The country’s largest Protestant denomination has been embroiled in a battle royal for several years. At last, it has decided to make public the names of clergy and personnel who have been accused of sexually abusing youth. Ministers at the highest level of the denomination, equivalent to Catholic cardinals and bishops, are expected to be on the list.
Southern Baptists comprise the second largest Christian communion in the United States, only behind Catholics in the number of people attending their churches. They are significantly influential in all sectors. Many Baptists serve in Congress, among them prominent U.S. senators, including Lindsey Graham, (R.-South Carolina) and Ted Cruz, (R.-Texas). Two living former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, are from the Baptist tradition.
Southern Baptists operate 57 colleges and universities, many secondary and elementary schools, and a network of major hospitals, coast to coast, serving, and hiring, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Americans.
Important for Baptists are foreign missions. A major focus is historically Catholic South America. A Brazilian bishop, whose diocese is in the orbit of the great city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, told this columnist that half of the people listed in his parishes only a decade ago are Southern Baptists today. Many Hispanic Americans are joining Baptist congregations.
So, news of Southern Baptists is news.
Some observers of American religion think that the Baptist list will match, or exceed, in breadth and cover-up what has angered and humiliated Catholics for a generation.
(As an aside, not infrequently heard, in and out of Catholic circles, is that aggravating the problem in the Catholic Church has been priestly celibacy and too much same-gender sexual attraction among priests. Well, 99% of the accused Southern Baptist perpetrators are men married to women, and almost all are fathers.)
Because of long, determined and still evident resistance within the denomination to addressing cases of abuse publicly, and assertively, much work will be needed to repair what has occurred and to develop policies to prevent future cases. Since the Baptist disgraces, in too many American minds, religion itself, and religious values, Catholics should wish well Baptist efforts to find remedies.
Overall, the bright light piercing the dark clouds is that, everywhere, authorities, and rank and file, want action. Finally, finally, physicians define pedophilia as gravely injuring victims. Legislators are enacting laws. Police are responding. If Catholics take satisfaction in anything, it should be in the fact that Catholic leaders, popes on down, have moved to right the wrongs.
The problem is not Catholic, Baptist or even religious. For example, the story and scope of abuse in the Boy Scouts of America is heartbreaking. So are the figures for public schools, to say nothing of incest and unreported cases.
Something is wrong, badly wrong, across Western civilization, not just in these named groups, but in attitudes.
Overwhelming traditional Christian culture, whether it be the United States, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Canada, France or Chile, is the trend to yield to anything desired, repudiate all hesitation, regard personal gratification as everything, and judge sexuality simply as individual entertainment.
Sex exploitation of the vulnerable is one manifestation of a larger problem. People engage in physical intimacy, routinely, often rejecting commitment in marriage outright. Divorce is epidemic. So many cases involve infidelity. Lewdness fills everyday discourse and certainly the performing arts.
When did this process begin? Maybe it began 90 years ago with easy divorce, which Our Sunday Visitor’s founder, Archbishop John F. Noll, fought valiantly. Others say it started when, in the mid-1930s, major Protestant denominations accepted artificial contraception. Perhaps the Second World War, and adjustments in its aftermath, played a role, as have modern communications.
Whatever, Western culture is morally adrift. Witness the fury lately displayed when restrictions on abortion in this country were suggested. Moral standards mean little.
It is to be expected, the invariable result of forgetting Almighty God.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.