A network of sexual abuse victims' advocates originally set up to challenge the Catholic Church in the USA has started to pressure the president of the Southern Baptists, America's largest Protestant denomination, to take action against abusive ministers and elders in its ranks.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) this week presented a letter to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee members in Nashville, asking them to adopt a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy and to create an independent review board to investigate molestation reports.
But because Baptist churches operate on a congregational basis, hiring their own ministers and setting their own policy, unlike the hierarchical Catholic Church, SBC leaders say they are restricted when it comes to investigating such complaints.
Since mid-2006, SNAP, which is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, says that it has received reports of almost 40 cases of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist ministers, some dating back many years,
They claim the abuse is typically under-reported because being the experience of being molested is so painful that victims sometimes wait for many years before coming forward.
SBC president Frank Page denied any reluctance to act on their part, saying they are doing as much as their structures will allow: "We're deeply concerned about this. We believe children are the most precious gifts from God," he declared.
Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2002 urging its churches to discipline ministers guilty of sexual abuse and to cooperate with authorities in their prosecution.
But critics say ministers move from church to church without supervision, that the SBC has no list of abusers, and that there is no independent review process.
Several private prosecutions are currently in process. A number of child sex abuse cases have surfaced recently in Southern Baptist congregations.
A Baptist ‘mega church’ near Memphis, Tennessee, fired its long-serving minister in January 2007, after he acknowledged sexually abusing his son 17 years ago. The boy alleged a cover up within the church.
In another case, a former music and youth minister at a Baptist Church in Greenwood, Missouri, has pleaded guilty to molesting boys ages 12 to 16.
"They're allowing these men to go from church to church and they're not protecting the victims - they're protecting themselves," said a SNAP activist alleged this week. SBC deny such claims.
The Southern Baptists are an extremely conservative denomination, and a recent breakaway from them included ex-US President Jimmy Carter, who has been active in peace and justice causes since his defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The denomination’s members are also often fiercely anti-Catholic, adding to the irony of being pursued by a network of survivors originating in the Roman Catholic Church.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has a website at: http://www.snapnetwork.org/