Why the nation's two largest religious groups are talking about sex abuse this week

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 6/11/2019, 3:16 p.m.

By Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor

(CNN) -- When leaders of the country's two largest religious groups -- the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention -- hold meetings this week, the separate conferences will have a common agenda: clergy sexual abuse.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents some 51 million American Catholics, will hold their four-day spring meeting in Baltimore starting Tuesday. Meanwhile the Southern Baptist Convention, which counts some 15 million members, kicks off their annual meeting Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama.

After a series of internal investigations and journalistic exposes, both denominations are reeling from scandals that have stained their reputations and demoralized the faithful.

"The cumulative effect of all the scandals does weigh very heavy on your soul," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at the Washington-based group Faith in Public Life.

"For many of us, it is getting increasingly hard to keep faith in the institution itself."

Gehring is far from alone in questioning the Catholic Church. A Gallup poll released in March found that more than 1 in 3 American Catholics say they have thought about leaving the fold because of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Neither are Catholics alone in seeing their spiritual leaders commit or cover up heinous crimes, said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

"Several years ago when I would raise this issue there was a sense of invulnerability," said Moore. "A church member might say that clergy abuse is a Catholic problem, or that it never happens in his church. I very rarely hear that now."

That's after Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published a series of shocking reports about abuse in Southern Baptist circles. About 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, according to the two Texas newspapers, which also found that in the past 20 years, more than 700 victims have been abused, with some urged to have abortions and forgive their abusers.

On Friday, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention released a 52-page report about abuse in the denomination, including survivors' stories and mea culpas about mistakes church leaders have made.

"We lament the fact that it took a national movement of reckoning for abuse to force us to take this issue seriously in our own convention," reads the report, conducted by advisors to SBC President Pastor J.D. Greear.

"It should now be obvious that the problem has been and still is more widespread than anyone has realized," the report continues, "affecting our congregations all over the country, from the smallest church pastored by a bi-vocational minister to the megachurch with hundreds on staff."

For both the Catholic bishops and Southern Baptists, the debate will likely center on the tension between autonomy and accountability. Traditionally, bishops and Baptists pastors have been allowed to operate in isolation, free from oversight. In the wake of these sex scandals, many of the faithful are now demanding change.

Bishops in Baltimore: Seeking more accountability

The goal for the Catholic bishops in Baltimore, is, simply stated, is to stanch the bleeding. The church spent much of 2018 suffering through a morass of scandals and this year hasn't been much easier.