Today brought another news story about the ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis: “A Southern Baptist leader hid decades of abuse. Will his fall doom SBC abuse reforms?” Why should Unitarian Universalists pay attention to this? Because we can learn a great deal from what’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Like the Southern Baptists, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a history of sex abuse. (Nor are we alone: nearly every American institution, from schools to sports to health care to entertainment, has its own history of abuse.) I’ve mostly heard allegations about male UU ministers and lay leaders targeting women over the age of 18. But I’ve also heard allegations about powerful men targeting legal minors.
And like the Southern Baptists, we have a decentralized structure. Each local congregation is theoretically autonomous. If a local congregation wants to hire a minister who’s known to have a history of abuse, there’s no way to stop them.
From today’s news story, it appears that the Southern Baptists have used their decentralized structure to avoid taking responsibility for dealing with their sex abuse crisis:
“…Southern Baptist leaders boast of their power to spread the gospel but take little responsibility when things go wrong. And local congregations have little power to fix things that are broken on a national level. ‘The beauty of SBC is that we’re local and autonomous,’ said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC Executive Committee, recently. ‘The challenge is, we’re local and autonomous.”
A lawsuit against Paul Pressler, one of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders over the past fifty years, alleges that Southern Baptist leaders might talk about local autonomy, but they have also been evading responsibility.
This is what we Unitarian Universalists can learn from the Southern Baptists. We, too, like to talk about the autonomy of local congregations. To what extent do we (and I mean all of us) use local autonomy as an excuse to evade our responsibility to protect against sex abuse?
I think we Unitarian Universalists have made more progress at dealing with sex abuse than have the Southern Baptists. But we have lots more work to do before we really address the problem. At least we can learn from the Southern Baptist debacle that local autonomy is no excuse.