Q: Southern Baptist churches are all self-governed and aren’t controlled by any denominational office. Churches call and dismiss their own ministers. What can the SBC Executive Committee or any other denominational agency do?
A: They can inform. Southern Baptists purport to value congregational autonomy, and yet congregations - i.e., the people in the pews - are not being given the information they need to make responsible decisions. If people in the pews were informed by an independent investigatory body that their minister was credibly reported for having sexually abused a minor, they would then have objective information on which to make a responsible decision concerning that minister. If such information were actually made known, and if the congregation still voted to keep the guy, I suspect the church's insurer might exert some persuasive influence at that point. The problem is that, for a denomination that professes congregational autonomy, the people in the pews are often not informed. Over and over, we get reports about deacon bodies and ministerial staff who sweep under the rug an abuse report against a colleague, and the people in the pews aren't told. Then, when victims try to go to denominational leaders, they all wash their hands of it and say "congregational autonomy." Meanwhile, the man moves on to another church, where he can prey on a whole new crop of kids, and no one is even keeping records about how many reports are made against particular ministers. Even in Texas, where the BGCT purports to be on the vanguard with this issue, it puts a minister's name in its confidential file only if the abuse report is made by a church (and even then doesn't take steps to inform the man's current congregation). What happens to the reports that victims themselves make? Are they just tossed? Who is keeping track? An independent review board would provide congregations with a resource for responsibly handling reports about clergy sex abuse, and it would help to rid the denomination's ministerial ranks of sexual predators in clergy disguises.
Q: I am wary of any denominational investigative body that would solicit, investigate, and report on abusers. Wouldn’t this lead to lawsuits?
A: When SBC officials start worrying as much about protecting kids as they do about protecting against lawsuits, then kids in Baptist churches will be a whole lot safer. There is no perfect system. But if SBC officials would get their priorities in place, they would make kid-protection a higher priority than institutional self-protection.
If SBC officials would take the lead in this, it might even help to lessen the risk of lawsuits for ordinary ministers who have concern about a colleague. Some ministers have told us that they are reluctant to disclose suspected incidents of abuse when a church checks references on a prior ministerial colleague. Why? Because they fear the risk of being sued by that colleague. That fear is part of what allows predatory clergy to move on from church to church. If there were an independent denominational board to investigate abuse reports and provide information to congregations, then ordinary ministers with concerns about a colleague would not have to carry that risk on their own shoulders.
Q: Let’s encourage more churches to do background checks. Wouldn’t that solve the problem?
A: Background checks aren't nearly enough, even if every church does them, which they don’t. The average man who abuses girls has 52 victims. The average man who abuses boys has 150 victims. Less than 3 percent of these crimes are ever even detected, much less prosecuted. This means that most child predators aren’t listed in sex offender registries.
Hundreds of Catholic priests have now been removed from ministry. Yet even with credible reports and multiple victims, most of those removed priests have never been prosecuted and do not show up in any sex offender registries. Most were removed from ministry by the action of Catholic review boards, and kids are safer as a result. It's time Southern Baptists did something similar.
Q: What about false reports? I’m concerned that good ministers could be falsely accused and have their ministries ruined.
A: Fabricated sexual abuse reports constitute only 1 to 4 percent of all reported cases. A lawyer who has defended the Catholic church in over 500 cases of abusive priests concluded that only 10 of those were likely false allegations.
The low incidence of false reports makes it important to treat even mere allegations very seriously and to have a process for investigating and determining whether or not they are credible. An independent review board would determine what constitutes a "credible report", and it would be critical to the integrity of the process that the board be completely independent so as to remove political considerations.
We realize that there is a small but nevertheless real risk of an occasional false report. However, it is important to balance ALL of the concerns. When you weigh all of the factors – the small risk of false reports, the fact that harm to a falsely accused minister is career harm and not life-threatening, the fact that vulnerable kids are at risk, the known fact that most who abuse the young have multiple victims, the risk of life-long serious psychological harm to additional victims – the reasonable conclusion is that there must be a system for accountability. The small possibility of harm to an innocent minister’s career cannot be the sole criteria that outweighs all other factors so as to preclude action for the protection of kids.
Q: How would a review board determine which abuse reports are credible?
A: Southern Baptists would not need to reinvent the wheel in order to do this. Other faith groups, such as the Catholics and Presbyterians, already have review board processes, which could serve as models to be adapted. There are also independent organizations, such as the Faith/Trust Institute that are very knowledgeable and that could assist with developing standards for reviewing abuse reports.
Some of the factors that an independent board could weigh in making the determination are the reliability of the account, documentary evidence such as letters and diaries, any corroboration from other witnesses, circumstantial information, the context in which the event occurred, and statements by the alleged perpetrator (often perpetrators essentially admit to the conduct but rationalize it in some way - e.g., by calling it “consensual” even though the kid was 14 or by minimizing it as "just" fondling, etc.). The board's independent review could also be guided by research and information arising from social service investigations of abuse.
Q: No denominational individual or agency can force a single Southern Baptist Church to do anything. Why not let the churches handle these matters.
A: Too often we have seen that churches cannot properly handle these matters. Not only do church leaders usually lack the education and training to conduct a proper investigation, but they also lack the objectivity. Churches are like families, and the dynamics of clergy sex abuse are very similar to the dynamics of incest. No one would expect grandma to have to decide whether much-loved Uncle Joe was fondling little Suzy. She’s not capable of objectively considering it. In the same way, most churches are not capable of objectively considering whether their much-loved and much-trusted minister might actually be someone who molested a kid. What often happens is that they circle the wagons around the minister and shun the accuser. That’s the usual and ordinary pattern. It’s why there must be an outside resource, so as to afford victims a place to report abuse with some expectation of being heard and to afford congregations an objective source of information and expertise.
Even if the SBC cannot force a church to do anything, it can exercise powerful persuasion by expelling from affiliation any church that chooses to retain a minister in a position of trust and authority after he has been deemed credibly accused of sexual abuse. State and national Baptist conventions have shown that they are willing to exclude churches for other reasons, and so excluding churches that harbor credibly reported clergy sex abusers would not be much different.
Q: Wouldn’t it be better to just rely on the proper authorities to handle these things, rather than on any sort of denominational review board?
A: When a kid has been sexually abused, the very nature of the psychological damage usually renders the person incapable of speaking about it until many years later, if at all. That's the norm. In fact, it’s estimated that 30 percent never disclose the abuse to anyone, not even in adulthood. So, by the time a victim brings forward a report, it is often too late for criminal prosecution since the statute of limitations has usually run.
Because most district attorneys will not divert resources into investigating a crime that likely cannot be prosecuted, there is often no investigation done by civil authorities. (The cases that wind up being prosecuted are usually cases in which the parents found out about the abuse and took action, but because child molesters are usually very adept at silencing their victims, that happens in only a small percentage of cases.)
Without criminal prosecution, or a lawsuit, or admissions, it is very unlikely to get reported in the press, and so people never find out about these predators who are being recycled from church to church. This is why the SBC must take upon itself the moral obligation of conducting inquiries and informing congregations. If Baptist churches require a criminal conviction before removing a man from ministry, then predators will easily remain in pulpits and kids will be at risk.
Without some denominational review process, perpetrators are being allowed to continue in ministry even after victims try desperately in adulthood to call attention to the crime and protect others. Their voices go unheard. (Of course, in many cases including my own, other church leaders knew about the crime from the beginning, and yet they didn't report it or tell the parents.)
My own case is a dreadful example of what happens when there is no process for accountability. Eighteen church and denominational leaders in four different states, including leaders at churches, regional associations, state conventions, and at the SBC, were all informed in writing of my substantiated report of abuse. It was substantiated by another minister, who wrongly and very ignorantly characterized it as consensual, but who nevertheless confirmed his knowledge of the perpetrator's sexual contact with me as a kid. It was substantiated because the Baptist General Convention of Texas put the man's name in its confidential file of clergy abusers. Yet, STILL no one took appropriate action to assure the protection of others. That reality should be very troubling to parents in this denomination.
Q: Why should the database keep all reports, even those deemed ‘not credible’ ?
A: Except for reports that present themselves as pure hogwash, I would advocate keeping almost every report in an archive, even those for which an investigation finds no substantiation. That way, if multiple reports showed up over the course of time, that fact of multiple reports could be a factor in the substantiation process for some future report and a reason for extra concern about whether a serial predator was in your midst. If reports are not kept, a significant resource for tracking such predators is lost. As things are now, it is impossible to even know whether a minister has been reported for abuse, or how often, because no one keeps records.
The fact that a particular report cannot be substantiated may not necessarily mean that the person making it is not a credible person. That’s one possibility, but the more likely scenario would simply be a case in which the review board would have to conclude that it didn’t have enough before it to make a determination one way or the other.
The investigatory burden should not fall solely on the victim’s shoulders. The denomination should view itself as also having a very strong interest in arriving at the truth of the matter. They should do so primarily for the sake of protecting others, but also for the sake of protecting the integrity of the “Baptist” brand in the world. The SBC has the resources to make those kinds of investigations while ordinary victims (and even many churches) do not.
On the occasions when an abuse report is deemed not credible, I would hope the review board could proactively seek to rehabilitate any harm to the minister’s reputation from the investigatory process. That’s not a perfect solution – I know. But protecting ministers against the 1 to 4 percent risk of a false accusation is not the only thing at stake. Doing nothing leaves kids at grave risk, and that factor should also carry great weight.
Q: But the Catholics have a hierarchy and that's why they can do something like this. We don't.
A: There are plenty of differences between Southern Baptists and Catholics, but prior to 2002, Catholic bishops were making arguments that sounded very similar to autonomy arguments. Each bishop viewed himself as having dominion over his own diocese, in effect, viewing himself as autonomous. In 2002, it was described as an "extraordinary and unprecedented" step for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to create the Office of Child and Youth Protection. Here's what was said:
"Much misunderstanding exists about the structure of the Catholic Church and the way in which it functions both nationally and internationally. The USCCB has no direct authority over any bishop or eparch in the United States, nor does it have an infrastructure that is interconnected with the management or operations of the country’s 194 dioceses and eparchies, each of which is civilly and canonically independent. In developing the Charter, the members of the USCCB recognized that without traditional oversight mechanisms, the accountability called for in the Charter would have to be established in a new way. Thus, the USCCB Office of Child and Youth Protection, created as part of the Charter and monitored by a National Review Board of lay Catholics, was charged with the task of developing appropriate audit mechanisms to ensure that all bishops and eparchs comply with the provisions of the Charter."
Likewise, in the Presbyterian Church USA, the Independent Committee of Inquiry was formed as an "extra-constitutional" body to investigate and consider reports of clergy sex abuse. It wasn't part of the usual structure.
Similarly with Southern Baptists, "accountability...[will] have to be established in a new way" if children are to be protected.