INDIANAPOLIS (ABP) — Citing Baptists' “belief in the autonomy of each local church,” a Southern Baptist Convention official announced May 10 that the denomination's Executive Committee would not support the creation of a database of sexual offenders in SBC churches.
“Southern Baptists believe that the local church in New Testament times was autonomous, and thus our local churches are autonomous,” Executive Committee President Morris Chapman said in his address to messengers at the SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis.
The announcement was greeted with disapproval from some Baptist child-abuse activists.
The move came in response to a motion, passed nearly unanimously by messengers to last year's SBC meeting, asking officials to study the database idea. Oklahoma pastor and former International Mission Board trustee Wade Burleson requested a feasibility study for such a registry “in order to assist in preventing any further sexual abuse or harassment” in Southern Baptist churches, as stated in the motion.
However, in its report to messengers, the Executive Committee noted, “it would be impossible to assure that all convicted sexual predators who ever had a connection with a Baptist church would be discoverable for inclusion on such a list.” The report also stated that a Baptist-only database would likely omit sexual offenders coming to SBC churches from other denominations.
But one Baptist child-abuse activist said that was a strange rationale.
“Interesting objection — that not all perpetrators could possibly be included,” said Dee Ann Miller, an Iowa mental-health and former Southern Baptist missionary. “I'm sure people in every state could argue the same, yet names of convicted offenders are readily available to the public. So why would 100 percent be expected of any list? That's like saying: ‘Don't arrest any murderers because you might miss some!'”
The committee recommended that SBC churches use the Department of Justice's national sex-offender database, calling it the best resource for protecting congregations against employing known abusers.
But Miller said that list is incomplete as well, and could best be used in conjunction with other databases.
“The limitations concern me far more than the fear that some perpetrators will be missed. My experience in listening to Baptist stories, along with many, many more in other denominations over the past 15 years, is that MOST will be missed,” she said, in e-mailed comments. “So why not have a convention database, make it readily available, and have a preliminary note warning people that they should also consult the government database?”
Burleson asked a similar question. He noted that a reporter asking him about the recommendation showed him two names of registered sex offenders who are on a database the Executive Committee currently maintains — a list of Southern Baptist ministers.
“If we're going to have a database with information about who's a Southern Baptist pastor, then it would seem to me we ought to clean that database up and take off anybody who's a sexual predator, or have some kind of notation on it, or not have it at all.”
By and large, the Executive Committee stood on the position that the autonomy of the local church superseded any jurisdictional authority the convention may have to create its own database, explaining that there are numerous SBC entities and resources already in place to assist churches in thwarting sexual predators.
“The convention's role is to encourage, empower and educate local churches as to how to best do their local work to protect our precious children,” Chapman said, in an impassioned address on the broader issue of child sexual abuse.
The committee's action came nearly a month after a staff minister at a prominent Dallas-area Southern Baptist megachurch. Prestonwood Baptist Church Minister to Married Adults Joe Barron was arrested and forced to resign over his alleged involvement in an online underage sex sting.
In his report, Chapman referred to the incident, and applauded Pastor Jack Graham's swift action on the matter.
Likewise responding to critics who suggest that the Executive Committee's action on the sex-offender database is insufficient, Chapman cited SBC resolutions passed in 2002 and 2007 supporting thorough punishment of sexual predators.
“Never let it be said … that we are anemic in the fight against sexual abuse,” Chapman said. “To say so is a false accusation.”
One of the most prominent activist groups on clergy sexual abuse released a statement saying that the recommendation was an insufficient response to Burleson's original motion, asking, “Where's the study?”
“I hope Southern Baptists will hold their leaders accountable and insist on a real, honest-to-gosh study,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Baptist officials could start by at least setting aside a designated budget for a real study, and they could hold hearings with experts from other faith groups.”
But Burleson said that, although he may disagree with the decision not to recommend the database, he believed the Executive Committee studied the matter seriously.
“I think they gave the investigation due diligence,” he said. “Anybody who heard Morris Chapman speak cannot say that he didn't take the issue seriously.”
In other Executive Committee-related business, messengers:
— Approved the 2008-2009 SBC operating budget, which included a line item for “Global Evangelism Relations.” When asked about the item from the floor, Bob Rodgers, an Executive Committee official, said it was a new initiative born out of the SBC's withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance in 2004. Rodgers said the initiative's goal is “to continue to develop relationships and fellowship with Baptists around the world.”
Chapman later introduced former SBC President Bobby Welch as strategist for the initiative. Welch called the program an “iron-clad demonstration” of the SBC's obligation to make “global relationships for the future.”
He also emphasized that the new program is not intended to interfere with the work of the SBC's North American Mission Board or International Mission Board. Global Evangelism Relations “will always have a view to be a complement and encouragement” to both entities, Welch said.
— Approved a recommendation to encourage all SBC entities, churches and new church plants to involve, engage and create more ministries for people with disabilities.
— Approved a 2008-2009 Cooperative Program allocation budget of $205,716,834, an increase of more than $5.1 million from the current budget.
— Approved three future convention sites: Nashville, Tenn., in 2013; Baltimore in 2014; and Nashville again in 2019.
— Greg Warner and Robert Marus contributed to this story.