When the Church is the Criminal

Did you read the Houston Chronicle’s series of reports about the systemic sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches? It’s a stunning bit of investigative journalism uncovering more than a hundred cases of sexual abuse by church leaders and the cover up by the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t know if the church breeds monsters or if monsters understand the church will give them cover and opportunity. Whatever it is, it’s clear that too many churches work harder to protect their image than to protect their youngest and most vulnerable parishioners. It’s criminal.

Churches aren’t safe places for young people.

We’ve spent decades hearing reports of abuses in the Catholic church. Priests rape children. They rape nuns. They force the women they impregnate to get abortions. And when their crimes are discovered, they get shuffled off to another church where they start fresh with a new batch of victims. I think a lot of people believe Catholic priests become predators because the church requires them to be celibate. This latest report about predators in the Southern Baptist church ought to dispel that notion.

The truth is, churches are not a safe place for children. I’m not saying children shouldn’t go to church with their parents, but I am saying that no child should ever be entrusted to a church leader. No child should ever be left alone or in small groups with a pastor or a youth pastor or a priest. The risks are too great. And church leaders refuse to mitigate the risks. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention rejected a plan to keep track of credible abuse accusations against serial predators, because they didn’t want to interfere in church autonomy. Shame on the Southern Baptist Convention. If that’s not pure evil, I don’t know what is.

We need to stop treating churches like sacred entities and start treating them like businesses. It’s what they are. Churches should pay taxes. Church finances, hiring, and employment practices need to be subject to the same laws and oversight as any other business. Church predation is not an American problem, but we should do what we can to fix the problem in America. We need to stop shielding religious institutions from the consequences of law. If one church fires a predator and then gives that same predator a glowing recommendation for his next church job, both churches should be shuttered and sanctioned, and the church leaders should face prosecution. Church leaders who protect predatory pastors or deacons or youth pastors ought to face jail time. We need to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds religious institutions. We need to demand transparency and accountability at every level of religious hierarchy.

The men exposed by the Houston Chronicle investigation and the leaders who sheltered those men may someday be judged by the higher power they claim to represent. That’s not enough for me. I want them all judged by a jury of their peers. And I believe the people and systems that make the crime possible are every bit as guilty as the men who commit the crimes. Those people and those systems should be torn down and stripped of power. Freedom of religion should not be invoked as permission to protect predators. Criminals and those who enable them should not be allowed to hide behind the cloak of religion.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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Tiffany Quay Tyson