The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) appears to be in the midst of a complex and uncertain moment as sexual abuse scandals raise questions about how the cooperative body of more than 40,000 self-governing churches can better identify sexual predators and provide safeguards against them.
An online petition was launched July 20 calling SBC entities and leaders to “establish a clergy abuse database, abuse disclosure protocols, and new training and education protocols for all ministry leaders.” At publication time the petition had more than 600 signatures.
Baptist Press photo by Marc Ira Hooks
Participants of the “For Such a Time as This Rally” hold signs outside of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center June 12 on the first day of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Dallas. The rally called for Southern Baptist clergy to receive training on how to treat women with respect, how to handle allegations of abuse and how to minister to victims of abuse.
A motion was made at this year’s SBC annual meeting that also proposed the formation of a database, in addition to a motion to form a task force to help churches protect themselves against sexual predators. Messengers passed resolutions that affirmed the dignity of women and denounced abuse. All six Southern Baptist seminary presidents tackled the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct during their reports.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) announced during its report that it is partnering with LifeWay Christian Resources to commission a full-scale study on the extent of sexual misconduct in churches.
David Platt, president of the International Mission Board (IMB), announced in a statement July 25 that he is “presently in conversations” with other SBC leaders to “establish practical ways” to prevent situations like the one involving sexual abuse charges against Mark Aderholt, a former IMB missionary and executive leader with the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
“The scales are falling from our eyes,” said Karen Swallow Prior, English professor at Liberty University and ERLC research fellow. She spoke to the Biblical Recorder in a phone interview July 25.
“Sadly, sexual crimes are much more common in our midst than most of us understand,” she said. “Being in denial about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse is what has made us less likely to believe victims when they come forward, and to respond slowly or too defensively of the perpetrator.”
Prior said SBC leaders should “seriously explore” the idea of developing a database or other tools to help churches and ministries protect their flocks from sexual predators.
Kimberlee Norris, a sexual abuse trial attorney and co-founder of MinistrySafe, told the Recorder in a July 25 phone interview that one of her concerns with a database is that it could undermine “due process” for charging and convicting sex offenders through the criminal justice system.
“If you have a database, how do you decide who is or is not in the database?” she said. “What is the basis for ending up on the database and who is going to decide that?
“Clearly, an individual who has been criminally prosecuted and convicted for illegal sexual behavior has been disqualified from further ministry positions. … But what about those scenarios – and this is the majority – that were never reported to law enforcement?”
When asked by the Recorder about those concerns, Prior acknowledged there are complicating factors to be considered before implementing such a database, but said the moral bar for ministry leadership is higher than criminality.
“Credible accusations are a biblical standard for churches to use,” said Prior, “because pastors and deacons have to be above reproach, which is a much higher standard than conviction. If there is a credible accusation, then that person is not above reproach.
“We err not on the side of employing someone in ministry,” she continued. “We err on the side of the vulnerable. It would be wrong and regrettable for an innocent man to be denied a place in ministry, but it would not be as devastating as it is for a vulnerable person to be exploited and abused.”
Photo by Matt Miller
Panelists address “Gospel Sexuality in a #MeToo Culture,” convened by the ERLC, on the eve of the SBC annual meeting June 12-13 in Dallas. Panelists included: (left to right) Phillip Bethancourt, ERLC executive vice president; Trillia Newbell, author and the ERLC’s director of community outreach; Russell Moore, president of the ERLC; Jamie Ivey, podcaster and author; James Merritt, lead pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga. and former Southern Baptist Convention president; and Kimberlee Norris, a sexual abuse trial attorney and co-founder of MinistrySafe.
Prior also said a voluntary certification could be established as an “intermediary step.” She pointed to the accreditation process provided by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability as a model.
“If we believe the bodies and spirits of our church members are as important and precious things to steward as our finances,” said Prior, “then we can find a way to hold churches accountable for caring for them.”
Norris said the number of churches and ministry leaders that fail to report suspected cases of child sexual abuse is one of the fundamental problems.
“Most ministry professionals do not know their state law related to reporting requirements,” she said.
Norris cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice that reveal less than 10 percent of sexual predators encounter the criminal justice system. That is why background checks do not work as a “silver bullet” or “standalone safety system” to protect children from predators, she explained.
She gives ministry leaders three suggestions about reporting suspected cases of child sexual abuse:
“When in doubt, report.
“Don’t investigate as a condition of reporting. In other words, your job is not to be [a crime scene investigator] and figure out whether you think it happened or not. When a reasonable suspicion arises, when you get an allegation, that’s a reportable event. Ministries that try to investigate as a condition of reporting – ‘We’re going to try to figure out whether this happened or not’ – those are the scenarios that go badly.
“Don’t let the sun set on it. I encounter anywhere from 15-20 failure to report criminal prosecutions a month in child-serving contexts, and about half of those are situations where a circumstance was communicated to leadership and they’re slowly processing what they’re going to do about it.
“If the church as a whole were reporting instances of suspicions of abuse and circumstances where allegations of abuse have been made,” Norris said, “then a big percent of the problem would simply go away because those circumstances would be criminally prosecuted and there would be a past criminal record to find.”
MinistrySafe provides training and resources for churches to increase awareness, improve screening procedures to help identify sexual predator “grooming” practices, implement effective child protection policies, conduct accurate background checks and maintain proper oversight of child supervision.
Norris said church environments are often easy targets for predators.
“We assume as believers that those who want to work with kids ought to be able to work with kids and their motives are good and right and appropriate,” she said. “We applaud them for wanting to work with kids, and we assume the best.”
Norris hopes more ministry leaders will seek training to better understand the grooming process.
“Molesters tend to groom ministry leaders, as well as parents of specific children, to cause them to believe they’re helpful trustworthy people,” she said.
“Very few offenders are abduction offenders – the ‘snatch-and-grab’ is like 3-5 percent. The rest of them are grooming the gatekeepers and wooing access to kids through time spent. It’s a process.
“This is why when one of these situations hits the news, there is a big chunk of folks who are saying, ‘I don’t believe it. I’m so shocked. That can’t be true. He was the nicest guy. I’ve known him for years.’”
Prior urged churches to take advantage of the resources already available for protecting against sexual predators and responding to child sexual abuse.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we are faced with an accusation,” she said. “We need to be trained and ready and proactive.”
All 50 states have mandatory reporting laws, although they vary from state to state.
North Carolina’s mandatory reporting laws require any adult with cause to suspect the abuse or neglect of a person under 18 years old to alert the county Social Services department. Contact information is available at ncdhhs.gov. Reports made in good faith are protected from civil or criminal liability. Failure to report could result in fines or jail time. Clergy privilege does not exempt ministers or religious organizations from reporting requirements.