Many have applauded the sexual abuse reforms of the Southern Baptist Convention, adopted at their annual meeting last June. Not me.
The devil is in the details, and those details give me little reason to cheer. Here’s why.
Bruce Frank, who led the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force that drafted the reforms, described them as “the bare minimum of what can be called reform.”
It is a truthful assessment and a troubling one.
Furthermore, this “bare minimum” carries a one-year term, making it even more minimal and fragile.
The newly created Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force is “authorized to operate for one year” and then must be renewed annually. Depending on who shows up at the next convention, and on how much media pressure can be mustered yet again, even this “bare minimum” might simply disappear.
Then, there’s the fact that this “bare minimum” adopts a survivor-unfriendly model of database.
I’ve publicly advocated for an SBC database since 2006, but I’ve never advocated for anything like the kind of database the SBC now says it will create.
The problem is in their stated process of how a pastor will be determined to be credibly accused, and thus in how the data gets into the database.
Under the SBC’s adopted model, a survivor would submit a clergy sex abuse allegation to the database administrator who, in the absence of a criminal conviction or civil judgment, would “route the allegation to the relevant church” for the commissioning of an independent inquiry to determine whether the pastor is credibly accused.
Since only a small percentage of cases come with criminal convictions or civil judgments, this means the vast majority will get routed to the local church.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of the average survivor. The local church is not only the situs of sexual trauma but also the place where, in attempts to report the abuse, their trauma was magnified by the betrayal of church, community and sometimes even family.
And now, the SBC adopts a database model that will put survivors in the position of being dependent on the very church that is already the situs of trauma and re-trauma.
This asks too much of survivors. They will have to wait for the church to commission an inquiry, trust in the church’s choice of an investigatory firm, and hope that the church will specify contractual terms that allow for an adequate investigation.
Many churches will likely find wily ways to delay, and for survivors this will be painful.
Conceivably, a church that balks too long in commissioning an inquiry could face the possible consequence of being disfellowshipped through the SBC’s Credentials Committee process. But that too is a process without a good track record, and by the time it might be pursued (if ever), many survivors will have likely given up.
If survivors are going to feel safe enough to report, then they need to know what to expect will happen when they do. But a process that depends on 47,000 churches will have so much unpredictability baked into it that it will fail to foster trust.
If survivors don’t trust the process, then they won’t bring forward abuse reports, and the database will be illusory and dysfunctional because it will never acquire most of the data.
This church-centric model contrasts sharply with the survivor-centric model that survivors had urged. It is a model that would have established a more robust and permanent commission empowered to directly and immediately engage independent inquiries whenever survivors brought forward allegations.
But, yet again, the needs of clergy sex abuse survivors were sidelined.
Then there’s the money, and that’s a “bare minimum” as well.
A total of $4 million is allocated. Of this, $3 million is designated for implementation of the reforms, and $1 million is designated for the combined purposes of (a) “survivor care” and (b) trauma-informed trainings for SBC pastors, churches and state conventions.
Because the $1 million allocation is for dual purposes, it’s unclear how much will actually go to survivors and how much will instead go to pastors and churches.
Moreover, it’s important to place the $4 million in perspective. As the investigatory report documented, the reason SBC leaders pursued their decades-long strategy of stonewalling clergy sex abuse survivors was because they were “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.”
In other words, their recklessness, cruelty, bullying and ethical abdications were for the purpose of protecting hundreds of millions in Cooperative Program dollars, year after year.
When held up against the hundreds of millions that SBC leaders protected, $4 million for “bare minimum” reforms shouldn’t give the SBC any bragging rights.
For still more perspective, consider that the SBC executive committee allocated $2 million for its own attorney fees during the one-year investigation. So, the $1 million allocated for “survivor care” – and then only if pastors and churches don’t access the funds first – is just half of that. And there are many hundreds of survivors.
So, I don’t view the $4 million allocation as a reflection of how much the SBC cares, but rather of how little they care.
At best, the SBC may be approaching the start line of dealing with clergy sexual abuse. But maybe they’re just loitering around in the vicinity of the start line for the sake of appearances. It’s hard to tell.
If the SBC surprises me at some point in the future, I will cheer. But that will not alter the fact that skepticism is warranted in the present.
With decades of deceit and duplicity in all corners, and with countless enablers having allowed systemic horrors to persist, the SBC is an institution that has forfeited the benefit of the doubt.
Now, the SBC must earn trust. And the “bare minimum” doesn’t do it.
A retired appellate attorney, she is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.