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OPINION

Protestants must step up anti-sex abuse efforts

By SUSAN CODONE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 29, 2019

Many Protestants have expressed righteous sadness at the sexual crimes in the faith traditions around us, namely the Catholic Church, while remaining indifferent to similar crimes within our congregations. We believe our churches are safer. We are wrong.

I know this from personal experience. Both my youth minister and pastor sexually abused me in my Southern Baptist church near Birmingham, Ala, in the mid-1980s, trapping me with spiritual threats and intimidation.

The lack of concern in Protestant churches rests on the faulty logic that, by virtue of not having a celibate priesthood, Protestants are more protected than our Catholic friends. This helps pave the wide road by which predatory ministers, staff members, volunteers and members within Protestant churches groom and abuse children. These abusers are like the Old Testament god Molech, lying in wait with a rapacious hunger for the sacrifice of both children’s innocence and their trust in God.

Unchecked crimes of sexual abuse in the Protestant church include red flags and shrugged shoulders that kill the spirit of young believers and damage the cause of Christ.

My youth minister began sexually abusing me when I was 14, after telling me that God was “calling” me to help him in his ministry. He groomed me, abused me and threatened me for over a year. When I could not tolerate the abuse any longer, I went to the only other person at my church that I thought could help — my pastor.

My pastor blamed me, fired my youth minister and began abusing me. The church fired him after discovering his affair with my Sunday School teacher. These staggering crimes went unreported because of the chokehold of fear the two men held on my life. Both men, Molechs themselves, moved on to work in paid, full-time positions at other Southern Baptist churches for years.

With the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements in the forefront, the Southern Baptist Convention has moved to try to prevent these crimes. In June 2019, at its annual meeting in Birmingham, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination voted to change its constitution to expel churches that do not report abuse. It also unveiled the report of the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, in which I wrote an opening statement. I also told my story during a panel discussion with SBC leaders.

The SBC also rolled out a free curriculum, Caring Well, intended to equip its 47,000 churches to recognize abuse, report predators and care for those who have been abused. These are first steps to slay the Molechs in our midst.

Yet the danger remains. Recent reports, such as by the SBC advisory group and the series on sexual abuse in the Houston Chronicle, found that sexual predators are drawn toward Protestant churches, especially smaller, less-resourced ones. Where else can they find such loosely guarded groups of children and teenagers? Where else can they gain employment without comprehensive criminal background checks? Where else can they work or volunteer mostly unsupervised, with few safeguards?

Moreover, where else are there so few women in senior leadership positions? It is not lost on me that the institutions with the most reports of sexual abuse, among them the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and most of our Protestant churches, are the institutions with the smallest footprint of women in leadership. For instance, I should have been able to reach out to a female leader on staff about my own abuse. It is time we consider this dynamic. Jesus prioritized women differently, and we should as well. Our youngest members will be safer.

I ask that churches take the following steps. Conduct background checks on all employees and volunteers who work with children and teenagers. Develop security policies. Supervise everyone who works with youth. Train church members to recognize and report abuse. Know your state’s mandatory reporting laws. Report predators to the police immediately; do not try to deal with these crimes within your church. Refer those harmed to outside experts.

Churches must care for attendees who experienced sexual abuse and other trauma. Many of our churches are not a refuge for the wounded. Many of us have had to check our baggage at the door, and a troubling number turned around and carried those bags back home, never unpacking them.

As a hopeful survivor, I believe that when Protestant churches reckon with the sexual abuse in our midst and become a protected place of restoration and redemption for survivors, trust in the church could rise again. But reckoning precedes restoration and revival.

Susan Codone is the senior associate dean of academic affairs at the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga.

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