(RNS) — More than four decades after sexual abuse claims against a Catholic priest first made national headlines, spurring accusations, lawsuits, a series of newspaper investigations and billions in settlements, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating a religious group’s handling of sexual crimes by clergy and church staff.
This time, the Southern Baptist Convention is under investigation, according to a statement released Friday (Aug. 12) by leaders of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
News of the investigation came months after the release of a report from the investigative firm Guidepost Solutions that found SBC leaders had mistreated abuse survivors and mishandled abuse claims for decades.
The SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee acknowledged that it had received a subpoena from the Department of Justice. Leaders from Southern Baptist seminaries, missionary groups, the Executive Committee and other entities promised to cooperate fully.
Texas pastor Bart Barber, the SBC’s newly elected president, also signed the statement. Barber also recently appointed a task force to implement new reforms meant to address abuse.
The question is: Why the SBC, and why now?
“If I were still in law enforcement, I’d want to take a hard look at the report myself and see if there is anything of potential value to prosecutors in terms of bringing criminal charges against an offender, or if there is anything that law enforcement needs to do to in order to prevent a crime,” said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who served as executive director of the Office of Child Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
McChesney, now a consultant, said federal law enforcement officials often investigate sex trafficking, child porn and crimes against children on the internet. It’s less common for them to investigate sexual abuse, which is often handled by local or state officials. In 2011 a Texas jury sentenced Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to life in prison for abuse after Jeffs spent years on the FBI’s most-wanted list as a fugitive.
The DOJ generally gets involved only when a federal crime may have occurred, often when victims are transported across state lines as part of an illegal act.
While it has been rare for the FBI or other department investigators to look into religious groups’ activities, the DOJ is currently investigating the Archdiocese of New Orleans to determine whether abusive Catholic priests took children across state lines, The Associated Press reported in June.