By now, most of us are familiar with the overall situation that has occurred at Penn State University. To sum up, a sexual predator was found out, covered up, and enabled across quite a few years. This was done in an effort to protect the overall reputation of the institution and of specific individuals related to the school. Money, power, and entertainment were also a factor.
Now that has all unraveled and legacies have been tarnished, one criminal is headed to prison, additional trials await, and the school and community are a wreck. Added to all of this has come the next blow: the NCAA, the organization primarily responsible for keeping sporting events among colleges in order, has come down and demolished the football program at PSU. Few football folks will disagree that the penalties leveled by the NCAA are extensive and will force Penn State to remember, at least for a time, the danger of letting football be more important than doing that which is right.
Rather than simply debating whether or not the NCAA is right to hand down those penalties or even to add-on to the problems that have unfolded in this case, we need to take a look into our own organizations and see what would be said of us about sexual abuse scandals. How do we handle these cases? Because one thing we do not need to be is outdone by the world in terms of protecting children from abuse. That would be tragic.
Admittedly, the NCAA and the SBC are not strictly analogous. The Southern Baptist Convention does not have the authority to level one dollar of fines against a church, much less $60 Million. I’m not sure what would stand in for vacating wins, either–giving back your award for highest Great Commission Giving, perhaps? A ban on post-season play would not quite equate to barring a church from having a trustee elected from their church. After all, nearly half of all NCAA football teams play in the post-season. We don’t get one-tenth of the churches to attend the Annual Meeting, much less on Trustee Boards.
Moreover, the only “punishment” that really exists in the ecclesiology we practice is this: if a church goes so far from what the SBC, as a whole, approves, then we can tell that church we do not want their money anymore. Really, on a national level, that is what we have. The end-result is that then the IMB, NAMB, and other organizations will not grant people from that church the same standing as a member of an SBC church. Instead, they will meet the same thing any non-SBC applicant gets: told to join an SBC church and try again. I knew a half-dozen people in seminary that had joined SBC churches when they came to seminary so they could be IMB applicants at graduation.
If a church’s local association or state convention also disconnect, then perhaps there is a visible impact, but nothing visible has to really change at a church for being “disfellowshipped” from the Southern Baptist Convention. Then there is this further reality: nothing stops a minister or a member from simply going down the road to another church. The end-result can be a church that’s been removed and all of the implicated parties are gone from it.
We allege that we care about children and about righteousness. IMB started a rule that all participants with the IMB, even for short-term trips, must have a background check before they can go. It’s a start (I know some things do not show up on a background check) to build some defenses. Can we not do more?
The first question is this: Do we care enough to do more? The world, seen in the NCAA among others here, cares enough to do something to attempt to rebuke a culture of silence and abuse. Surely we care as much as they do, don’t we?
I will assume the answer to the first question is yes. The next question, then, is: What can we do?
Right now, we as a Convention do effectively nothing. True, we passed a resolution about this a few years ago, but no action is required by a resolution. We resolved to thank the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando at the same time we complained about their parking prices–too often a resolution is passed to say we did something while not actually doing anything.
What, then, can we do?
First, we need to better train ministers and churches how to handle sexual predator situations. The first comment is always “Call the police!” I’ve got a message for you on that: I live in a city with one part-time police officer. He does not have the resources to investigate a burglary much less a more serious situation. Many SBC churches are as rural (or more) as we are here, where the few law enforcement people are very likely relatives of either the accused or the victim. Who else do you call? (In Arkansas, right now, you call state DHS. I’d rather have a State Police unit for it that is true law enforcement, but that’s who we have.)
If we can email out, mail out, fax out, and blog out all of the other materials that we see from the SBC, we can provide some basic information to ministers how to respond to these situations. Far too many of us received training on this the old-fashioned way: an old preacher told us what to do, but what he told us was not the right thing. (I was told that you confront the person and allow them to resign, quietly, and don’t involve any government folks. This was in the 90s, folks, so it’s around.) I do not know how we could make it mandatory, but we can make the information prevalent.
Second, we need to establish a method for church members to report concerns outside of the church. It may be as simple as putting one page in Lifeway material informing people what types of agencies abuse can be reported to. In all honesty, that is what we need to be encouraging people to do: get the info to a body trained to investigate. The Executive Committee may be a great many things, but competent to investigate criminal reports is not one of those things. Yet if people in the church think the thing to do is tell the pastor, what do they do if the problem is the pastor? Or if they feel the pastor is not acting?
Third, we need to find a structure that protects the innocent. I have seen a church attacked for paying a severance package to a pastor who resigned for immorality (not predator-type, but another situation). The reason they did it was this: the pastor had a wife who had left her career to go to a rural area with her husband, they had two children. In short: the church saw their responsibility to the innocent party of the wife and kids as well as the need to address the immorality. In a sexual abuse situation, the victim is to be the first concern, but many times the spouse and children of the abuser becoming collateral damage.
Finally, we need to end a culture of silence on this issue. It is as if we think that by not talking about it, it will not happen–or that by not naming names we are somehow helping. We are not. While we do not want to centralize ministerial approval to an office in Nashville, we have to find a way to expel the immoral brother from among our ranks.
In this issue, we cannot continue to be outdone by the world. We may need to forge better partnerships with some of the world’s agencies, like police and attorneys general, to work with us and accomplish a better end-result for our children, but we have to do better. Some of the failures of the past will never be corrected, but the date needs to be circled: from this day forward, we will allow this no more.