HARRISBURG, Pa. (BP)—Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear said a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report alleging unprecedented levels of sexual abuse and cover-up by Roman Catholic clergy should prompt Baptists to take all steps necessary to eradicate sexual abuse “from within our community.”
The 900-page report, released Aug. 14, named more than 300 Catholic clergy members in Pennsylvania—although 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.
The report noted “much has changed over the last 15 years” in the Catholic Church, 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.”
‘This is not an isolated problem’
“We grieve over this report from the grand jury. The safety and healing for victims is paramount,” said Greear, who announced in July he would form a Sexual Abuse Prevention Study Group.
“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.
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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 SBC 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.”
‘Free churches have their own systemic problem’
Malcolm Yarnell, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor who has written on Roman Catholicism, said 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,” Yarnell added.
While a 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,” he 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.”