"...Baptist officials have propounded the doctrine of local church autonomy as an excuse for denominational do-nothingness on clergy sex abuse"

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Alex Guggenheim's picture

The end of the article holds the quote but most of the article is about what the stats are with Catholic reporting. While it might be true about the SBC it behooves the charge to offer some quotes from interviews or clearly cited reasons by the SBC.

Micheledo M's picture

The quote makes sense. How can we set up a policy and record keeping of sex abuse when churches are autonomous?? I would see it more as a reason, not an excuse. Even if a large group of Baptist churches set up a registry of sorts, there would be no way to require it of every Baptist church. Churches would have to voluntarily take part in it. But maybe that is the answer. Even if only some churches took part, that would be better than none? Right?

In light of recent events and all of us being made aware of sexual abuse that IS occurring and being covered up in Baptist churches, I see it as a warning. We need to get some training on how to deal with these things, we NEED to follow the law (no investigating, just reporting), and we need to be a place of refuge for victims.

If the Baptist church has responded to sex abuse the same way as the Catholic churches, then pastors are simply leaving their church where they have abused someone and gone to the next, with no warning to the congregation. I wonder how hard it would be to set up something where victims could come forward and tell their story. Where the people listening would not say, "I know that man, he would NEVER do that?" I imagine it would be very hard - but isn't there something we should do, or attempt to do?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I agree that churches need to have policies in place and get some training as to how to deal with the issues of domestic abuse and child abuse/molestation by leadership/staff.

The legal system provides the sex offender registry, and churches can (and should) also require background checks for all staff and leadership. That is IMO all the record keeping necessary.

But the problem is recourse for those making accusations beyond the statute of limitations. The mind boggles as to how a church would be able to handle accusations that are 20+ years old, much less create a database of accusations, founded (and unfounded?), for churches to access. We can't assume that every person who steps forward with accusations is being truthful- charges would have to be investigated somehow. If the legal system can't do this, how does a church accomplish it? If someone chooses to remain silent about a crime for 20+ years, then they've not only hurt themselves, but they've endangered others for over 2 decades. I can understand a child remaining silent, but once a person becomes an adult and understands the implications of not coming forward, they are responsible to do so.

I think the most useful efforts are going to be in areas of awareness, training, and prevention. And not only should there be refuge for victims, but for repentant offenders.

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

I can strongly recommend the ministry of Dale and Faith Ingraham of "Speaking The Truth In Love" ministries to any church needing insight on the problem of sex abuse and the proper ways to deal with sexual abuse.

Faith has a horror story of growing up in a Pastor's home where she was abused. She grew up and married a Dale who is a pastor. God brought them to a point where they had to confront Faith's abuser which led to the discovery that there is way too much sex abuse going on in Bible-believing churches.

Their web site is a good resource. Dale and Faith are available for conferences. They are also available to train church leaders and staff members.

Here is their website - http://speakingtruthinlove.org/

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

If there is interest interest, I would be more than glad to pursue the possibility of hosting a conference featuring the Ingraham's. Let me know.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's often hard for folks who don't have a strong view on autonomy ("strong" including having studied through the why's and wherefore's) to understand why lines are drawn where they are.
I was talking to someone not long ago about GARBC's history in regard to trying to keep records regarding pastors who left churches due to moral failure (not sex abuse specifically, but including that) and then making them available to churches for screening purposes.
It turns out to be more difficult than it sounds. Just as a sample: what happens if a pastor is falsely accused, terminated by his church and a record sent to the Association? How does the Association (or Convention in the case of SBC) know the difference between what's merely rumored vs. what's factual. They don't want to be a in a position where they are hurting a man who's reputation has been unfairly attacked (whether the accusation has to do with handling of funds, sexual morality, or any number of other things.)

So to do it "right," you need a legal department that is well staffed, an investigations staff, etc. In short, as many who have an "IFB Cult Survivors" mentality have failed to notice, these judgments cut both ways: if you are silent about a guilty party you (indirectly) help him go harm someone again; if you "hold him accountable" and he's innocent, you wreck a man's ministry.
So there is no simple, obvious response to these cases.
So if a denomination or association or something even less defined (like a "network") is going to do this, they have to find a way to finance and staff the project so that they do it right.
The stakes are high if you're wrong either way.

Where this intersects with "autonomy" is that the association/investigating body cannot force a local autonomous church to surrender information that will allow the investigation to make a determination about the man's guilt or innocence of the charges.
They also can't force a church to avoid a man who has a "record."

It's no walk in the park.

dmyers's picture

As an attorney, I have represented an employer that, unfortunately and unknowingly, employed a child molester, so I have some familiarity with the measures that employers can take to screen their employees and to watch for signs of abuse. As a Christian, I have been a member of both IFB and SBC churches, so I have some familiarity with their structures and practices.

Micheledo M is right that a voluntary registry would be a positive step. (The infrastructure the SBC has would presumably make its registry immediately more comprehensive and more effective.) It's even possible that such registries would not be merely "better than nothing." Savvy insurers of churches might well push their church insureds to participate in, or at least consult, such registries. Savvy plaintiffs' attorneys might well point to a church's failure to participate in or consult such registries as additional proof of negligence in hiring abusers. These incentives, together with simply doing the right thing, might make voluntary registries more effective than expected at first blush.

Micheledo M is especially right that our churches should be refuges for victims. That cannot be emphasized enough. Unfortunately, it is too often not the case, as churches' initial reaction often is to be defensive. And many other times the church at least appears not to be a refuge. Witness Tina Anderson's case -- whether or not you approve Pastor Phelps's handling of the situation, it is clear that Tina never found her church to be a refuge.

I disagree with Micheledo M that the churches' responsibility is only to report and not to investigate, for two reasons. From a civil liability standpoint, the church as an employer in fact does have a legal responsibility to investigate prospective employees before hiring them and to investigate allegations of abuse against current employees. Beyond that, churches have a biblical responsibility to protect their members from abuse and a corresponding responsibility to protect members or leaders from false accusations.

Susan R's suggestion that churches can rely on sex offender registries and background checks as "all the record keeping necessary" is dangerous. For one thing, those registries and background checks are usually state specific, not national in scope, and therefore can be defeated by an abuser who simply moves to a different state. An even bigger problem is that more abusers than not have never been caught and convicted. It is absolutely necessary, at a minimum, that churches communicate with prospective employees' previous church employers -- and not just the references provided by the prospective employee, which of course are normally going to be positive. The Catholic Church also had sex offender registries and background checks on which to rely, and look how well that protected them and their members.

Susan R's suggestion that churches have no duty to deal with reports of abuse beyond the legal statute of limitations seems awfully callous. There are very understandable reasons that victims of abuse may not report the abuse until years later, even after they have become adults. In legal terms, at most, the length of time between the abuse and the report may go to the weight of the report, but it does not go to its admissibility. In other words, it's legitimate to inquire of the victim why the time has elapsed; it is not legitimate to say that every report older than the statute of limitations (which may vary dramatically from state to state) should be dismissed automatically. Yes, it may be difficult to try to investigate a report of long ago abuse. But that is no reason not to try. Witness the recent incidents involving ABWE, the MK schools in Africa, the Tina Anderson case, etc. Keep in mind that credible reports of old abuse incidents may embolden other, subsequent victims of the same abuser to speak up as well. It simply makes no sense to say that an abuser gets a free pass if for whatever reason -- shame, intimidation, whatever -- his victim takes "too long" to work up the courage to report.

Aaron, I have a different view of the balance of harms and the value of openness than your GARBC contact. Yes, there is a danger of false accusations of moral failure. But if a pastor's church has terminated him for moral failure, neither the denomination nor other independent churches (whichever is the case) can simply bury the incident out of fear that the termination was actually groundless. It is a historical fact that the pastor in question was terminated for moral failure. That has to be disclosed, preferably by the pastor himself, but at least by any umbrella organization. The pastor will have to defend himself, and hopefully will do so successfully if he is in fact innocent. But to be silent about the event is to be dishonest and, if nothing else, to virtually ensure the next church's and/or the umbrella organization's civil liability to the next victim.

I doubt seriously that the diligent approach requires an entire legal department and two sets of staff (legal and investigative). But to the extent it does require more personnel than the umbrella organization currently has, so what? I have to believe it's better than the alternative of not having a way to protect subsequent church employers and their members from abusers.

You're right that no one can force the autonomous church to provide information about the pastor. But that church's refusal to do so is itself a red flag. And if the pastor's behavior was above reproach, he will have an incentive to push the previous church to be forthcoming.

Nor can anyone force an autonomous church not to hire a questionable candidate. The church is free to make horrible choices. But that is no excuse for the rest of us to do the same, or to decline to do what we can.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Mr. Myers, you've done an admirable job of twisting my words.

Susan R wrote:
The legal system provides the sex offender registry, and churches can (and should) also require background checks for all staff and leadership. That is IMO all the record keeping necessary.

Any record keeping beyond what the legal system provides is keeping record of accusations, not criminal convictions.

I think churches should always send a letter to a prospective member's former church to notify them that membership is being moved, but what is a database going to do for those who are not nor have ever been on a member roll? And new converts? You are still not 'solving' the problem.

Even churches must rely on verifiable evidence and documentation before taking action. Right now, we have the sex offender registry and background checks available to us. I'm not saying churches shouldn't try to find a solution to the problem, I'm saying I can't imagine a workable solution that operates completely outside of the legal system.

dmyers wrote:
Susan R's suggestion that churches have no duty to deal with reports of abuse beyond the legal statute of limitations seems awfully callous...it is not legitimate to say that every report older than the statute of limitations (which may vary dramatically from state to state) should be dismissed automatically.

I object- I made no such suggestions.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

dmyers wrote:
For one thing, those registries and background checks are usually state specific, not national in scope, and therefore can be defeated by an abuser who simply moves to a different state.

Our church has not had need to use background screening heavily, but we have used two different services both of which scour regional and national records as well as local ones.

dmyers wrote:
Aaron, I have a different view of the balance of harms and the value of openness than your GARBC contact. Yes, there is a danger of false accusations of moral failure. But if a pastor's church has terminated him for moral failure, neither the denomination nor other independent churches (whichever is the case) can simply bury the incident out of fear that the termination was actually groundless.

I wasn't talking about "burying" anything or arguing from a "balance of harms." Rather, my aim was to point out the practical realities of the situation. Where there is no power, there is no power. We can say all we like about what would be better, but the fact is that in groups like SBC and GARBC the assoc./convention do not have the power to make churches supply information and, so far, do not have financing to support teams of investigators. Both would be necessary.

The assoc/convention is not "burying" anything if they (a) are simply not told and (b) have nowhere to "put" such information where other churches could access it and (c) have no idea if it's true or not and, therefore, aren't sure they want to make it available anyway.
Of course, where the law gets involved and there is a conviction, that's a moot point and associations/conventions could keep records like that and make them available... but in those cases, your garden variety screening service is going to turn up the info.

I do think the voluntary registry idea has some potential but it seems to me you still have the same problems: if things go south in a relationship between a pastor and a church and someone decides to oust him on a nasty rumor (and succeeds, so that the church reports the rumor to the assoc/convention/registry) what defense does he have?
It's not about a "balance of harms," but rather about an ethical commitment to truth regardless of whether the claims are coming from an accuser or a defender.

So I think a voluntary registry concept could work, but the assoc/covention would still need to employ investigators and legal experts (for their own defense mostly--in how they handle this kind of info) and would need a body that judges the claims that go into the registry.

Jay's picture

It is the responsibility of any adult to legally report illegal acts, especially as heinous as the TA case, to the authorities. So even if someone comes forward and says that the pastor molested someone, or if someone in the church says that they were molested to the pastor, the legal, moral, and responsible first act for the person who hears the report is to call the police. The police are responsible for investigating crimes, not churches or church structures or parachurch ministries.

That should be fairly obvious to anyone.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

In the case of pastors' fitness for leadership, you have alot of problems that have to do with ethics vs. crime. Sometimes what's unethical is also illegal, sometimes not.
So I think the voluntary registry idea w/investigation etc., would be most valuble in cases where ethics violations have allegedly occurred but no criminal convictions.