With its recent rollout of an online reporting process, the Southern Baptist Convention and its Credentials Committee have once again failed clergy sex abuse survivors and given them yet another reason to distrust the SBC as an institution.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse committed by an SBC pastor, I’ve been doing advocacy work related to Baptist clergy sex abuse for over 15 years. During this time, I’ve seen countless examples of institutional and individual betrayals and failures within the SBC, often accompanied by hollow words or duplicitous chicanery. So I’ve become a skeptic.
Over the past year I’ve seen many younger advocates and survivors in Baptist life also become skeptical.
While I whole-heartedly applaud their eyes-wide-open savvy and feel such gratitude for their energy and commitment, I also feel sorrow. When I began this work, I did so in the hope that younger people might be spared the re-traumatizing institutional recalcitrance that I had encountered. But tragically, the cycle seems to be repeating itself.
“The risks of such an unprotected process will almost certainly mean that many survivors will forego reporting.”
Like me, many of these younger survivors started out with some hope that they would be heard and that things would change. But in light of what they have seen at this year’s annual SBC meeting in Birmingham, the uncaring “Caring Well” conference, the ignoring of known survivors, the propping up of known enablers, the image-polishing PR tactics – and all without meaningful denominational action – many are becoming every bit as skeptical as me.
The SBC has effectively trained another generation to be rightfully wary of everything its leaders say about addressing the persistent problem of clergy sexual abuse.
And now, for many of us in the clergy abuse survivor community, this SBC Credentials Committee process feels like one more nail in the coffin of trust.
Speaking out on Twitter, Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE and a former sex crimes prosecutor, described the process as “extremely vague” with “important loose ends … dangerously dangling,” adding that it would “undoubtedly mislead survivors and cause many to feel betrayed … again.”
Blogger and advocate Dee Parsons urged that people should be “downright impatient” with this process and predicted it will have little impact because “it has no teeth.”
Cheryl Summers, founder of the For Such a Time as This Rally, said, “It is exhausting when we have to figure out exactly what the wording means…. At almost every turn, it seems the SBC likes to hide in the shadows.”
SBC survivor and advocate Tiffany Thigpen pointed out that the process had so much “fine print” to exculpate the committee that it seemed “there are more back door exits than there are safety nets for the abused.”
Though initially reported as a problem of not allowing for anonymous tips, the danger of the Credentials Committee’s process is actually more troubling than that. In its “statement of assignment,” the committee affirmatively allows that “the identity of the individual or individuals making the allegations may be shared with the church.”
Thereby, the committee recklessly ignores the long history of churches inflicting dreadful, additional harm on those who report abusive clergy. As such, this reporting process is not even a safe process, much less an effective one.
While many whistleblower processes require that complainants identify themselves to a review panel, what typically happens is that the review panel, in turn, commits to preserving complainants’ privacy so as to protect them from retaliation. In other words, there are established institutional safeguards.
This is not so with the Potemkin process set up by the Credentials Committee, which provides zero protection for complainants. Combined with the many “back door exits,” which make the likelihood of effective action illusory, the risks of such an unprotected process will almost certainly mean that many survivors will forego reporting.
The process is unsafe not only for survivors, but for anyone else who might want to report abusive clergy or churches that cover up abuses. For example, imagine you’re a church secretary with information about an abusive pastor. Assuming you need your income to support your family, how likely will you be to make a report when you’re told from the get-go that your identity may be disclosed to the church?
What’s needed is an outside, independent, professionally-staffed panel, with trustworthy and transparent processes, so as to provide survivors and others with a safe place where they can (1) report abusive clergy while having their privacy safeguarded, (2) have a reasonable expectation of being objectively and compassionately heard, and (3) have their reports fairly assessed by people with the expertise to do so responsibly.
Many may argue that, for outside investigations, people should simply go to the police. Of course, crimes should always be reported to law enforcement. But merely referring people to the police provides no solution to the SBC’s systemic problem and amounts to an immoral institutional abdication.
The reality remains that the vast majority of clergy sex abuse cases will not, and often cannot, be criminally prosecuted, frequently because of church cover-ups in the past that allowed statutes of limitation to run out. So, if kids and congregants are to be protected, there must also be effective mechanisms for institutional accountability.
“The SBC has effectively trained another generation to be rightfully wary of everything its leaders say about addressing the persistent problem of clergy sexual abuse.”
An outside, independent, professionally-staffed review panel is the first step toward accountability – and a step that must come prior to any Credentials Committee process. Otherwise, the process is unlikely to have much impact.
An outside, independent panel could make determinations about credibly-accused clergy sex abusers and enablers and relay that information to churches. The churches could then exercise their autonomous authority based on sound information. And if a church persisted in keeping a credibly-accused pastor in the pulpit, the Credentials Committee would then have a solid basis on which to deem a church “not in friendly cooperation.”
The use of an outside, independent panel would be a much more expensive process than the flawed Credentials Committee process. But at some point, the SBC must cease with trying to address this massive problem on the cheap via superficial tactics focused more on institutional image-management.
After all these many years of denominational do-nothingness – and after many hundreds and likely thousands of wounded clergy sex abuse survivors – the SBC must finally decide to do what it takes to better protect kids and congregants and to truly care well for those who have been abused within this faith group.