by Morgan Montalvo
A University of Texas at San Antonio professor who studies the effects of sexual assault on victims says confronting, rather than concealing, the problems behind the Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse scandal will help victims cope with their experiences, develop institutional practices to minimize future incidents, seek justice, and restore confidence among the faithful, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
Prof. M.Candace Christensen, who teaches social work in UTSA's School of Public Policy and studies sexual violence and response on college campuses, says the recent Southern Baptist scandal shares characteristics with similar widespread criminal misconduct in the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Jewish sect, the workplace and schools: exploitation of victims by authority figures who look for vulnerabilities among potential targets.
Christensen says because of the public's view of religion as a cornerstone of humanity, there can be extraordinary pressures on victims to remain silent.
"It becomes sort of the snag in the quilt where, if they come forward and report, the fear is that he whole belief system - the whole system of faith - will unravel," says Christensen,"and so there's a lot of pressure to just sit on it and to not rock the boat."
Over the past two decades nearly 400 Southern Baptist clergy, congregational leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual assault, abuse or related misconduct. About 250 have been charged with criminal offenses. The number of victims exceeds 700 as Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant sect in the United States, recoil from a barrage of internal criticism and media exposure.
Now, says Christensen, is the time for the denomination to enact substantive, lasting change.
"I actually would encourage the church to look at generating practices that create a safe space for survivors to tell their stories, where they won't be punished, they won't be blamed, where it is a way of reconciling and experiencing justice - and also giving survivors the freedom to not come forward if they don't want to," Christensen says.
Allowing victims to choose between pursuing their attackers through the criminal justice system, accusing them publicly in the church setting, or remaining silent, she says, is not meant to protect offenders, but to empower victims and avoid further trauma.
Christensen also says often the most effective crisis-related changes are driven bottom-up, in this case by congregants, rather than by denominational hierarchy whose interests in protecting the organization or its power structure might outweigh the needs of the at-large membership.
Critics contend that the Southern Baptist sex abuse scandal was exacerbated by the sect's policy of congregational autonomy, which allows member churches to handle their own staffing with little to no denominational or governing body oversight.
PHOTO: UTSA social work professor Dr. M. Candace Christensen, who studies sexual violence and response on college campises, urges a forthright approach as the Southern Baptist Convention deals with a widening sex abuse scandal. Photo courtesy UTSA