A little autonomy can be a scary thing in fighting predators

By John Railey | Local Editorial Writer

Winston-Salem Journal

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Southern Baptist Convention has finally rediscovered its once-cherished concept of the autonomy of the local church and put it to a strange use. The SBC says, in effect, that the principle prevents it from doing all it can to help expel predators from its churches.

But that same principle hasn't stopped the top-heavy SBC from telling its churches what to do on a wide variety of other issues, ranging from condemning homosexuality to keeping women from leading churches.

Holy hypocrisy.

When the SBC held its annual meeting in Indianapolis earlier this month, its executive committee shot down the idea that the denomination create its own database to help its churches identify predators. The committee did rightly condemn sexual abuse. But "the principal 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," Morris Chapman, the head of the executive committee, told the convention.

The convention has already taken some strong steps toward supporting its churches in catching predators -- whether they're pastors or anybody else. There's no reason it shouldn't create that database. Maybe the SBC is worried that such a database could lead to costly lawsuits over molestation, such as the Catholic Church has had to settle.

Or maybe it's scared that the database actually could promote autonomy by giving the people on the pews a chance to play an active role in what should be a crucial fight.

I met a lot of good Southern Baptists from Northwest North Carolina while covering religion for the Journal. I doubt that that many of them would see much wrong with a database to catch molesters in their churches. The SBC is already a bureaucracy. Local church autonomy exists in name only, with most of the SBC churches marching lockstep with the convention on most issues. Even though the convention's resolutions are nonbinding, any churches that seriously questioned those resolutions have long since left the SBC.

The SBC would have little to lose in creating that database -- and a lot to win.

If the convention supplied strong support and let its churches lead this fight, it could help catch creeps who prey on children. If the fight were done right, it would be done from the ground up, not the top down.

The Catholic Church, with its much larger problem of molestation, showed just how dangerously ineffective a top-heavy church can be at stopping abuse by clergy.

The vast majority of Southern Baptist laity and clergy, just as Catholics, are good people who obviously don't want predators in their churches. But SBC leaders have acknowledged that there have been incidents of abuse in their congregations, just as there have been in other mainstream churches. Exact figures are hard to find, but while SBC leaders aren't doing all they can, more children may be getting abused and left with emotional scars that will haunt them all their days.

It's been suggested that the SBC set up an office to field abuse claims. That's a job for the police, not the church. But a database would be reasonable. Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor, asked that the convention develop such a system to track clergy and staff who are "credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse," according to The Associated Press. The database would be made available to all SBC churches.

But instead of embracing that good idea, Chapman, the executive committee head, referred convention churches to a national sex-offender database.

That's crazy. Who better to know what's going wrong in SBC churches than members of those churches, instead of some faceless government geek behind a computer in D.C.? A strong database system relying on credible information from the people on the pews could revive church autonomy in the SBC.

And I can't help but wonder if that prospect is one thing that makes some SBC leaders so skittish about starting that database. A little autonomy can be a scary thing.

John Railey writes local editorials for the Journal. He can be reached at jrailey@wsjournal.com.