The very thing Southern Baptist leaders have said for decades cannot be done tops the list of recommended actions from the independent firm that investigated allegations of mishandling sexual abuse cases.
Guidepost Solutions says the Southern Baptist Convention should “form an independent commission and later establish a permanent administrative entity to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct within the SBC.”
Abuse survivors and their allies have called for something similar for more than 20 years, and every effort has been stalled or blocked — often by the same forces detailed in the Guidepost report as deniers of the reality of sexual abuse as an urgent problem. However, Baptists have more reasons than many other religious bodies to reject such a central body because of their doctrine of local church autonomy.
Unlike Catholics or Methodists or Episcopalians, whose clergy are assigned by bishops, Baptist congregations search for and call their own clergy — often with little to no help from any denominational body.
In Baptist polity, all affiliations are voluntary, which means no association, state convention or national group has any say over what a local church does. Likewise, clergy ordinations are approved at the local church level, not a denominational level, although Baptist congregations generally recognize ordinations done by other churches.
Clergy ordinations are approved at the local church level, not a denominational level, although Baptist congregations generally recognize ordinations done by other churches.
Thus, one of the key questions messengers to the SBC annual meeting June 14-15 will debate is whether it is possible or advisable to create a national clearinghouse of information on clergy and lay leaders who have been credibly accused or convicted of abuse. There is no comparable database of ordained Baptist clergy, for example.
Creating a “do not call” list could put a stop to abusive pastors moving from one church to another, a problem that has plagued all churches but was made worse in the Catholic Church, for example, by bishops who knew they were sending abusers from post to post.
The Guidepost recommendation calls for a completely voluntary system of reporting but acknowledges that even a voluntary system needs structure and process. Thus, the suggestion to create an “Offender Information System.”
These are among 17 recommendations from Guidepost that now will be processed by the SBC Executive Committee and the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force. Initial processing is expected to happen rapidly, however, so that key ideas may be debated at the June annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.
Guidepost says it has presented “a comprehensive list of proposed recommendations intended to provide a pathway for the SBC to improve its response to sexual abuse and misconduct allegations in the future.” These include “voluntary minimum standards that churches, local associations, state conventions and all SBC entities can implement” and “address systemic and cultural issues from bottom to top.”
Among the other recommendations:
- Provide a comprehensive resource toolbox including protocols, training, education and practical information.
- Create a voluntary self-certification program for churches, local associations, state conventions and entities based on implementation of “best practices” to bring awareness to, and enhance prevention of, sexual abuse.
- Improve governance controls, including the use of enhanced background checks, letters of good standing and codes of conduct to voluntarily strengthen hiring standards and improve governance.
- Restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements that bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters.
- Set out fundamental standards for how sexual abuse allegations will be handled at every level of the SBC and how those who report will be treated.
- Acknowledge those who have been affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, through both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritize the provision of compassionate care to survivors through providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.
- Formalize and improve the Credentials Committee’s processes and procedures.
For its part, the Sexual Abuse Task Force already is crafting proposals to take to Anaheim. On the same day the nearly 300-page Guidepost report was released, the task force indicated a few big ideas under consideration:
- “That an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force be appointed by the next SBC president to assist with the implementation of reform initiatives in our convention for a period of three years. This Task Force will evaluate all recommendations by Guidepost and bring a report at next year’s convention on recommended reforms.”
- “That the Executive Committee hire a subject matter expert(s) to receive calls, provide initial guidance for reports of sexual abuse, and work with state conventions for training and educational opportunities.”
- “That all entity boards and standing committees have training regarding sexual abuse prevention and survivor care, as well as background checks as part of their orientation and selection.”
- That the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and six SBC seminaries “require formal preparation for their denominational workers and students in regard to prevention, training and survivor care.”
- That the Executive Committee set aside a budget and hire a salaried staff person for the Credentials Committee.
The SBC Executive Committee will have a called special meeting this week to work through the Guidepost report. And in the meantime, continued fallout is anticipated from several of the major revelations in the report, which documents email correspondence and social media content from individuals involved in SBC leadership.