Victim advocates welcomed news of an independent investigation into whether a Southern Baptist Convention entity failed to report a missionary credibly accused of child molestation but cautioned that not all independent investigators are the same.
“A truly independent investigation will focus on discovering the truth, not making sure the IMB and the SBC are less prone to lawsuits and public relations blunders,” activists said of International Mission Board President David Platt’s recently announced plans for “a thorough, outside, independent” inquiry into the agency’s past handling of abuse allegations.
Justice for Anne — a group website supporting an accuser who says she was led to wrongly believe the then-missionary who abused her years earlier was fired and reported to police 11 years ago after she cooperated with an internal investigation – said the independent investigator should have full control over the final report and called for the results to be made public.
“A truly independent investigator is not a lawyer paid by the SBC or IMB,” the group said in a recent statement, “nor is it an organization with previous ties to the SBC or IMB.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recently began requiring all students to complete training by MinistrySafe, a company started by lawyers Gregory Love and Kimberlee Norris that has conducted similar training with several Baptist state conventions. Both Love and Norris have given guest lectures at New Orleans and Southwestern seminaries.
“As trial attorneys, Love and Norris evaluate past events through the lens of standards of care: what behavior was reasonable in the relevant time period and circumstance encountered, given industry standards of care related to a known risk?” the Texas-based firm markets independent investigations on the company website.
“Once the investigative scope and objectives are clearly identified, Love and Norris will assemble a team with appropriate credentials, create a methodology to gather information with sensitivity, process the data and report findings in an agreed format,” the description continues.
Recently MinistrySafe conducted an internal review for Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which in the end fired Pastor Andy Savage for taking sexual liberties with a teenager when he was a youth minister at a previous church in Texas.
Abuse survivors and their advocates tend to prefer the approach offered by GRACE, an acronym for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, founded by Liberty University law professor and Billy Graham grandson Boz Tchividjian in 2003.
“In the wake of abuse disclosures, ministries often struggle to put together the pieces of what went wrong,” GRACE promotes its independent investigation service. “If a thorough investigation by law enforcement isn’t legally possible, it can be difficult to ascertain facts and determine next steps, which makes an objective, independent third-party investigation crucial for regaining trust with victims and within the faith community.”
“Our desire is to get to the truth of the matter, so that compassion and assistance can be demonstrated to those who have been hurt and changes can happen on an organizational level,” the company says.
Tchividjian says GRACE brings “a uniquely comprehensive and superior approach” to the investigative task, but in the past the ministry has received pushback from clients who didn’t like where their investigation was heading.
Bob Jones University got cold feet in 2013 when a GRACE investigation criticized the way administrators counseled abuse victims, sending Tchividijian a notice of termination midway through the two-year probe. After talks the university agreed to reinstate the investigation and eventually implemented some, but not all, recommendations in a 300-page final report completed in December 2014.
The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism commissioned GRACE in 2013 to investigate behavior and abuse issues involving a missionary to Bangladesh, and the Pennsylvania headquarters’ response, but pulled the plug weeks before the final report, alleging “errors” and “flaws.”
The International Mission Board hasn’t shared details about how it will conduct its investigation or whether the findings will be public, and a spokesperson did not to respond to a reporter’s e-mail asking those questions.
The Justice for Anne folks also applauded a separate announcement by SBC President J.D. Greear of formation of an advisory group to study how the denomination might better prevent and respond to reports of abuse.
The group joined For Such a Time as This, another new coalition that staged a rally outside the meeting hall at the recent SBC annual meeting in Dallas, in a statement questioning the scope of the study and how the task force will be composed.
The advocates suggested that half the panel be women and that it include trauma-informed therapists – as opposed to biblical counselors. They recommended inclusion of experts such as Christa Brown — a survivor and advocate who unsuccessfully lobbied the denomination in the past — or Larry Nassar survivor Rachael Denhollander and Andy Savage accuser Jules Woodson, two women whose testimonies helped ignite a #MeToo movement in the nation’s second largest faith group in the recent past, among others.