The independent report acknowledging hundreds of instances of sexual abuse by pastors, employees, and volunteers of the Southern Baptist Convention has the nation’s largest Protestant denomination reeling. And judging from the initial reactions of SBC leaders, it has little idea of how to handle what might come next, even as it prepares for its annual meeting in June.
But anyone who has observed the experience of the Catholic Church over the past twenty years might be able to predict what the coming months and years will bring. True, differences in ecclesial organization will make for fundamentally different questions and determinations about culpability, liability, and reform. Significantly, the legal landscape is very different today—largely because of changes brought about by the Catholic abuse scandals. But Southern Baptists have arrived at a moment that will completely absorb their denomination for a decade or more, threatening its moral and financial foundations.
I was twenty-two when I moved to Boston in December 2002, the day after the Vatican announced that Pope John Paul II had accepted Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation. At the time, I could not have named a single U.S. Catholic bishop. Only vaguely aware of the scandal in Boston and other dioceses and clueless about its scale, I was struck by the Boston Globe’s massive headline, CARDINAL LAW RESIGNS, under a red “special edition” banner across the top of the front page. During my eighteen months in Boston, I followed the trial of John Geoghan, the disgraced priest who would soon be murdered in prison. I noted that Law’s replacement, Sean O’Malley, had some experience leading dioceses through sex abuse scandals, most recently in my native Florida. But I completed my studies in what now seems like stunning isolation from the heartbreak, distrust, and crises of faith unfolding around me.
And despite being theologically schooled and savvy, my own views on the phenomenon of clergy sex abuse were mistaken and careless. I believed, essentially, that some Catholics priests did this because they had to be celibate, that evangelicals did not because they were allowed to marry, and that abuse was unlikely in mainline Protestant settings because we had women in leadership and were infinitely more sexually and ethically enlightened. How wrong I was.
But what strikes me, looking back, is how little Christian groups have learned from each other’s experience. The Catholic Church, at long last and often too slowly, has implemented meaningful reforms to deal with offenders and make abuse less likely. Its mistakes, even after the scope of the abuse was known, were extremely costly and delayed necessary processes of confession, penance, justice, restitution, and restoration of trust. The lives devastated and years wasted—with weak statements, legal stonewalling, palpable denial, and cruelty to victims—reopened old wounds and created new ones. If any denomination can avoid these mistakes, it should.
The investigation into the SBC, which resulted in a 288-page report compiled by a firm with a faith-based division, almost never happened. The convention’s standing administrative arm, the Executive Committee, nearly thwarted it in a flurry of procedural motions at the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville last summer. But amid a growing perception that the Committee had erred grievously in its handling of reports of sex abuse, delegates (known as “messengers”) appointed the task force that ultimately hired Guidepost Solutions LLC to conduct the inquiry.