachurch mishandled allegations of sexual misconduct against founding pastor Bill Hybels.
Hybels retired in April, six months ahead of schedule, amid accusations of a pattern of sexual misconduct. He denied the accusations. To date, 10 women have accused him of misconduct, and the church has admitted he “entered into areas of sin,” Christianity Today reported.
Southern Baptists also have been affected by allegations of sexual misconduct. Over the past six months, allegations have surfaced at Southern Baptist churches, at least one state Baptist convention and SBC entities.
At the SBC annual meeting in June, messengers addressed sexual abuse through motions, a resolution “on abuse” and questions to entity leaders.
A news release announcing Greear’s sexual abuse study group July 26, formed in partnership with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the group’s purpose “will be to consider how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernable action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse, as well as to foster safe environments within churches and institutions.”
Malcolm Yarnell, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who has written on Roman Catholicism, told BP the Catholic hierarchy may have “fostered an environment for abuse,” and “the Roman church’s extra-biblical and supra-local governing structure bears some responsibility for covering up such evil.” Yet “the free churches have their own systematic problem.”
While a “powerful” Catholic bishop may attempt to “cover up a minister’s deeds by silently and arbitrarily moving the alleged miscreant from one parish to another,” a “problem we face as free churches is that a deviant minister might move from one local church to another without the people in the new church becoming any wiser to the minister’s past misconduct,” Yarnell, research professor of systematic theology at Southwestern, said in written comments.
“If one church allows a minister to go without reporting an accusation to the appropriate child protection agency or to a police department, what is to keep another church informed about the deviant minister’s past? Without the first church reporting the problem, the second church may suffer a hidden evil,” Yarnell said.
“This is not to say that the free church structure is just as problematic as the Roman church structure,” Yarnell said. “It is more difficult for a cabal of people to hide sinfulness in a free church structure, especially in a congregational one. However, if an entire church culture is ignoring the problem of sexual abuse of the weak – whether of children or women – then a more biblical structure will not help stem the problem. The problem of the abuse of power, especially among those who are supposed to be holy, is one that all Christians, whatever their church, must address through education.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)