SBC’s sexual abuse hotline raises ethical issue

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

January 6, 2023

By Christa Brown

Callers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse hotline are often routed to a person who also serves the SBC’s abuse reform implementation task force.

Did you know this? I’m betting most of you didn’t. It’s information about the hotline that has not been widely disseminated. And that’s troubling.

For clergy sex abuse survivors, whom church and denominational leaders have often lied to, deceived and betrayed — again and again and again — maximum transparency about the entirety of the reporting process is essential for cultivating trust.

From the get-go, long before they ever pick up the phone or draft the first email, survivors should have this information about the hotline. It is information that should be public.

As confirmed in multiple text messages from Rachael Denhollander, when survivors contact the SBC’s sexual abuse hotline, currently operated by Guidepost Solutions, Denhollander is the “advocate” to whom Guidepost refers survivors so that Denhollander can “help them evaluate press and legal options.” This information is also substantiated in email correspondence from a Guidepost representative.

Simultaneous with this role as designated advocate for survivors who use the hotline, Denhollander serves as an adviser to the SBC’s abuse reform implementation task force, which announced last September that it had “formally retained” her. She also served as an adviser to the SBC’s prior sexual abuse task force.

Thus, Denhollander has been occupying dual and potentially conflicting roles: (1) as the designated advocate for individual survivors who make sexual abuse and concealment reports involving the SBC and its affiliated churches; and (2) as an adviser to the SBC on its handling of sexual abuse and concealment.

At a minimum, these dual roles create the appearance of a conflict of interest, which would be troubling in and of itself, and they may potentially give rise to an actual conflict. Some would refer to this as a “two-hat” issue.

“When an individual tries to wear two hats, in potentially conflicting roles, it almost always presents a problem.”

When an individual tries to wear two hats, in potentially conflicting roles, it almost always presents a problem. This is so regardless of whether the roles are paid or unpaid. This is so even when the individual has good intentions — which I expect Denhollander does.

A two-hat issue can be inherently trust-busting.

This is why many professions have ethics rules that specifically address conflicts and the appearance of conflicts. I am unaware of any such codified rules for “survivor advocates,” a description for a role of recent origin. However, even without a written code of ethics, attention to conflicts should be standard and should be navigated with great care.

In the words of one survivor on social media: “Those who seek to partner with survivors for their individual/collective empowerment should not also be the consultant for the individual/institution that offended against them. This should be obvious.”

To be clear, the fact that an ethical conflicts issue is raised does not necessarily mean the person wearing two hats is an unethical person. What it does mean is that the issue demands immediate attention with maximum transparency in how it is handled.

That’s why, with enormous reluctance and trepidation, I’m writing this column — because I can no longer tolerate what I perceive as a lack of transparency surrounding this.

My purpose is not in any way to degrade Denhollander, an individual for whom I hold great admiration and gratitude for all she has done in broadly raising awareness about the dynamics of sexual abuse. In the specific arena of the SBC, however, this two-hat ethics concern presents a problem, and I view it as being more about the institution than about the specific individual occupying the dual roles.

Why have SBC officials allowed this apparent conflict? What do they gain by using the same individual in potentially conflicting roles? Do they care one iota about how destructive of trust this is?

Given all that has been revealed about the SBC’s intransigence on abuse, it is now up to the SBC to earn trust, and allowing a two-hat problem to persist seems counter-productive.

“It is now up to the SBC to earn trust, and allowing a two-hat problem to persist seems counter-productive.”

Some have dismissed the conflicts concerns by making loose comparisons to the work of other advocates and survivor-oriented organizations, such as GRACE, that provide abuse-related education and training to institutions, or that conduct independent investigations. However, I am unaware of any parallel situation in which a single individual has engaged in ongoing abuse-related consulting work for an institution while simultaneously functioning as the designated advocate for individual survivors who are bringing forward abuse reports involving that institution to an institutionally sanctioned hotline.

Recently, I watched in dismay as David Bumgardner (former Clemons Fellow for BNG) attempted to raise concerns about this potential conflict on social media, only to be slammed, as though it were off-limits to even raise a question about Denhollander. That’s no fault of Denhollander, but it was incredibly sad to see. Some of the responses reminded me of the kind of angry reactions that often get flung when someone dares to voice concern about a powerful celebrity pastor. The dynamic seemed eerily similar.

Other survivors also have attempted to voice concerns, and although worded in a variety of ways, at root the expressed concerns all have been symptomatic of the larger problem: the distrust that is produced by the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Denhollander serves in a formal capacity with the SBC’s abuse reform implementation task force, and no one should have to fear raising questions or concerns about her service for the SBC — or about the service of any of the other members and advisers on the task force. To do so raises not merely individual concerns but institutional and procedural concerns.

Nor should anyone have to fear raising concerns about a perceived conflict of interest within the operation of the SBC’s sexual abuse hotline. These are legitimate inquiries in an arena in which skepticism is well-warranted.

Again, if I could have stomached staying silent about this, I would have. I flat-out did not want to write this column. I am well-aware that many will not welcome my words, including many in the survivor community.

Nevertheless, I believe this two-hat issue merits attention. From the very get-go, all survivors deserve to be empowered with full, clear information and maximum transparency as they attempt to navigate their journeys of disclosure.