SNAP leader terms $12.5 million abuse award against Florida Baptist Convention historic

The head of a network for survivors of clergy sex abuse says the local-church autonomy defense used by the Southern Baptist Convention in lawsuits involving Baptist churches may be unraveling.

By Bob Allen

The head of a group that fought for changes in the Catholic Church in light of the pedophile priest scandal termed a $12.5 million judgment against the Florida Baptist Convention historic.

David ClohessyDavid Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said despite “widespread” child sex crimes by Baptist ministers, relatively few civil lawsuits have been filed against Baptist churches.

That is beginning to change, he said, thanks in part to “brave individuals” like the unidentified man in his 20s who claimed a church planter recruited and resourced by the state convention sexually abused him when he was 13.

In 2012 a Florida jury found the state convention liable for not properly screening church planter Douglas Myers, now in prison in Maryland after serving seven years in Florida. While a criminal background check on Myers showed no prior convictions, members of his previous two churches said he left under suspicion and if asked they would have recommended against hiring him.

On Jan. 18 a second jury ordered the Florida Baptist Convention to pay the victim $12.5 million in damages, one of the largest judgments in Florida and thought to be the first ever against a statewide affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Clohessy, an abuse survivor who testified before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, said like the Catholic bishops, Baptist officials “have erected strong walls of secrecy, deceit, denial and legal defense to protect their jobs and reputations in clergy sex abuse cases.”

“And just like Catholic bishops, Baptist officials are slowly but surely seeing those walls being demolished by brave victims, smart lawyers, determined prosecutors and compassionate juries,” Clohessy said. “The self-serving claim by Baptists that every church is independent so no one can be held responsible for ignoring or concealing child sex crimes is on its way out.”

Despite having the designation “priests” in their acronym, SNAP claims 15,000 members monitoring abuse in Protestant denominations and even in civic organizations like youth athletics and the Boy Scouts.

In October Clohessy criticized Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson’s blanket assertion that Christians should not take internal church disputes to the media. Last May Clohessy shamed Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler for publicly supporting a ministry colleague accused of complicity in a high-profile sexual abuse lawsuit.

Clohessy applauded the young man in Florida for having the courage to come forward and seek justice.

“We believe others who have been sexually assaulted as children by Baptist ministers and rebuffed as adults by Baptist officials will be inspired by this victim's courage and this jury's compassion to come forward, get help, expose wrongdoers, protect kids and start healing,” Clohessy said.

The Florida Baptist Convention is planning to appeal the judgment, and the convention’s attorney of record says he remains confident it will be overturned, in part because the 2012 jury agreed that Myers was never an employee of the state convention.

Previous stories:

Lawyer: Abuse verdict possible game-changer

Florida Baptists to appeal abuse award

Advocate says SBC leader gives bad advice

Evangelicals behind Catholics on abuse

SNAP leader shames Mahaney supporters