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Churches must do more to stop abuse

After lengthy investigations by two Texas newspapers, it is clear that sexual abuse is not a problem for one particular faith or another. It infects them all.

Though the Catholic Church has been under the microscope more often, other faiths and denominations are experiencing their own wake-up calls to the prevalence of predators in pews and pulpits.

The newspapers’ reporting shows that churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., too often refused to take sexual assault seriously. Hundreds of Southern Baptist pastors and staff have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties. More than 700 victims were identified.

The SBC apologized to the victims at its recent meeting in Alabama. “We are broken-hearted and angry,” said the Rev. J.D. Greear, president of SBC. “Give us the courage to make the changes that genuine repentance requires.”

Just like with the scandals plaguing the Catholic Church, it’s the cover-up of the abuse that is particularly troubling. Pastors and staff who had been accused of abuse were allowed to resign without consequences, and many took jobs at other SBC churches and found new victims.

Churches were ill-equipped to prevent sexual abuse. They were even more inept at dealing with abuse once it was discovered.

Hopefully, that will change. SBC delegates approved measures aimed at combating sex abuse by pastors and staff.  One provision establishes a permanent committee to review allegations of abuse at member churches and recommend action if warranted, The Associated Press reported. Two other proposals, if ratified again next year, would specify that churches could be expelled from the denomination for mishandling cases of sexual abuse or racial discrimination.

Those measures are good steps, but more must be done. Individual churches should create policies requiring background checks for anyone who volunteers with minors. Churches can no longer rely solely on word of mouth and community knowledge to screen volunteers.

Some SBC churches also require a waiting period after someone expresses interest in volunteering. That period allows churches to thoroughly vet those who volunteer with children. It’s a good idea that more churches — of all faiths — should adopt.

No policy can prevent all abuses, but churches should do what they can — that starts with background checks.