Mo. Attorney General Urged to Investigate Baptists - Word&Way

Mo. Attorney General Urged to Investigate Baptists

press conference outside MBC headquarters
press conference outside MBC headquarters

Cheryl Summers of “For Such a Time as This Rally” (right) calls for a state investigation of Baptist clergy while standing in front of the Missouri Baptist Convention headquarters on Feb. 26, alongside advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Groups that advocate for the survivors of clergy sexual abuse called on Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to investigate clergy in the Missouri Baptist Convention for sexual abuse or misconduct — as he already has done with the Catholic Church. In a Feb. 26 rally outside the MBC’s headquarters in Jefferson City, advocates from two different groups addressed a specific case as they called for more proactive actions to weed out abusers and those who enable abusers.

“Sexual violence happens when those who commit or conceal it escape consequences. We fear that’s what’s happening now, in part, because of the Missouri Baptist Convention,” explained Cheryl Summers, an advocate with “For Such A Time as This Rally” that advocates for abuse victims within the Southern Baptist Convention. “When wrongdoing or alleged wrongdoing is ignored or rewarded, more people are apt to do wrong.”

Summers and “For Such a Time as This Rally” were joined at the Feb. 26 event by members of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a group formed in 1989 to draw attention to clergy misconduct within the Catholic Church. SNAP has 12,000 members in more than 50 nations, and it also advocates for victims in other religious traditions.

The event was held two days after MBC leaders defended a pastor, Mike Roy, accused by police of not properly handling a case of a staff member sexually abusing boys. Summers’s group recently brought attention to the 2005 conviction of Shawn Davies for sexual abuse charges stemming from allegations involving at least 13 boys at four churches. At the time of his arrest, Davies served as music and youth minister at First Baptist Church in Greenwood, Missouri, where Roy served as pastor. According to news reports at the time, police accused Roy of not being cooperative and allowing Davies to continue working at the church around children for four months after police notified Roy of the investigation.

After learning of the allegations against Roy, Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, announced Feb. 22 it would investigate the claims since Roy had recently joined the school’s Board of Trustees. Roy was among five trustees chosen by the MBC’s Nominating Committee after that committee rejected nominees by SBU and misled MBC messengers about the nomination process. MBC leaders then attacked SBU for investigating the claims, which sparked the Feb. 26 event to urge the state’s Attorney General to investigate abuse by Missouri Baptist clergy in general.

Summers argued that leaving Roy on the SBU Board would send the wrong message to students and victims of abuse.

“Appearances matter. They matter especially to already distrustful and still suffering victims of sexual assault, abuse and violence,” she explained. “We fear that Roy’s presence on the college’s board will hurt in two ways. First, it may well discourage or deter one or more teenagers or young adults who were hurt at SBU from reporting the crimes. Second, it will rub salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of Davies’s victims.”

Over the past two years, attorneys general in at least 22 states opened investigations into sexual abuse and misconduct claims against Catholic priests, sparked by a grand jury report in Pennsylvania following a two-year investigation launched by that state’s attorney general. Then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launched the next such investigation in 2018, followed by states including Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, and New York. After Hawley’s election to the U.S. Senate that year, Schmitt took over the investigation after his appointment as attorney general by Governor Mike Parson, a Southern Baptist.

Schmitt, a Catholic, issued a 329-page report in September after investigating more than 2,000 priests in the state since 1945. His report announced “credible allegations” of sexual abuse or misconduct by 163 Catholic priests and deacons. Of those, 83 had already died, and the statue of limitations had ended on another 46. His office referred 12 former clergy members to local authorities for “potential criminal prosecution,” and offered recommendations to the Catholic Church for preventing future abuse. Some clergy were identified as abusers for the first time, and charges have been filed in cases as a result of the investigation.

As states finish inquiries into clergy abuse among Catholics — the largest faith group in 36 states — Southern Baptists could be the next target as the second-largest denomination in the country. Southern Baptists are the largest faith group in 10 states — including some where Catholics are being investigated — and the second-largest in another six (including Missouri).

Like the Catholic Church, whose clergy abuse scandal emerged in large part due to the reporting of the Boston Globe, the issue has become a top priority for the SBC after news reports. In Feb. 2019, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found 220 Southern Baptist church staff members and volunteers — including Davies — who were convicted or pled guilty in cases of sexual abuse or misconduct from 1998-2018. The database sparked news across the country, resulted in dozens of more cases being reported, and led the SBC to launch efforts to prevent sexual abuse and punish churches that condone leaders guilty of sexual abuse. On Feb. 18, the SBC’s Executive Committee voted for the first time to remove a church from the SBC because of sexual abuse charges.

In addition to calling on Schmitt to launch an inquiry, the Feb. 26 rally included calls on SBU to remove Roy and to “submit the investigation process to a third party, independent group” like the one founded by Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of the late Baptist evangelist Billy Graham.