The Southern Baptist Convention’s new Ministry Check website will operate on the same principle that binds the denomination together — cooperation — according to the task force overseeing it.
On Feb. 27, the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force released a lengthy statement with FAQs explaining how the Ministry Check website will function. This online database — which for years previous SBC leaders said was not possible — is the centerpiece of the denomination’s response to last year’s independent investigation that painted a damning picture of denominational officials turning a blind eye toward reports of sexual abuse in churches and agencies and, in some cases, casting doubt on those who reported abuse.
“The Ministry Check website is based on cooperation,” the task force explained. “It is designed to help churches voluntarily share information and protect one another.”
An autonomous system
In other words, the data made available about known abusers will be only as good as what churches are willing to report. This goes to the heart of the challenge in keeping a database of “credibly accused” and convicted sex abusers across the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination — a denomination with only voluntary ties between churches and agencies.
Unlike United Methodists, for example, who operate in a connected system where all clergy are accountable to bishops, Southern Baptist clergy are accountable only to the local churches they serve. Most Baptist bodies have no bishops and no common eligibility for ordination.
This inherent lack of connectionalism was cited for years as a reason the SBC could not create or maintain a database of known sexual abusers.
The task force is relying on the desire of churches and church members to report abusers in hopes of preventing them from being passed off to other churches unwittingly.
Thus, the task force is relying on the desire of churches and church members to report abusers in hopes of preventing them from being passed off to other churches unwittingly.
Defining ‘sexual abuse’
What’s unknown is how successful that appeal will be in a climate where Southern Baptists disagree on the very definition of sexual abuse.
One prominent leader, Johnny Hunt, was named in the Guidepost Solutions investigation and yet a few months later was “restored to ministry” by a group of self-appointed advisers. Various factions within the SBC now debate whether he was guilty of sexual abuse even though his alleged victim gave a detailed report of him physically intimidating and touching her.
For its purposes, the task force has defined “sexual abuse” as “any sexual act that could result in a criminal conviction or civil liability in the jurisdiction where it occurred.”
Thus, while the SBC has made a moral case against all forms of sexual abuse, the Ministry Check website will adhere to “objective legal definitions and standards.”
The database also will hinge upon a definition of the term “credibly accused,” which the task force has defined in four possible scenarios:
- The individual was convicted of a crime of sexual abuse.
- Civil judgment has been entered against the abuser for the sexual abuse.
- The individual confessed to sexual abuse in a non-privileged setting.
- A qualified, independent third-party, commissioned by the appropriate local church or SBC entity determines according to civil court standards that the person is credibly accused, following a properly conducted independent inquiry.
The first three points of that definition would not cover someone like Hunt because he has not been charged or convicted of a crime and he has confessed only to inappropriate behavior while denying it was abusive. Despite his alleged victim’s detailed description of what happened — which was corroborated by others involved in the immediate aftermath — no legal charges being brought and his lack of confession would keep him off the list based on the first three points.
This is a common scenario in sexual abuse, with two-thirds of sexual abuse cases never reported to police.
What is an ‘independent investigation?
But the fourth category — allowing for a “qualified, independent third-party” investigation — is both more controversial and requires more interpretation. This is essentially what happened with Hunt. Acting on behalf of the first SBC sexual abuse task force, Guidepost Solutions conducted an independent, third-party investigation of many claims, including those against Hunt, and included those in the final report released last May.
Yet critics of the investigation itself — and allies of Hunt in particular — sought to discredit the Guidepost report as an insufficient and flawed investigation. The same thing conceivably could happen with a church’s independent investigation that may use legal standards but not carry the force of law.
In such investigations, the task force said a “preponderance of the evidence” — the legal standard that must be met for a civil judgment to be rendered in a court of law — will be the guide “to ensure that independent inquiries meet the same legal standard required by our civil justice system.”
When a “qualified, independent third party, commissioned by the appropriate local church or SBC entity” has done its work, any resulting findings will be “reviewed” by Faith-Based Solutions, the new unit of Guidepost Solutions created to handle church clients like the SBC. Faith-Based Solutions will “ensure the allegation meets the standard of ‘credibly accused’ according to civil court standards.”
Being listed on the Ministry Check website will not require a person to have been convicted of a crime or had a civil judgment entered against them.
Thus, being listed on the Ministry Check website will not require a person to have been convicted of a crime or had a civil judgment entered against them — although those things will result in being listed. It also will be possible to get listed as the result of a church’s own independent investigation if that investigation meets the standards outlined by the task force.
What is a ‘qualified’ firm?
The task force explained what it means by a “qualified” firm: An organization that “operates under the relevant state licensures and ethics codes for investigative entities in the jurisdictions where they operate, and whose members are in good standing with the ethics boards related to all professional licenses which are held.”
Further, a qualified firm “maintains a dedicated practice area for investigations and assessments related to sexual abuse and harassment and utilizes a team which is professionally trained in trauma-informed investigative techniques and practices.”
The SBC is not proposing any denominational entity or contractor to conduct such investigations about clergy. It will be up to each local church or entity to find their own path and submit their findings to Faith-Based Solutions for review, although the task force said it would recommend “qualified firms for churches or Baptist bodies to consider.”
For example, if Pastor Jones is accused of improper sexual contact with someone, it will be left to that church to instigate its own investigation or to contact local police if the impropriety rises to the level of a criminal offense. While sexual contact by an adult with a minor immediately constitutes a crime, sexual contact between adults falls into an array of legal categories that may include civil penalties or criminal penalties depending on the severity and nature of the offense.
If a conviction or civil judgment is entered, that information could be provided to the Ministry Check website for inclusion. But even if a criminal or civil judgment does not result, an accused abuser still could be listed in the database if an independent investigation finds them guilty.
What is the Ministry Check website?
The outcome of all this will be a searchable online database any church may consult when hiring new ministers or staff.
“The Ministry Check website … will provide churches with vital background information about potential candidates and volunteers,” the task force said.
“Filing a lawsuit, criminal charges without conviction, or an allegation not properly investigated by a qualified third party, will not meet (the) standard.”
Efforts also will be made to keep out false accusations and hearsay, the task force statement explained. “Filing a lawsuit, criminal charges without conviction, or an allegation not properly investigated by a qualified third party, will not meet (the) standard.”
The task force also acknowledged that “while false allegations are rare, … they do happen.” The standard of proof outlined above is a check on false accusations, the group said. “The Ministry Check website will provide a second level of review to give greater confidence in the authenticity of a credible accusation as determined by a qualified firm.”
While virtually anyone can submit a name to the Ministry Check website, only those individuals who have been convicted, confessed or independently investigated will be listed on the site.
Two pieces of advice to churches
The task force offered two other pieces of advice to churches when faced with allegations of abuse. First, call the police and report it. Second, don’t undertake an internal investigation on your own.
“Pastors and denominational leaders should not be in the position of investigating who is or is not credibly accused of sexual abuse,” the task force said. “Most pastors and leaders have not had the ability to receive in-depth trauma training, much less possess the significant skill and expertise needed for assessments or inquiries related to sexual abuse. This is not a slight on our pastors and leaders, it is a recognition that their skills and training are in different areas, and they should not be put in the position of having to do a job they were not called or equipped to do.”
Enlisting outside help also is best for survivors of sexual abuse, the task force asserted: “Survivors of sexual abuse need a trauma-informed, confidential agency to interact with if needed, to help ensure their safety, and to help ensure that interactions they have do not cause more harm. Unfortunately, as the Guidepost report revealed, survivors have often been harmed by SBC pastors and denominational leaders. We must recognize this and provide a safe place for survivors to engage as they desire and are able.”
In the SBC, a cord of three is not easily broken: Debates about sexuality, gender and abuse all twist together | Analysis by Mark Wingfield
Faced with damning sexual abuse investigation, some in SBC seek to discredit the investigators
SBC selects Guidepost Solutions to develop and administer clergy sexual abuse database