Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

If you have followed GetReligion over the years, you may have noticed several themes running though our discussions of news coverage of scandals linked to sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders of religious institutions.

Let’s run through this again.

* This is not a liberal Catholic problem. This is not a conservative Catholic problem. And there is way more to this issue than reports about high numbers of gay priests — celibate and noncelibate — in the priesthood. Once again let me repeat, again, what I’ve said is the No. 1 issue among Catholics:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

* This is not a “fundamentalist” problem in various church traditions. There are abusers in all kinds of religious flocks, both on the doctrinal left and the right.

* This is not a “Christian” thing, as anyone knows who has followed news about abuse in various types of Jewish institutions. Also, look of some of the scandals affecting the secular gurus in yoga.

* This is not a “religion” thing, as seen in any quick scan of scandals in the Boy Scouts, public schools, team sports and other nonprofits. This is a national scandal people — journalists, too — tend to overlook.

However, religion-beat pros do need to study the patterns of abuse in different types of institutions. It would be impossible, for example, to ignore the high percentages of abuse among Catholic priests with teen-aged males. It would be impossible to ignore the Protestant patterns of abuse in some forms of youth ministry or improper relationships linked to male pastors counseling female members of their flocks.

This brings me to the post earlier today by our own Bobby Ross Jr., about the massive investigation of abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention, published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. If you haven’t read Bobby’s post, click over and do that right now. I want to focus on one quote — mentioned by Bobby — from a Q&A with August "Augie" Boto, SBC general counsel, featured in that investigation. Here it is again.

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

The key words are these, “Since the SBC does not keep stats.”

This is a reference to a basic fact about America’s largest non-Catholic religious flock. The SBC is and always has been a CONVENTION of states, regional associations and independent congregations — not a “denomination” with strong legal ties creating one national body.

Contrast that, obviously, with “episcopal” (led by bishops) bodies such as the Church of Rome, the Anglican Communion, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. There are legal ties there at all levels and lawyers for an abuse victim can sue, for example, “the diocese” — not just a local parish.

The SBC does not “keep stats” because there is no national authority or structure with the authority to keep them. Pastors, youth ministers and others work for local congregations — period. The only exceptions would be ministers and administrators who (like my own father, for a period of time) worked for a program or bureaucracy at the regional, state or local level.

Remember, please, this passage from a fine Religion News Service report last June on SBC discussions of how to respond to sexual abuse:

The convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced that it will partner with a research firm to study the extent of abuse that is occurring in churches. The commission also has been referred a request from a messenger to evaluate the feasibility of establishing an “online verification database” of known sexual predators among ministers and other church personnel.

I responded, here at GetReligion:

Ah. But would the creation of a national SBC agency tracking abuse create the potential for lawsuits against the entire SBC, as opposed to local congregations or the trustees of individual SBC agencies or schools?

Banks found a crucial voice on the left side of Baptist life, historian Bill Leonard, who explained:

“It gets at the heart of both the freedom and the problem of Southern Baptist congregational autonomy,” said Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. That autonomy, he said, “has often limited the ability to monitor the personal, moral and ethical life of candidates for ordination.”

Now, ponder this painful question: If you were a Southern Baptist leader at the regional, state or national level, would you deliberately create a brand new institution — violating the the congregational polity and doctrine of your movement — that would leave your institution open to millions and millions of dollars of potential lawsuits?

This has nothing to do with good intentions or bad intentions. Many Southern Baptist leaders are horrified by the facts exposed by the Chronicle and News-Express investigation.

But what can they afford to do legally and financially, given the realities of SBC church life — where the ultimate power is at the local level?

Yes, I know that some associations have tossed congregations out for veering left on sexuality, the ordination of women and similar issues. I could see Southern Baptists, in the future, tossing some churches out of fellowship because they refused to discipline predators or declined to take part in VOLUNTARY efforts to prevent abuse and shelter victims. But that is not the same thing as creating a new institution that would be legally responsible for tracking and investigating abusers, while reporting their status to all Southern Baptists at the local, regional and state levels.

So what now?

Journalists: Click here and read this document — “An update on the Presidential Study on Sexual Abuse“ — posted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read it all. But note this passage at the end and note the parts I have put in italics and the one phrase placed in bold type:

Once resources and strategies have been developed, the implementation phase will launch a wide-scale, comprehensive effort to educate, saturate, and motivate Southern Baptist churches, entities, and leaders to embrace and incorporate the recommendations and findings of the study. As SBC churches await these broader findings and recommendations, we want to encourage taking initiative to serve survivors and prevent abuse. Even now, churches should implement basic, common-sense initiatives such as background checks and “two deep” policies that require two adults to be present when working with minors. Although the study will highlight how there is much more that can be done, we encourage churches to take action now.

Note all those references to local churches making changes, with the help and guidance of SBC leaders. But what does it mean to say that SBC “entities” will “embrace and incorporate” these changes? Will that involve SBC associations and conventions taking on legal responsibilities and financial liabilities that they never have in the past? How about the creation of a national SBC agency to legally handle all of this?

That would require fundamental changes in Southern Baptist life at all levels, changes linked to how “free church,” congregational Baptists think about the meaning of a big word — “Church,” even with a Big C.

That isn’t a small issue — in terms of theology, as well as the laws of the state. Stay tuned.

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