Sent to Dr. Frank Page, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and to Dr. Morris Chapman, President of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee
March 30, 2007
Dear Dr. Page and Dr. Chapman,
In the mid-1980s, I was a canon lawyer who attempted to warn Catholic bishops about the looming clergy sex abuse nightmare. My warning went largely unheeded until 2002, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops finally established the Office of Child and Youth Protection. By then, countless more kids had been severely wounded, families devastated and the Church itself was reeling from the extensive scandal.
I am concerned by what I fear may be developing as a similar pattern in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Clergy sex abuse is a scourge that knows no bounds of theology, denomination, or institutional structure. To effectively address this scourge requires a strong cooperative effort. Yet, in recent Baptist Press statements, I have seen that Southern Baptist leaders disclaim that possibility on the ground that the Southern Baptist Convention has "no authority" over autonomous churches. While the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is different from the congregational structure of Baptists, you should nevertheless realize that your "no authority" argument is actually quite analogous to what Catholic bishops were espousing prior to 2002.
To a large degree, a bishop considers himself as having dominion over his own diocese – i.e., as essentially being autonomous. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described it as an "extraordinary and unprecedented" step when they created the Office of Child and Youth Protection. Here are some of their published remarks:
"Much misunderstanding exists about the structure of the Catholic Church and the way in which it functions both nationally and internationally. The USCCB has no direct authority over any bishop or eparch in the United States, nor does it have an infrastructure that is interconnected with the management or operations of the country’s 194 dioceses and eparchies, each of which is civilly and canonically independent. In developing the Charter, the members of the USCCB recognized that without traditional oversight mechanisms, the accountability called for in the Charter would have to be established in a new way. Thus, the USCCB Office of Child and Youth Protection, created as part of the Charter and monitored by a National Review Board of lay Catholics, was charged with the task of developing appropriate audit mechanisms to ensure that all bishops and eparchs comply with the provisions of the Charter."
Thus, it would be a mistake to think that the structure of the Catholic Church inherently allowed for the creation of an oversight mechanism. Rather, it was the desperate need for a system of accountability that drove the creation of an oversight mechanism, and that mechanism was created outside the usual structure.
I have worked with a great many clergy abuse victims, and I know the horrible harm that it causes in their lives. I hope you will consider the possibility that, if children in Southern Baptist churches are to be made safer, accountability for Southern Baptist clergy may also need to be established "in a new way."
I was a military chaplain for many years and had the privilege of working side-by-side with many devoted chaplains from your denomination. I learned much from them about the Lord’s love and was consistently edified by their dedication to Christ and their zeal for his Gospel message. I hope they and other good ministers of the Lord in your denomination never have to endure the nightmare the Catholic Church finds itself in because of its institutional neglect of the Lord’s message.
I am writing not in a spirit of criticism but in a spirit of fraternal hope that you take pains to avoid the incredible harm to your Church that the Catholic Church did not avoid because of its arrogance and obsession with power and image.
I pray that the Lord Jesus guide your hearts that you may find a way to better protect children in the future and to help with healing for those wounded in the past.
Rev. Thomas Doyle
In reply, Southern Baptist president Frank Page wrote that, "while Catholic bishops did claim" to have "no authority," Baptist officials "truly have no authority." Here is Frank Page's response letter.
SNAP's press release about the letters