Local churches, and not the Southern Baptist Convention, must take responsibility for ridding the denomination of sexual predators, the head of the SBC Executive Committee said Tuesday.
“Sexual predators must be stopped,” Executive Committee President Morris Chapman said during a report at the SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis. “They must be on notice that Southern Baptist churches are not a harvest field for their devious deeds. We shall not turn a blind eye when those in leadership roles violate our trust. We shall be responsive to allegations about ministerial misconduct, and especially so when the misconduct is perpetrated against one of our children.”
But Chapman said responsibility for exposing sex offenders lies not with the national denomination, but rather the local church. He said the Executive Committee is proposing not to establish a database of admitted, convicted and credibly accused sex offenders suggested in a recommendation referred to the committee by the convention last year.
“Southern Baptists believe that the local church in the New Testament times was autonomous, and thus our local churches are autonomous,” Chapman said. “The world may never understand our polity. The convention has no hierarchy and no ecclesiastical authority over our local churches. Therefore the principle reason the Executive Committee is not recommending that a database of sex offenders be developed for the convention is our belief in the autonomy of each local church.”
The Executive Committee did, however, commend a national registry maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice that lists convicted sex offenders. The committee also promoted resources, including a special pullout section in the current issue of SBC Life on preventing and responding to sex abuse and links on the SBC Web site.
While an SBC database might seem like a good idea “on the surface,” leaders said, it would be impossible to ensure that all convicted sex offenders that ever had a connection to a Baptist church would be included. Since sexual predators often migrate from one denomination to another, listing only SBC ministers would afford only partial protection. Lacking ecclesiastical authority, the national convention has no authority to require that churches report allegations of sexual abuse.
“In summary, prevention of sexual abuse, and proper response when victimization occurs, are best accomplished by churches diligently utilizing procedures, information and resources already readily available,” the Executive Committee said in a written report. “Churches are strongly encouraged to recognize the threat or harm as real, to avail themselves of such information, and to aggressively undertake adequate steps at the local level to prevent harm and protect victims.”
The Executive Committee also strongly encouraged local churches to devise policies and strategies, to be diligent in selecting and supervising ministers and volunteers, to vigorously investigate any known or suspected abuse within their ranks and to be “honest and forthcoming” about revealing facts to other congregations when asked about former ministers, employees and volunteers.
“We must rid never rid ourselves of the problem by pawning a sexual offender off on an unsuspecting church where he will once again violate our children,” Chapman said. “It is a known fact that sexual predators are opportunistic and frequently migrate from one victim field to another.”
“The convention’s role is to encourage empower and educate local churches as to how best do their local work to protect our precious children,” Chapman said. “But never let it be said, never let it be said that we are anemic in the fight against sexual abuse. To say so is a false accusation.”
“Southern Baptists do and shall always turn on the spotlight when danger is lurking in the shadows,” he said. “We shall protect the weak and vulnerable. We shall preserve the integrity of our witness. We shall provide safe havens for our people. We shall point out the inevitable consequences of sin. We shall not allow predators to infiltrate our ministries. We shall not allow uncertainty to hinder a strong, rapid response. We shall not allow fear of reprisal to stifle the stories of those who have been abused.
“We owe our boys and girls and the women of our churches every protection possible. We owe them our prayers and loving care if they are victimized. In American prisons sexual predators are considered the worst of the worst. We must determine that a sexual predator shall find no solace and no cover in our churches.”
Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said she was not surprised that the Executive Committee recommended against a database of clergy offenders.
“From the get-go, we have seen Southern Baptist officials’ opposition to creating a database of credibly accused clergy,” she told EthicsDaily.com.
“Southern Baptist officials have made a response that amounts to little more than a Band-aid on a spouting femoral artery,” Brown said.
“If a man can remain a Southern Baptist minister until he is criminally convicted and shows up on a sex-offender registry, then this sets a terrifyingly low standard for Southern Baptist clergy,” she said. “And it is a standard much lower than other major faith groups in this country, who have systems for assessing the credibility of clergy abuse allegations.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.