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Catholics And Southern Baptists Consider How To Respond To Sex Abuse In The Church

Jun 14, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 5:40 pm
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The two biggest Christian denominations in America, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, face damning revelations that some clergy members have sexually abused children and adults in their care. Coincidentally, leaders of both churches gathered this week to consider how to respond. NPR's Tom Gjelten has their parallel stories.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Neither the U.S. Catholic Church nor the Southern Baptist Convention could put off dealing with their problems any longer. With each new discovery of sex abuse in a house of worship and each report of authorities failing to respond, people leave. Membership in Catholic and Southern Baptist churches is down. In Birmingham, Ala., Pastor J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, stood before 8,000 church delegates this week and prayed for guidance.

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J D GREEAR: Father, we are brokenhearted and angry over the toleration and cover-up of abuse in churches that bear the name of your holy son, Jesus Christ.

GJELTEN: And in Baltimore, Catholic bishops from around the country met to go over yet another package of proposals to make them and their priests more accountable for their own behavior. A sense of urgency hung over that conference as well, at least for some attendees like Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Mo.

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SHAWN MCKNIGHT: We all feel the necessity of when we go home of being able to tell our people that we have done everything we are able to do to respond to this crisis.

GJELTEN: Though Southern Baptists and Catholics have very different faith traditions and worship styles, their clergy abuse stories are strikingly similar. David Clohessy has been a leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests for more than 30 years. This year, he stood with Baptist victims in Birmingham, sharing his ideas of what it generally takes to get church authorities to pay attention.

DAVID CLOHESSY: And my first suggestion was creating external pressure. Nothing makes a greater difference than criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, independent investigations and media exposes.

GJELTEN: Another parallel - in both cases, church leaders have repeatedly failed to report abusers to law enforcement, sometimes even allowing them to continue in ministry. The Southern Baptists in response moved to amend their constitution to make it easier to expel churches that don't act against abusers, and they resolved to ensure that civil laws like statutes of limitations not unduly protect perpetrators of sexual abuse or their enablers. Critics weren't impressed.

MARCI HAMILTON: As soon as they added the word unduly, it's pretty clear that they're really not interested in full transparency.

GJELTEN: Marci Hamilton leads the advocacy group Child USA.

HAMILTON: They're interested in the transparency that is forced on them by the legal system.

GJELTEN: At their conference, Catholic bishops approved a new accountability system. Though as critics note, it mainly involves the bishops policing themselves. The bishops did not require the involvement of laypeople in abuse investigations. Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, one of those who drafted the reforms, said such a requirement was not necessary.

ROBERT DEELEY: There's a false notion that somehow we're going to do something tomorrow that we haven't done up to now. We have already fulfilled that commitment. We're already working with the collaboration of laypeople.

GJELTEN: But the bishop's own advisory groups told the conference that that collaboration is insufficient. Both the Southern Baptist and Catholic churches have a patriarchal system. Only men can serve as pastors or priests. Critics say that leaves others - women and children - vulnerable. On that front, neither church has shown any sign of bending. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.