AUSTIN, Texas — A book released in advance of the June 23-24 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention claims the nation's largest Protestant faith group has more than 100,000 clergy, but no effective system of denominational oversight to protect children from sexual abuse.
This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang is a combination memoir and exposé written by Christa Brown, an anti-clergy-sex-abuse activist.
Brown tells her own story of being sexually abused by a youth minister at the Texas Southern Baptist church of her childhood and how years later as an adult she met a bureaucratic response when trying to warn denominational officials there might be a sexual predator in their midst.
At other times, she says, he berated her for allowing herself to be used by Satan to tempt him. One day she broke down during a piano lesson with the music minister at the same church, telling him she was afraid she was going to hell.
A few weeks later the alleged perpetrator left her church — moving on to a larger Southern Baptist congregation where he would earn more money — departing to praise for his service as a man of God. She was instructed to apologize to the minister's wife for "seducing" her husband — which she did — and told it would be best for all concerned if she never talked about it.
Brown says she is lucky compared to many survivors of clergy sex abuse. With counseling, she managed move on to what she described as a strong marriage, a loving husband and a good daughter. But when her daughter was 16, Brown said, she ran across something that reminded her of what was going on with her when she was that age. As a mother she asked herself how she would feel if she found out the same things she experienced at age 16 were being done to her daughter by an adult person of trust.
Due to statutes of limitations, too much time had passed for Brown to file criminal charges, but she says she assumed SBC leaders would want to be made aware there might be a sexual predator working in one of their churches.
At first, she says, she received assurances that there was no record of her alleged perpetrator still being in the ministry and that it was likely word of his past had made it through the system and stopped him from moving from church to church, thus forcing him to leave the ministry.
Later, however, she found him on her own, and learned that not only was he on staff of a prominent Southern Baptist church in Florida, but that he was working with children. She found further he had long connections with some of the highest leaders in the SBC.
Brown wrote 18 Baptist leaders of churches and denominational agencies in four states informing them about substantiated allegations of sexual abuse, but the man remained in ministry. Eventually she went to the media. After the Orlando Sentinel, ignoring threat of a lawsuit, reported his name, he finally resigned the ministry and took a secular job.
Brown says she thought that would be the end of it, but after writing about the experience in a guest opinion article published by the Dallas Morning News, she began receiving e-mails from others with similar stories of silencing victims and passing the buck.
Brown and other SNAP representatives contacted SBC leaders asking for dialogue about the possibility of establishing an independent review board to receive allegations of abuse against ministers, evaluate if they are credible and make findings available to local churches.
A messenger to the SBC annual meeting made a motion to consider such a panel. But after studying it for a year the denomination's Executive Committee said the idea was not feasible because of the convention's tradition of autonomy of the local church. Brown calls it a "do-nothing" response.
Brown says the public often views sexual abuse by clergy as a Catholic problem, but it affects all denominations. She says Southern Baptists, with their bottom-up governance in which local churches decide on calling their own ministers with or without input from regional and national bodies, are particularly susceptible to manipulation by sexual predators.
"Other faith groups now have review boards to assess clergy-abuse reports," she writes. "In fact, that's how most clergy wind up being removed from ministry. They lose their jobs, not because they're criminally convicted of abuse, but because a denominational review process concludes that they should no longer be allowed to work in a position of high trust as a minister."
Brown says Southern Baptists don't have such a review process, and, also unlike other groups, there is no Baptist policy of even providing a bare-bones counseling stipend for clergy-abuse victims.
Brown says abuse is not only physically, psychologically and emotionally devastating, but — when it involves clergy — is spiritually annihilating. She calls it "soul murder."
"When faith has been used as a weapon, it becomes almost impossible to use it as a resource for healing," she says.
Brown says she finds no comfort when people try to console her that her abuse was part of God's will and her predestined purpose. Without realizing it, she says, they mimic the rhetoric of her abuser. She also says it strikes her as "a very hateful view of God" to imagine he would ordain for children to be raped so they can some day advance his will.
Brown says as a kid she wanted to be like Lottie Moon, a famous missionary to China, but she never imagined she might come to view Southern Baptists themselves as sort of a mission field.
Whether or not Baptist leaders ever "convert," she says it is still important that abuse survivors' stories be told.
"Silence perpetuates shame, and it is not our shame to bear," she concludes. "We give power back to ourselves in speaking our stories, and we refuse to cede power to evil."
"The evil resides not only in the monstrous acts of the ministers who commit such foul deeds, but perhaps even more so in a denominational system that allows their foul deeds to be so easily ignored."
Sing Oldham, vice president for convention relations with the SBC Executive Committee, said Southern Baptists agree that sexual abuse is "a horrible sin" causing great harm and that convention leaders encourage and equip local churches to develop policies to safeguard children in their care.
Oldham, who has not seen the book, said regardless of Brown's assessments of the SBC's polity or actions, he will be pleased if her book helps raise awareness in churches about prevention of clergy sex abuse.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.