What Southern Baptists can learn from the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Pennsylvania

August 17, 2018

Editors note: The following article contains graphic details of a sexual nature related to sexual abuse and assault. Please read with discretion.

A Pennsylvania Catholic priest raped a young girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. Bishop James Timlin wrote a letter of sympathy after this traumatic situation. He said, “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” But the bishop’s letter was not directed to the traumatized girl. It was actually sent to the priest.

This and many other horrific stories have emerged in the wake of a wide-ranging 884-page grand jury report that documents hundreds of cases of sexual assault and abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania since the 1940s.

At the 2018 SBC annual meeting, I stood on the floor of the convention to make a motion that the newly elected SBC president appoint a group to assess and address issues related to sexual abuse amongst Southern Baptists. Last month, SBC president J.D. Greear announced the formation of a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group in connection with this motion. The purpose of the group is to evaluate how the #MeToo moment facing Southern Baptists can be turned into a movement that results in lasting change.

As Southern Baptists commit to studying this issue for the next year, what can we learn from the Pennsylvania Catholic sexual abuse crisis?

First, it exposes the trauma of victims in a way that should drive us to compassionate ministry. The lingering effects of abuse, especially at the hands of clergy, cannot be overlooked or minimized. An adult victim who was one of five siblings abused as children by a priest “suffered a panic attack in the grand jury suite” after testifying about her experience. Several months later, she attempted suicide. Another victim “was so violently raped when he was 7 years old that he suffered injuries to his spine. [He] became addicted to pain medication, and eventually overdosed and died.”

The trauma that victims experience is not only caused by the abuse but amplified when deep wounds are reopened as they have to deal with the trauma later on. As one 37-year-old victim put it, “It's very lonely. Especially when it's your word against God's." You can hear the despair in her voice as you read those words. The place that should have been the safest turned out to be, for her, the most dangerous.

The report reveals the dangers inherent in the instinct to cover up sin and criminal activity. It declares, “All victims were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid scandal.”

Unless Southern Baptists approach issues of assault and abuse by prioritizing the care of victims, then we will not be able to effectively address the issue.

Unless Southern Baptists approach issues of assault and abuse by prioritizing the care of victims, then we will not be able to effectively address the issue.

Second, it exposes how the root of sexual trauma is not just the abuse of people but also the abuse of power. This manifested itself in several ways. There was abuse of power through the use of authority. As the report states, “Priests were raping little boys and girls and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing: they hid it all.” Clergy used their status to gain favor, groom targets, then guard themselves.

Then, there was abuse of power through the use of language. For example, “A priest's removal was explained to his fellow clergymen as him being ‘sick’ or having ‘nervous exhaustion.’" Likewise, they used euphemisms to describe sexual assaults, with the report documenting instructions to "never say 'rape'; say 'inappropriate contact' or 'boundary issues.'" Rather than call this abuse what it was—heinous sin and a clear crime—church leaders leveraged their power to blunt the fall out through the misuse of language.

There was also abuse of power through the use of spiritual justification. The report notes that a “young girl was raped by a number of priests who later told her that this was God's way of showing love." Another boy was “made to pose naked as Jesus while other priests took pornographic pictures.” The details are gut-wrenching and soul crushing. Clergy used their power to convince victims that what happened to them was not bad. But they went further than that. Clergy used their power to spiritually justify how the abuse was actually good.

If Southern Baptists want to make strides in addressing these issues, we must recognize how trauma stems from both the abuse of sex and the abuse of power.

Third, it exposes how a broken system can amplify individual injustice. The particular examples of abuse are heartbreaking enough, but it is also alarming how the ecclesiastical and legal systems empowered and protected predators. For instance, there was a “ring of predatory priests” in the 1970s “who shared intelligence about their victims and sometimes even the victims themselves.” Instead of holding their peers accountable, these priests actually leveraged their relationships to advance abusive activity.

The church, furthermore, simply relocated these abusers to other parishes much of the time. The report notes, “Diocesan administrators, including the Bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and yet priests were regularly placed in ministry after the Diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made. This conduct enabled offenders and endangered the welfare of children.” Instead of protecting victims from priests, they protected priests from prosecution.

Shamefully, church leaders often protected the offenders rather than report the crimes. In one case, a priest admitted to molesting approximately three dozen boys. “Despite the admissions and a clinical diagnosis of pedophilia, the priest was then transferred to another diocese in Pennsylvania where his bizarre sexual fixation continued.” The report notes the long, difficult path to lasting change: "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all . . . Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal."

In addition, church leaders often manipulated the legal system to enable their cover up. The report observes that administrators and Bishops “often dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid an investigation, or conducted their own deficient, biased investigations without reporting crimes against children to the proper authorities.” The problem wasn’t just the broken victims of abuse; it was also the broken system that empowered and protected predators.

As Southern Baptists seek to engage the subject of abuse, we must address potential issues at both the individual and systemic level.

This tragic report reads like an extended manifestation of Romans 1 perversity. Lack of compassion for victims. Abuse of power. A broken system. These are the major takeaways from the grand jury report on the Pennsylvania Catholic sexual abuse scandal. As Southern Baptists grapple with the depth of this perversity, it should cause us to seek the Lord to help us flee from sin and walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. What does it profit our churches if we get it right on sexual abuse but wrong on our own pursuit of personal holiness? We must do both. And as we embark on our efforts to address this issue, we must learn from the missteps of others and have an unwavering commitment to protect the vulnerable and never tolerate any form of abuse.

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24