“The subject of a database is complicated and will take time to evaluate”
That was J. D. Greear’s statement to the Executive Committee not quite three weeks ago. Seems like ages have past since he named churches and spoke to the group about sex abuse in the SBC. That all Southern Baptists at every level want kids to be safe in our churches, institutions, and entities is not complicated. What can be done becomes complicated in many ways, not just in regard to a database of SBC offenders.
J. D. Greear’s address to the Executive Committee included this:
I urge the bylaws workgroup of the administrative committee to take the necessary steps to determine whether the churches named recently in the news meet the standards of having a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith as outlined in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution. And the entity heads agree with me and stand with me.
Now, I want to step aside and say something as President–not speaking on behalf of the entities, or anybody but me. I say this as a member of the EC, based on my reading, our inquiry should start with…
And Greear named the ten churches. It seems certain that he chose these words carefully – an “inquiry” not an “investigation.” The terms have been used interchangeably. Taking “necessary steps” seems to call for some level of inquiry or investigation. In that regard, Brent Hobbs did a good job of reviewing past inquiries. The fact that we can find sufficient information, either from inquiry or investigation, casually or formally, to take action against churches that are pro-lgbt or which perform or affirm same sex marriage argues against our inability to do the same for abusers in churches.
Or, does it? Are these comparable? Is it that much of a step to inquire or investigate churches over their practices, policies, and employment concerning child sex abusers?
Seems to me that it would require quite a lot if this were a role the Executive Committee took on for itself. When Southern Baptist leaders and spokespeople talk about examining churches as to their faith and practice, we understand this to be a historical and routine role we have expected associations, state conventions, and the national SBC to fill. Each of these has the power to exclude churches for a number of reasons. It can be done by simple fiat or with an exhaustive process.
But when others talk about the SBC taking responsibility for investigating sex abuse in SBC churches they mean something different.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the two Georgia churches that Greear named and asked to be reviewed. The AJC got a comment from an outside, knowledgable person (the emphasis is mine):
The Rev. Ashley Easter, a board member for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, isn’t satisfied.
“The culture of abuse and cover-up runs deep in the SBC, and for the Executive Committee to so cavalierly discount the serious allegations of abuse is both devastating and reckless but not surprising,” Easter said. “The 10 churches listed … require a thorough independent investigation by a credible group outside of the SBC so no bias gets in the way. The SBC is not qualified to effectively investigate these churches on their own. They need an independent third party, and the Executive Committee decision makes this need even more clear.”
The opinion is that the SBC should hire an independent, third party to “effectively investigate” these churches.
Christa Brown, an abuse survivor and advocate who has been active in this for longer than any other that I know about, also calls for “independent inquiries.”
independent inquiries are needed.
She advocates an Executive Committee funded, independent board of experts that would receive and review cases, make determinations, and maintain reports of sex abuse in SBC churches.
She states her views in another article, one that was in response to the By-laws Workgroup:
...the creation of a denominational system for record-keeping on clergy sex abuse reports and for informing congregations about credibly accused clergy. It meshes with what Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson proposed at the 2007 SBC annual meeting when he moved for the creation of a denominational database of clergy sex abusers. And it meshes with what a new generation of survivor advocates have been urging since last June – i.e., that an SBC database of clergy sex abusers is “needed today.”
Help me here. I am unaware of any denomination that has created and maintains a registry of sex offender clergy who have been charged, convicted, or credibly accused of abuse. Is this an area where the SBC feels compelled to be a trail blazer?
And does the Executive Committee have a means of communicating to all churches when needed? Somewhere around 10,000 churches do not file any reports in a given year which means that no one may have any current contact information. If the Executive Committee assumes responsibility for informing all SBC churches of anything, are they accepting a task that is impossible to perform?
It’s complicated because there are no standards for “credible accusations.” The phrase is tossed about as if it has concrete meaning and may be determined with ease. Perhaps so but I have yet to see it.
It’s complicated because “the SBC,” that generic designation for the whole of our churches, institutions, and entities, has no power to compel churches to adopt any policies, require any level of training for clergy or members, or to maintain any list of approved clergy. Indeed, the SBC has never ordained or licensed any clergy. The SBC doesn’t assign clergy to any church, has no supervisory function over any church’s clergy or volunteers, and has no power to terminate employment of any clergy in any church.
It’s complicated because no church is required to report to any centralized SBC office any reports of abuse. They cannot be compelled to consult any database of convicted or credibly accused clergy prior to hiring any minister. An SBC church may hire anyone they wish regardless of whatever denominational office or official disapproves of such action.
It’s complicated because if an independent SBC group is created, funded, and staffed and charged with receiving and assessing reports of abuse in SBC affiliated churches, they would have no investigatory power over any church. No church would be required to cooperate with such a body and no church would be required to abide by any determination of such body. There is good reason to conclude, seems to me, that any SBC body that attempts to exercise an investigatory function would serve to discourage both reporting and cooperation by churches. Such a body cannot “clear” a church and if they attempted to do so and if the independent body erred, would liability accrue to the Executive Committee, state convention or whatever level SBC body underwrote the task?
This non-lawyer thinks that these are legitimate questions. Perhaps the answers are simple and straightforward.
The recent Executive Committee debacle, and I don’t know of a softer descriptive term to use, underscores the complexity and difficulty of these matters. When handed a list of churches for which an inquiry was suggested, one church was determined not to need further inquiry in spite of the fact that a confessed abuser was on staff at the church. If it had transpired that a child was abused after that determination (and no allegation of abuse was made against the minister in the church that was listed for inquiry), would the Executive Committee have put itself at risk of being partially culpable for that abuse? Which is why it’s complicated enough that lawyers surely are involved in scrutinizing all the alternatives.
One may be optimistic, and I am to a degree in all this, that the sex abuse workgroup that we have created and funded and which has been working in this are since last year, will be able to suggest helpful, effective, and workable measures that the SBC can implement. That workgroup has involved people independent of the SBC. If an independent investigation would help the SBC address these issues then this is the closest we have come to such.
In the end, it may be that Professors Whitfield and Yarnell who call for “leveraging autonomy” have identified the best path forward. We may certainly exclude churches for a long list of reasons, including ones related to abuse, training, and child safety.
But, I think we have learned that the Executive Committee cannot act in haste in addressing matters that are complicated without disastrous results.
My view is from the position of an average sized SBC church, one with a single full time, single seminary degreed staff member. That group includes the great majority of the almost 50,000 churches in friendly cooperation with the SBC. These aren’t large or megachurches, do not have multiple staff members, and are not in a position to have personnel available to manage some of the difficult questions that might arise.
These churches need a resource, one that the local association probably cannot provide. State conventions have attempted, with some success, to fill this role, as has LifeWay and GuideStone. A single, centralized resource may be helpful, but, unless I am persuaded otherwise, not one that creates an adversarial relationship through investigatory functions.
The same may be true for victims whose accusations are beyond legal statute of limitations and where the state will not investigate. Their stories of abuse and, years later, subsequent appeals to various churches, associations, state conventions, and national bodies are difficult to read without concluding that there must be better alternatives. If no SBC body can investigate, they could certainly provide support and resources.
Let’s see what the abuse workgroup can do with this.