America’s largest Protestant denomination has come under fire over alleged child sexual abuse committed by its clergy.

A victims’ advocates group, Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called on Monday for a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist church.

Southern Baptist leaders have argued that, due to the lack of a rigid structure within the church, it is impossible to investigate molestation claims across the denomination.

SNAP has suggested the implementation of an independent review board to investigate reports of sexual abuse, but Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page claims that the SBC does not have the legal authority to do this.

Instead, Page said that the SBC would take less formal action.

He has already pledged in an earlier letter to SNAP that the SBC would rather: “provide this kind of assistance without infringing upon the autonomy of these state-level or local-level entities.”

He shows no signs of backing down, according SNAP’s website, snapnetwork.org.

So far, SBC’s only action was to pass a resolution in 2002 that instructed churches to discipline ministers guilty of sexual abuse. This has not been seen as adequate by SNAP members.

Christa Brown, who maintains the website Voice to Stop Baptist Predators, feels that the SBC is refusing to see sexual and child abuse as a serious problem.

She says on snapnetwork.org: “We are witnesses to truth, and the church needs to confront that truth.”

SNAP also feels that the SBC “have shown themselves capable of all manner of cooperative endeavours when they choose”, but are deliberately playing down the issue.

In the past six months SNAP has received reports of about 40 cases of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist ministers.

Sexual abuse is believed to be rife among the Southern Baptist clergy; according to The Associated Baptist Press , a 2000 report in Texas revealed: “more than 24% of ministers said they had counselled at least one person who had sexual contact with a minister.”

One of the most recent cases reported concerned youth minister Shawn Davies, 33, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in January this year for molesting children at First Baptist Church, Missouri.

According to BishopAccountability.org, Davies charges included “furnishing pornographic material to minors, supplying liquor to minors, sexual misconduct with a child under the age of 14, use of a child in sexual performance and endangering the welfare of a child.”

Davies had also served a previous conviction for molesting children in Kentucky Baptist churches.

SNAP suspects that many more are too traumatised by their experiences to come forward.

SNAP representative Miguel Prats, 54, was abused by a Catholic priest when he was 18, but did not report the incident until 2001.

Prats told EthicsDaily.com that, although he felt the Catholic church had dealt with sexual abuse poorly, he has received reports that the Southern Baptists have been doing even less to combat the problem.