Some action items emerge from SBC sexual abuse crisis, but is it too little and too slow?

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

June 2, 2022

By Mark Wingfield

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force has issued a series of responses to the recent Guidepost Solutions investigation that range from suggestions to two action items to be considered by messengers to the SBC annual meeting this summer.

The task force response falls far short of the hopes of abuse survivors and their advocates, who believed this could be a moment for immediate and significant reform.

“I don’t give much credence to suggestions and requests because they are toothless,” abuse survivor and advocate Christa Brown told Religion News Service. “They are kicking the can down the road.”

The two specific recommendations are to create an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force that will operate for three years and to create a “Ministry Check” website and process “for maintaining a record of pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees and volunteers who have at any time been credibly accused of sexual abuse.”

The new task force would take up the baton from the Sexual Abuse Task Force that has overseen the Guidepost investigation.

“Over the course of the Executive Committee investigation, it has become clear to the Sexual Abuse Task Force that the process of implementing meaningful change in the Southern Baptist Convention in the area of sex abuse is beyond the scope of this current task force,” the recommendation said.

Shift in funding strategy

In a called meeting June 2, members of the SBC Executive Committee approved a proposal from the board’s financial team to allocate $5 million in anticipated overage in Cooperative Program giving to fund a response to the sexual abuse report. This came as a request from the Sexual Abuse Task Force.

The total includes $3 million for initial implementation of reforms and $1 million to respond to future legal matters, $500,000 “to endeavor to eliminate all incidents … of racial discrimination among our churches,” and $500,000 to fund further billing from Guidepost Solutions.

The racial discrimination allocation relates to an item in the Executive Committee’s current strategic plan. Previously, the Executive Committee had allocated 10% of any year-end overage to the entire strategic plan, and this action amends that action. William Townes, interim CFO at the Executive Committee, said the other strategic initiatives already have funding.

As it relates to the sexual abuse investigation and response, the June 2 action by the Executive Committee marked a change in funding strategy. To this point, the investigation has been funded by Executive Committee reserve funds, not by general offerings from people in the pew.

This shift in funding now will go to the June 14-15 convention in Anaheim, Calif., where messengers will be asked to approve the use of general offerings for this purpose. Some Executive Committee members expressed doubts that messengers will approve these expenditures, while others predicted messengers will understand the need.

Townes told Executive Committee members he projects a high likelihood that year-end overage funds will be available. Giving to the Cooperative Program unified budget is running $11.2 million ahead of budget year to date, and he estimates ending the year $8 million ahead of budget. The SBC’s fiscal year runs from October through September.

In a separate action, Executive Committee members approved a recommendation for the 2022-2023 SBC budget that would allocate funding to the new Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.

Suggestions for action

Working around the Baptist doctrine ofautonomy of the local church has been a barrier to reforms in the past. In Baptist polity, the denomination has no authority to direct a church to do anything. Likewise, each Baptist agency and institution is considered autonomous.

Thus, the task force issued a set of “challenges” for SBC entities and congregations. These include:

  • Asking the Executive Committee to evaluate staffing needs for the Credentials Committee and “hire a designated, trained staff person or independent contractor to receive reports of abuse for the purpose of determining the appropriate church, entity, or association to respond to those allegations.”
  • Asking all SBC entity boards and standing committees to have “training regarding sexual abuse prevention and survivor care as part of their orientation and selection. We further request that the Committee on Nominations complete background checks for every trustee appointed to entity boards and standing committees.” Requiring background checks for those nominated as agency trustees would be a major shift in process, as there currently is no meaningful vetting of trustees.
  • Asking for all denominational workers, volunteers and students to be given “training on sexual abuse prevention and survivor care.”
  • Asking state Baptist conventions to “consider having a designated, trained staff person or independent contractor to receive calls regarding allegations of sexual abuse and provide initial guidance.”
  • Asking that a series of questions on background checks and sexual abuse training be added to the Annual Church Profile that collects basic data from all SBC churches.
  • Asking that state conventions “establish a self-certification program for churches, including ‘best practices’ in survivor care, hiring, investigatory protocols, and training for prevention.”
  • Asking all state entities and committees to “provide training regarding sexual abuse prevention and survivor care to their denominational workers, as well as background checks, as part of their orientation and selection.”

Online database

Of all the recommendations to date, creation of the “Ministry Check” website would be the most direct response to repeated requests from abuse survivors and their advocates. The failure of the SBC to create such a database in the past — despite the revelation that leaders at the Executive Committee had been privately keeping just such a list — has been a primary criticism of the SBC turning a blind eye to abuse.

The task force recommendation explains: “Statistics show that sexual offenders have an 80% recidivism rate. One of the problems in our churches is the ability of abusers to move from one church to another to perpetuate their abuse. This often happens because churches don’t have the means to communicate with one another.”

A small faction of Executive Committee members — including some who have opposed the public nature of the Guidepost investigation — continues to express concern about future legal liabilities created by the investigation and its resulting actions.

Joe Knott, an attorney from North Carolina, gave voice to these concerns toward the end of the June 2 meeting. Any attempt by the SBC to tell churches how to monitor, report or respond to sexual abuse could backfire, he said, with charges that the SBC didn’t do enough.

“Women and children are going to be victimized no matter how much and that is going to make us potentially targets of great class action lawsuits, which could be the end of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.

This echoes the advice of the SBC’s former legal counsel, roundly disparaged in the Guidepost report, that for decades attempted to mitigate all potential liability by claiming no knowledge of sexual abuse in churches.

When messengers convene in Anaheim in two weeks, this is the key question they will address in response to the Guidepost report: How much response is warranted, and what is possible within the bounds of local church autonomy?