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Southern Baptist Convention And Sexual Abuse


This week, Susan Codone traveled to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. She went there to share something that happened to her when she was a teenager. It started when she was playing a game of tether ball with her youth minister.


SUSAN CODONE: He wrapped the ball around the pole to the point that I was tied to the pole. He said, Susan, will you answer God's call? And will you help me in my ministry? And I said, yes. And he leaned over, and he kissed me.

KING: She's just one of hundreds of people who say they were sexually abused by leaders in their Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 or so years. The Southern Baptist Convention made that abuse a focal point at their annual meeting. I asked Susan Codone what it was like to be there.

CODONE: It was redemptive. It was restorative. It was something I've waited for a long time, and I was so very grateful to see the convention focus so much effort and resources on this issue.

KING: Redemptive and restorative - those are strong words. What made it feel that way?

CODONE: For me, it's been 35 years since my abuse occurred. And just to see the church come around and focus on this issue was redeeming. And so that's why I use the word redemptive. It was restorative in a way that it just restored my faith in the church to see the church stand so strongly with me on this.

KING: During the annual meeting, which you attended, SBC delegates voted for changes to the constitution and to the bylaws. These are meant to improve the process of investigating and, potentially, disciplining churches where there are complaints of sexual misconduct. Voting for changes to the constitution seems like a real step. But if churches are autonomous, is it a step in the right direction? Does it have any weight?

CODONE: It is a first step. It's an important first step because I know of several churches right now who still have recognized abusers on staff. If those churches don't dismiss and report those abusers, the convention now has a mechanism to, essentially, move them out of the convention. And so I see this as somewhat historic.

KING: The SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Council recently released a report about the depth of this crisis. And in that report, your testimony is the first thing. And there are some terrible details about the abuse you experienced as a teenager. How did you decide to be public about this in that way?

CODONE: Well, I contacted the advisory group after I learned that they were going to focus on the sexual abuse issue this year. I asked at the time if I could write some thoughts that I wanted to share with the church. And they said, of course. And I wanted to talk about what I thought the convention had not done well. We really had failed to use law enforcement and call the police. I felt like, more than anything, that we had inverted mercy of our justice. We had given mercy to abusers when that mercy wasn't ours to give. We had given forgiveness to abusers when that forgiveness wasn't asked to give. Mercy and forgiveness comes from the victims and from God.

I also feel like the church has had a catch and release policy for years in which we catch abusers in the act, and then we just release them quietly by dismissing them or firing them. And they're free to circulate among other churches and harm other people. And I also wanted to issue a call to action to the convention. I feel as though there's misunderstandings about the Southern Baptist Convention, that we're a group of 47,000 autonomous churches. Some people think that we can't really work together because of that autonomy. But in reality, we're the body of Christ. And in that collective fashion, we can solve these problems.

KING: What keeps people from calling the police?

CODONE: I think that there's a culture of seeing church leadership, especially pastors, as being above all other authorities. And I think we're seeing that beginning to change. Also, one of the root problems is that we call sexual abuse by different words. We say things like, well, he was, you know, just reacting to stress, or, that was a lapse in judgment, when in reality, what happened was a crime. And when we used the wrong words, people get misled. And so I think we have to use very clear, strong language that these are sexual crimes. And they must be prosecuted and, hopefully, jailed.

KING: How has all of this - this long journey that you've been on since you were a teenager - impacted your faith?

CODONE: My faith in God has never wavered. My faith in the church has wavered over the years, although I kept going because that's sort of the scaffold on which our faith rests. But my faith in the church has been strengthened incredibly over this last year as I've seen the church embrace this issue and, in a way, embrace me. And that's what I mean by it being restorative and redemptive.

KING: Susan Codone is a dean at Mercer University School of Medicine and a survivor of sexual abuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.