July 10, 2008


Who should lead church on safety, if not the SBC?

Baptists grapple with predator issue

Our View

When changing times call for society to change, it is often the largest institutions that struggle the most.

This tendency is evident in the 16.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, which has done much soul-searching of late about its future. For years, the group's politics have swung from moderate to conservative and back again, but more recently the signs of declining membership have stirred some of its leaders to speak more vociferously about how they can change to embrace diversity and improve its image with the general public.

More pressing among its challenges is how the SBC handles wrongdoing in its midst, and so far, the convention has a mixed record at best.

Last year, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 reported on inaction by the church regarding a number of Baptist ministers found to be sexual predators. The show drew some parallels with how the Catholic Church had been slow to address sexual offenders in the priesthood.

A proposal to create a national database of Baptist ministers accused or convicted of sexual abuse was rejected last month by the SBC executive committee at the convention's annual meeting. They instead urged that individual churches consult the federal government's sexual offender database as needed.

It was reported by The Tennessean a couple of weeks later that the convention still lists in its online ministers directory individuals who have been convicted of or indicted on charges of sex crimes against minors, including three in Tennessee.

Convention leaders responded by saying that the list is simply that — the names of Southern Baptist ministers — and does not endorse any of them. They also explain that Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and do not answer to the convention. "It is under the churches, not over them," in the words of Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

Yet, this is where the SBC's argument gets shaky. As the American Baptist Press noted last year, Catholic leaders also said they lacked authority to order dioceses to clean up their ranks, until 2002, when after the priest scandal threatened to shatter the church structure; only then were new rules for accountability imposed.

In any case, authority is only one part of the equation; knowledge, and the responsibility to share that knowledge, is the other part.

The Southern Baptist Convention has some of its foremost ministers among its leadership. They possess information that individual churches and average churchgoers may not.

Even if they cannot compel action, they can share information with members that would promote safety and simultaneously send the message that sexual abuse cannot hide within the church — all without unfairly condemning individuals who have been accused, but not convicted.

The very fact that Baptist churches are autonomous signals that they need the information that the convention could provide.

The SBC leadership's stance suggests an unwillingness to change to meet contemporary challenges — and perhaps tells us one reason why the denomination is struggling to maintain its membership. It is not only about lower birth rates and changing demographics — it is about trust.

Setting up its own database of sexual predators may not be the best way for the Southern Baptist Church to proceed, but at least, it should not list convicted individuals in its ministers directory, implying that they are suitable candidates for church work.