It may be the fastest decision a Baptist committee has ever reached. A workgroup within the SBC Executive Committee has assured us that most of the churches named in the Houston Chronicle’s sexual abuse exposé do not warrant any further investigation.
Late Saturday, the bylaws workgroup released a statement through Baptist Press. Both the content and the spirit of the statement are at serious odds with what we saw last week from the Executive Committee meeting.
Last week we saw leadership, particularly from SBC President J.D. Greear, that showed determination to move us forward in preventing and responding to sexual abuse. A somber and repentant spirit covered the meeting. Ten action steps were presented. Greear called for responses from the ten churches named by the Houston Chronicle.
The statement released by the bylaws workgroup responds, both directly and indirectly, to the events that took place earlier in the week. I see three major problems in this statement. Each one of these problems is a call to retreat. A call to retreat to failed attitudes and actions of the past regarding sexual abuse.
Problem #1: A Minimal Threshold For Action
How will we know when a church exhibits indifference to sexual abuse? There are four examples provided in the proposed change to Article III of the SBC constitution (listed as letters a-d) that would demonstrate a church has evidenced indifference to sexual abuse and is therefore not in friendly cooperation with the SBC.
a. employing a convicted sex offender
b. allowing a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer in contact with minors
c. continuing to employ a person who unlawfully concealed from law enforcement information regarding the sexual abuse of any person by an employee or volunteer of the church, or
d. willfully disregarding compliance with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.
Here’s problem: The bylaw workgroup treats these as exhaustive – when the bylaw, as written, makes it clear they are not exhaustive, but rather serve as examples. How does it make this clear? By including the language immediately before the a-d list. It says, “Indifference can be evidenced by, among other things…” and then the four examples are listed. In other words, there may well be other things that would evidence indifference. But in the statement, the workgroup uses these four examples as a checklist. If none of the four appear to have been violated (within their in-depth two-day research!) then they are listed in the report as “no further inquiry warranted.”
But there may be 10 or 100 different ways a church could show indifference to sexual abuse. By taking the four examples as the only criteria the workgroup has effectively lowered the threshold for action so that only the most egregious and blatant cases would ever be examined.
Add to this lowered threshold the next problem and you have a perfect storm of inaction.
Problem #2: A Net With Gaping Holes
Of course we don’t want convicted sex offenders working with minors. That’s a starting point. That’s the low-hanging fruit. But anyone who’s read just a minimal amount on this subject knows that there are far, far too many abusers and molesters who will never fall within that category. Those for whom there will never be a criminal conviction. Maybe because of a statute of limitations. Maybe because victims decided they weren’t ready or didn’t know they should pursue criminal charges.
What about a church that knew of credible accusations in the past and still allowed someone to work with children? Apparently, the bylaw workgroup doesn’t see that as worthy of further investigation. Even though the staff member or volunteer had no prior convictions, there still might be other clear reasons they should not work with minors – and this very well could qualify as indifference.
Do you want to know how huge this gaping hole is? How large of a gap has the bylaw committee left by using only the threshold of “convicted sex offender”? Let me give you an example from recent SBC history. According to the criteria listed in this report, a church could hire Paul Pressler tomorrow to work with youth – and that church would not “warrant further inquiry.”
This report and these standards deserve to be shredded or incinerated at the same time the SBC Executive Committee is voting to replace the members of the bylaw workgroup.
And I’m not even to the third major problem I see with this report.
Problem #3: Return to Damage Control/PR Mode
There’s no doubt this workgroup aimed to pushback against Greear’s decision to repeat the names of the churches who had already been named in the Houston Chronicle article. The workgroup said,
we urge all members of the Executive Committee and messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention to avoid publicly calling the names of churches without having documentation of criminal convictions and giving prior notice to the church
First, notice we have the same problem as above: According to this workgroup, no one should say anything until a criminal conviction has taken place. That’s not acceptable.
Second, and more directly related to problem #3: I believe J.D.’s decision showed a kind of bold leadership we haven’t seen in the SBC for years. Without him specifically listing those ten churches, everyone goes back to business as normal. Unless he does that, no one thinks we’re really serious, including we ourselves. I wasn’t in the room but I know people were shocked. I was shocked as I read the tweets. Suddenly we went from a convention that made good speeches and was coming out with a solid curriculum in the summer to “Holy cow, we really are serious.”
This is a different day and a new way of operating. We really aren’t going back to the days when we swept things under the rug and pretended like they never happened. In all of the right things that happened last week, there was none that signaled a true heart-level shift more than this. It was the right thing to do.
As J.D. said:
Our job is to love and serve people, especially those who have suffered abuse. Our job is not to protect our reputation.
Saturday’s bylaw workgroup report sounds like it could have been written ten years ago, rather than two days. It sounds like we’ve learned nothing and are intent on keeping the same attitudes in place that have led to hundreds, possibly thousands of lives being devastated through sexual abuse. We cannot go back. And we cannot accept a report intent on pulling us backward.