Southern Baptists rule out sex-offender list

BY HEATHER HAHN

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS — While urging churches to do all they can to keep out sex offenders, Southern Baptist leaders stopped short Tuesday of recommending the denomination keep a computerized list of abusive clergy and staff.

“Sexual predators must be stopped,” Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, told thousands of Baptists who have gathered for the denomination’s annual meeting.

“We shall not turn a blind eye when those in leadership roles violate our trust.” But he announced his committee had rejected a proposed database that would have included “Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.” The Executive Committee is a body of 81 representatives who act on behalf of the 16. 3-millionmember denomination between annual meetings.

He instead advised churches to use the U. S. Department of Justice’s national database of convicted sex offenders.

Chapman said the principal reason for not recommending such a list “is our belief in the autonomy of each local church.” He instead urged Baptist churches to perform background checks before hiring staff.

It is unknown how many children in Southern Baptist churches are victims of sexual abuse. The nation’s largest Protestant denomination does not track the number of cases or release estimates. Nor are member churches required to report abuse to the national body.

Christa Brown, Baptist outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, was disappointed but not surprised by the committee’s decision. The survivors group helped bring the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse cover-up to light in 2002, and now works to combat child sex abuse in other denominations as well.

By relying only on the federal sex-offender database, Brown said, “what the Baptists are saying is that unless and until there is a conviction, an accused minister can stay in the pulpit.” Brown, who said she was abused by a Baptist children’s minister decades ago, said many child molesters never are prosecuted because victims often don’t come forward until long after the statute of limitations has expired.

She said having a denominationwide agency that has the training to investigate such allegations could eventually help prevent predatory ministers and staff from working with children elsewhere.

Many of the nation’s major Christian denominations today have such panels, including the American Baptist Churches USA, which, like the Southern Baptist Convention, has autonomous congregations, Brown said.

“I think this knee-jerk reaction that this infringes on church autonomy is misleading,” she said in a telephone interview. “This doesn’t have to be about telling churches what to do and who to hire. But it can be a great resource for churches.”

Chapman’s denunciation of child predators drew applause from the 7, 000 messengers, or delegates, who have traveled to Indianapolis.

Jay Shell, a messenger from West Baptist Church in Batesville, praised Chapman’s stand. Shell said committees at his church have already discussed what to do if such allegations about a staff member or volunteer should ever arise.

The Rev. Estel Grigg, pastor of Clarkridge Baptist Church in Baxter County, said he thinks a database would have been a good idea.

“I used to use that from public schools,” said Grigg, who formerly served as a school superintendent at Oark School District in Johnson County. “Southern Baptists are slow about getting it.” Under Arkansas Code 12-12-507, the state’s clergy are required to report any suspicions of child maltreatment to the state’s child abuse hot line.

The law only allows ministers to stay silent if it would violate their church’s religious teachings for them to notify authorities.

The Rev. Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., made the motion last year for the Executive Committee to study the feasibility of developing a database.

He was impressed by Chapman’s 15-minute-long speech which called for vigilance against child abuse.

“I thought that he showed by the length of his speech and the content of it that they take it seriously,” he said. “Whether you agree or disagree with the bottom-line assessment that a database won’t be formed, nobody can say that they didn’t address the issue.” Because the Executive Committee has issued a recommendation against the database, Burleson said he can’t bring up the issue again.

“That committee is as high as it goes in terms of authority,” he said. “There is no appeal.”

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