A motion filed June 3 in a Virginia court says the Southern Baptist Convention is culpable in a multi-million dollar sexual abuse lawsuit against a member church.
“Going back to the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention was being asked to do something about sexual abuse of children,” attorney Kevin Biniazan told Richmond television station NBC 12. “We don’t think that they did enough.”
The lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Chesterfield County involves Jeffrey Dale Clark, a former youth group leader at Immanuel Baptist Church in Colonial Heights, Virginia, serving a 25-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to three counts of aggravated sexual battery and two counts of indecent acts with child by a custodian in 2016.
Eight individuals with ages now ranging from 14 to 24 allege they were sexually molested by Clark while he worked as an assistant and leader of the youth group between 2008 and 2015. They blame their injuries on “negligent, grossly negligent, reckless and intentional acts” by the Immanuel Baptist Church, Petersburg Baptist Association, Baptist General Association of Virginia and 47,456-church SBC, the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
The amended complaint says the SBC requires cooperating Baptist churches to adhere to standards created and enforced by the denomination and in the past has removed churches for violating the denomination’s views against homosexuality. The convention has also passed resolutions acknowledging that sexual abuse exists in Southern Baptist churches but to date has not taken similar action against churches that allow it to happen.
If the parents had been informed of the “increased danger of child sex abuse in the absence of and adherence to nationally adopted standards” by the SBC, the lawsuit claims, they never would have allowed their children to participate in the youth group at Immanuel Baptist Church. The victims seek more than $9 million in total damages.
“We want to do what we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Biniazan told Virginia CBS affiliate WTVR-TV. “The only way that I know how to do that … as a lawyer is to hold people responsible when they are responsible.”
“The goal and hope is that by holding entities or organizations responsible, they will change the way they do their practices and hopefully prevent this from happening,” the attorney said.
Meeting today and tomorrow in Birmingham, Alabama, the Southern Baptist Convention will consider a constitutional amendment expanding the definition of a cooperating church to exclude any congregation that “does not act in a matter consistent with the convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.”
Another motion would establish a standing committee authorized to “make inquiries of a church” about whether it meets membership standards, but stipulating that the group “shall never attempt to exercise any authority over a church through an investigation or other process that would violate” the autonomy of the local church.
In an address to SBC messengers Tuesday morning, President J.D. Greear said responding “definitively and decisively” to the abuse crisis “is a gospel issue.”
“At its core the gospel that you and I preach is about God’s commitment to protect the vulnerable,” said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Pragmatically, he added, “If we do not deal decisively with this, the rising generation simply will not come to our churches.”