Who, aside from the local church or churches involved, can do anything about SBC clergy who are accused of sex abuse? The answer depends on what actions are considered or are to be taken.
You may have read about the case of a Tennessee SBC pastor who resigned after accusations of his abusive behavior at a Texas church in the 1980s. The story is told at length here.
It is a sad story and one that should grieve any and all of us. It raises a number of questions about how sex abuse is handled in SBC churches and also about how SBC entities outside of the local church react when approached about such.
In the case above two local churches are involved, the church where the abuse occurred and the church where the accused minister was currently serving.
The story reports that an email was sent through “Southern Baptist Convention’s website asking how to turn in a pedophile” which ” never got a response.” I assume this is the sbcnet.com site. Also, the local association in Tennessee was contacted as well as the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee. The accused minister’s current state convention was also indirectly contacted. The responses were,
- The pastor of the church where the abuse allegedly occurred acknowledged the case and worked with two victims to “confront” the current church of the accused.
- The minister’s current church confronted him and he resigned with a statement about earlier “inappropriate” behavior.
- The “email through the Southern Baptist Convention’s website” did not receive a response.
- The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission responded: “Specifically engaging in this matter is not in the scope of our role, authority or ability,” Lauren Konkol, the commission’s team coordinator, wrote in an email back to Amanda on Feb. 3. “Within Southern Baptist churches, the local church is the highest authority, and we as a denominational organization have no authority to remove or rebuke any local pastor.” Konkol deferred response to the commission’s vice president for public policy and general counsel, Travis Wussow. “We’ve been grappling with what is our responsibility, what is our mandate,” he said. “But what autonomous doesn’t mean is we are autonomous from every authority.” Criminal justice, he said, belongs to the state to execute.”
- The local association’s “Executive Director of Missions” promised to “discourage” the minister from “pursuing vocational ministry” and, if a church came asking about him, he would “tell them that I cannot in good conscience recommend him.”
- The state convention leader was informed of the situation indirectly. He told the paper that, “…he didn’t know the specifics. He hasn’t informed other churches…because he doesn’t have enough firsthand information. He said he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to alerting the churches in the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s network to an abuser, though. “It is pressing the envelope of church autonomy, but I believe we need to become more involved in informing our network of churches how they can understand their responsibilities in vetting someone,” he said. “We’re desiring to be very proactive in helping churches to deal with these things openly.”
So, what can be done about situations similar to this one by SBC entities beyond local churches that are involved?
- A church where past abuse occurred or is alleged should be prepared to handle such a situation, acknowledge what happened or is alleged to have happened, and take appropriate steps which might include reporting to law enforcement.
- A church where a staff member has been accused of abuse at a former place of service should take the accusation seriously and be prepared to take appropriate steps. This also could include reporting abuse to authorities.
- The local association, state convention, ERLC, and SBC Executive Committee should be prepared to respond to requests about member churches in a manner that conveys their concern about the integrity of their churches and clergy, even if they have no authority to make any staff changes. I would be surprised if the EC ever deliberately ignored any request of this type. Apparently, there was not an attempt to talk to anyone at the EC prior to the story’s publication.
In some cases, this one seems like a good example, it might be best to involve professionals in the response. That means lawyers and/or folks experienced with sex abuse in churches. It seems clear that many cases of abuse or alleged abuse will be taken to every possible SBC entity beyond the local church. There must be a way to respond appropriately where it does not look like the matter is casually deflected.
I’m guessing that all of our SBC entity leaders are aware of this and are working to provide appropriate responses.
Beyond this, at what point and after what evidence is shown should a minister be blacklisted? To many, abuse such as this is a permanent disqualifier for minister in any church. Since no entity in the SBC has power to make this exclusion, the strongest action would be to compile a list of clergy non-recommends. We already link convicted abusers.
What about others who never encounter the judicial system? Confessed abusers, and I know of only a couple in this category, could be added to such a list, I suppose, but is this a permanent status? Could the SBC at some level create or recommend a process of restoration after which offending clergy are taken off of the non-recommend list? Should the church that ordained the offending minister revoke or suspend his ordination?
The question of who creates the list, who is responsible for it, who decides which ministers shout be added to or taken from it are difficult. If a list were established would that stifle or encourage reporting?
There are prickly and difficult questions at several levels on all this. Fact is, not much can be done beyond the local church level but we should do what we can.