Under pressure to fight child sex abuse, the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee said Tuesday that the denomination should not create its own database to help churches identity predators or establish an office to field abuse claims.
The report decried sexual abuse as reprehensible and a sin. But the Southern Baptist principle of local church autonomy means it’s up to individual churches — and not the convention — to screen employees and take action against offenders, the committee said.
The clergy sexual abuse scandal that struck the U.S. Roman Catholic Church starting in 2002 has also touched the Southern Baptist Convention, although to a much lesser degree. The past two years have seen a few high-profile allegations against Baptist clergy, and a key victims advocate in the Catholic crisis, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, began lobbying the Baptists.
In 2006, an executive committee panel began studying how to address the issue. Then, last year, Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson proposed that the convention develop a database to track clergy and staff who are “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.” The database would then be available to all churches.
The executive committee report, “Responding to the Evil of Sexual Abuse,” urges churches to conduct background checks using a U.S. Department of Justice database of sexual offenders.
But it rejected establishing a new Southern Baptist database, arguing it would be impossible to build a comprehensive list. Referring churches to a more exhaustive federal database is better than a limited “Baptist only” system that predators could slip through, it said.
The database idea also is undermined by the fact that the convention cannot require churches to report instances of sexual abuse to local, state or national conventions, the report said.
Local church autonomy rules out creating a centralized investigative body to determine who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse or anything else, it said, and the convention has no authority to bar known perpetrators from ministry or start an office to field abuse claims.
The report made clear that sexual abuse is a serious threat, and urged local congregations to vigorously check out employees and share information when warranted with other churches.
So, the Southern Baptist convention isn’t actually going to do anything? Condemning sexual abuse, and urging congregations to check a federal database and screen employees more effectively is all well and good, I guess. But it seems that leaving it at that means that there’s inevitably going to be churches that don’t — maybe even some that do nothing about abuse in their midsts — And there won’t be anybody who can make them. Sure, there will be consequences after sexual abuse occurs and is discovered (more on that later). But by then the damage is done.
And the damage is considerable. I did some digging around and found this Advocate article from 2007 that offers some background.
The Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests has started a campaign to call attention to alleged sex abuse committed by Southern Baptist ministers and concealed by churches. SNAP presented a letter Monday to Southern Baptist Convention executive committee members in Nashville, asking the group to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse and to create an independent review board to investigate molestation reports.
Church leaders concede there have been some incidents of abuse in Southern Baptist congregations but say their hands are tied when it comes to investigating complaints across the denomination. Unlike the Catholic Church, with its rigid hierarchy, Baptist churches are independent. They make their own decisions about hiring ministers and conducting investigations, Baptist leaders say.
”They don’t want to see this problem,” said Christa Brown, a SNAP member from Austin, Texas, who says she was sexually abused as a child by a Southern Baptist minister. ”That’s tragic, because they’re imitating the same mistakes made by Catholic bishops.”
Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page said the denomination plans to teach its churches how to conduct background checks and to require letters of recommendation for job candidates. But he said the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 16.3 million members, does not have the legal authority to create an independent board to investigate abuse complaints.
”As much as possible within our structure, we’re going to assist churches,” Page said. ”We’re deeply concerned about this. We believe children are the most precious gifts from God.”
Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2002 urging its churches to discipline ministers guilty of sexual abuse and to cooperate with authorities in their prosecution. But Brown said that’s not enough. She says the Southern Baptists need an independent review board precisely because there’s no clear chain of command among Baptist churches. The SBC also does not keep a list of ministers who have been accused of abuse. Advocates say this means molesters could move from church to church.
The Southern Baptist solution is a very baptist solution, given the preference for a lack of central authority. And it’s particularly Southern Baptist, given the denomination’s history, going all the way back to it’s founding (in my home town, no less), upon separation from Northern Baptists ofer the issue of slavery — or states’ rights, depending on your outlook.
But does it do that much to protect potential victims? If an abusive pastor is powerful and popular enough to keep scandals quiet, and a church big enough to make prosecution politically unpalatable, how much good does all the “condemnation” and “urging” in the world do for victims?
I’m not doubting that the Southern Baptists are indeed appalled and troubled by the reality of sexual abuse in their congregations. I believe they’re sincere in their condemnation. But without some kind of over-arching authority, that can enforce accountability, it sounds like more of the same conservative “self-regulation” talk that sounds great in theory but doesn’t work so well in practice.
From a religious viewpoint, I guess a Southern Baptist might argue that their God is the ultimate arbiter of accountability and justice. But my guess is that sexual abuse victims would rather see their abusers face justice in earthly courts, and have their denomination practice more prevention in the here and now, than wait for the hereafter.
If you’ve got predators in the pulpit, you need prevention and prosecution, along with prayer.
[Pick via Kamoteus/Ron Miguel @ Flickr]