Institutional Child Sex Abuse… AGAIN

logo for the Southern Baptist Convention

logo for the Southern Baptist Convention

Just as with murder and other heinous crimes, I suppose that sexual abuse of children has probably gone on since the beginning of time. But there is also evidence to suggest that such abuse was institutionally committed and protected at least as far back as the 11th century. In 1051, Peter Damian, a Benedictine monk published Liber Gomorrhianus, in which he detailed sexual abuses of minors by Catholic clergy. We also know that such practices were common throughout history, including those reported by Martin Luther in 1531. In his book Out of the Storm: the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther, author Derek Wilson recounted Luther’s report about how Pope Leo X refused to restrict the number of boys that priests could keep for pleasure. Leo was also determined to keep this institutionalized sodomy from public scrutiny, a practice that many of his predecessors successfully continued until an inordinate number of victims began to come forward in this century. 

According to a study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, between 1950 and 2002, no less than 4,392 active priests and deacons were accused of sexual abuse by 10,667 victims. But the number of reported abuses kept growing with each passing year. According to records of the Holy See, in 2014, Silvano Maria Tomasi testified before a committee of the United Nations, reporting that between 2004 and 2014 alone, the church investigated 3,420 cases of sexual abuse of minors, resulting in 884 priests being demoted to lay positions. Three years later Pope Francis admitted the problem was so vast that the Vatican had a backlog of more than 2,000 cases of sex abuse by priests that needed to be investigated.

Just as the Catholic Church was finally having to deal with these horrific crimes and start to compensate victims, so too was the Boy Scouts of America, whose leadership had, for decades, kept the names of child sex abusers hidden from public view. In 2019, ABC News reported that as many as 12,254 boy scouts had been sexually abused by 7,819 troop leaders and volunteers. Then in 2021, NBC News reported that a total of 84,000 former boy scouts had joined a lawsuit against BSA, resulting in a settlement of $850 million dollars. 

Some news pundits wondered if scouting would survive the scandal, and if the Catholic Church was serious about transparency and reforms. Meanwhile, others of us hoped that the worst of these abuses and cover-ups was behind us. Then last month, the Associated Press published excerpts from a 288-page report by Guidepost Solutions, which claimed that two Southern Baptist Convention leaders (now retired) had maintained a secret list of “hundreds of pastors and other church-affiliated personnel who had been accused of sexual abuse.” SBC interim president Willie McLaurin immediately issued a public apology, saying, “We are sorry to the survivors for all we have done to cause pain and frustration. Now is the time to change the culture. We have to be proactive in our openness and transparency from now.”

McLaurin’s apology is a good first step, but we also need to bring to justice those who committed the abuses as well as those who covered them up. Meanwhile, no one knows for sure how many minors have been sexually molested by SBC employees, Scout leaders, or priests because not every victim reports the crime, plus, the number of those who do come forward is growing daily. What we do know, however, is that, according to the CDC, 91% of child sexual abuse is committed by someone who is known to and trusted by the child or the child’s family. The question now is, will victims ever again come to trust the institutions that caused them so much pain, and are those institutions serious about reforms that could help to rebuild that trust? I hope the answer to that question is “Yes.”


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