What we know and don’t know about the SBC’s sexual abuse hotline

Baptist Press [Nashville TN]

February 10, 2023

By Christa Brown

That’s what an abuse survivor recently wrote to me about her call to the Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse hotline. She had contacted the hotline more than seven months earlier, expecting her call would yield action. She was disappointed.

You can’t blame her for having had that expectation. The word itself — “hotline” — carries a connotation of urgency. So, that alone may lull people into expecting action.

Survivors weigh many concerns when considering whether to call the hotline. Is it safe? Is it confidential? Will a call trigger meaningful action? Will it bring accountability to the perpetrator? Will it provide help? Is it a good choice?

Although we all would like to imagine the answer to each of these questions is “Yes,” that may not be so. And there are good reasons for skepticism.

Here are some highlights of what we actually know — and don’t know — about the hotline, based on the official statements that have been released about it. I hope this may help individual clergy sex abuse survivors better assess whether or not the hotline is a good choice for them.

Set up as a “stopgap.” In May 2022, when the hotline was first established, the SBC Executive Committee, Guidepost Solutions and the Sexual Abuse Task Force released a joint statement, providing some “parameters” for the hotline and explaining that Guidepost had been hired to operate it as a “stopgap measure.” Although this set-up was initially described as a “stopgap” until the 2022 SBC annual meeting, it now appears to be a “stopgap” until some indefinite time in the future when reforms may be implemented, and we don’t yet know exactly what those reforms may look like. Meanwhile, the hotline continues to be operated by Guidepost pursuant to a contract between Guidepost and the Executive Committee.

Hotline’s purpose? According to Guidepost’s own January 2023 statement, “Guidepost is “serving as an information provider to the SBC.” Guidepost was “hired by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee … to collect reports … regarding current and historic allegations of sexual abuse within SBC churches and SBC entities.” Guidepost set up the hotline as a means “to gather reports … so as to inform the SBC about … issues and allegations which demand action.”

“At this point, it appears the primary driver behind the hotline is the provision of information to the SBC, not the needs of survivors.”

So, the possibility of “action” is at least mentioned, and is apparently contemplated in the future by some as yet unspecified process and timeline. However, at this point, it appears the primary driver behind the hotline is the provision of information to the SBC, not the needs of survivors.

This meshes with what another individual, Shelly, wrote on Twitter about her experience when she called the hotline. “Overall, the call was problematic,” she said. “It felt like simply collecting data.”

Care for survivors? The May 2022 joint statement provided that “survivors will be notified” of options for care. However, this provision appears to have evolved into something more indirect and conditional. According to Guidepost’s January 2023 statement, Guidepost has compiled “a list of contact information for online and local sexual abuse resources” that it may provide to someone who reports sexual abuse “if the reporter requests resources.”

Connection to advocate? The May 2022 joint statement specified that survivors “will be put in touch with an advocate.” This specification for referral to an advocate appears to have evolved from being a hotline “parameter” into something that’s a mere possibility. According to Guidepost’s January 2023 statement, there have been only two instances when persons reporting abuse allegations have been put in touch with an advocate.

“Guidepost is not authorized by the SBC to investigate allegations reported through the hotline, and it does not do so.”

Investigation of reports? According to Guidepost, it “does not independently investigate allegations reported through the SBC hotline.“ This critical piece of information has been clear from the inception of the hotline, and it has been repeatedly and consistently set forth in official statements to the present date: Guidepost is not authorized by the SBC to investigate allegations reported through the hotline, and it does not do so.

So, this much we know for sure: A call to the hotline will not trigger an immediate independent investigation.

What happens with the information? The January 2023 statement by the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Forcesays: “Names of alleged perpetrators which need to be evaluated … are catalogued.” I have seen no details on the process, protocol or timeline by which any such evaluation would happen. So, for now, it appears the names will effectively sit catalogued in storage.

The January 2023 Guidepost statement indicates Guidepost may provide information to the SBC Credentials Committee, but not including identifying information about the survivor or reporter unless specifically authorized. At this point, I have not seen any clear protocols, processes or timelines for how the Credentials Committee might handle such information; nor do I consider that we have a good track record from the Credentials Committee by which we might gauge its handling of such information.

Guidepost states it also provides information to the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, but in the form of statistics about the calls and emails that arrive through the hotline, and not with individual identifying information.

What manner of confidentiality? As set forth in Guidepost’s statement of January 2023, Guidepost may share information from a hotline report with someone outside the Guidepost team, without the consent of the survivor, if Guidepost is required to comply with “a valid subpoena or other legal process.” In a prior statement, Guidepost more fully explained that, in the event of a subpoena, its compliance could include the disclosure of “names of reporters, witnesses, alleged parties and/or survivors.”

Thus, no one should imagine that a call to the hotline is confidential in the same way, for example, that attorney-client communications are confidential. Rather, a call to the hotline is afforded only a more limited form of confidentiality.

For many, it may be wise to consult with legal counsel before calling the hotline.”

My take on it. While some may weigh these factors differently, I do not view the making of a hotline report as a good choice for all survivors, particularly not when so much about the process remains unknown. Indeed, at this point, the hotline appears to be more of a theater piece, presenting an illusion of accountability and care, but without the reality.

Unless and until a hotline call triggers immediate action — such as an immediate independent investigation — then for many, the balance of factors may weigh against making a hotline report. And for many, it may be wise to consult with legal counsel before calling the hotline.

Finally, no survivor should lose sight of the truth of what the Johnny Hunt saga has demonstrated in recent days. Even ifa call to the hotline may at some indeterminate point in the future result in an independent investigation, within the SBC system, any true accountability for a credibly accused abusive pastor may still be iffy, drawn-out and difficult, no matter how much evidence is amassed, no matter how much the allegations are documented, and no matter how much suffering survivors endure in the process.

Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang. She previously served on the board of directors for the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and she currently serves on the board of advisors for the Child-Friendly Faith Project.