The Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee has proposed an amendment to the SBC constitution that would allow for churches to be disfellowshipped when they are determined to have “evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse.”
Sounds good, right?
But take a closer look.
The amendment sets forth four examples of conduct the committee can consider as evidence of church indifference:
(a) employing a convicted sex offender,
(b) allowing a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer in contact with minors,
(c) continuing to employ a person who unlawfully concealed from law enforcement information regarding the sexual abuse of any person by an employee or volunteer of the church, or
(d) willfully disregarding compliance with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.
All four focus on determinations of criminal conduct. This is troubling because sexual abuse cases that encounter the criminal justice system are just the tip of the iceberg.
Further, when one examines how the committee has recently applied these standards, what was troubling on its face becomes even more grievously flawed in the application. While the amendment’s language suggests there could be “other things” that would trigger a determination of “indifference,” in application the committee treated these four as being the only standards.
Application of the amendment’s standards yielded an irresponsible decision.
Only 10 churches had been on SBC President J.D. Greear’s list as deserving of inquiry for the disregard of sexual abuse. Even as survivors and advocates were shouting that there were many more than 10, the executive committee’s bylaws workgroup quickly issued a statement clearing 7 of the 10 churches. Referencing the standards of the proposed constitutional amendment, the statement declared that “No further inquiry is warranted.”
“By making ‘evidence of indifference’ contingent on ‘criminal convictions,’ the executive committee abdicates the faith group’s own moral responsibility for safeguarding children.”
The decision was widely criticized and rightly so; if nothing else, it illustrated why independent inquiries are needed. However, we should not let outrage over the irresponsible substance of the “no further inquiry” decision blind us to the still uglier reality of exactly how that decision was made. The “how” reveals the avoidance tactics SBC officials will likely use under this amendment as future cases arise.
Likewise, the resignation of the workgroup’s chairman should not obscure the fact that the committee has not walked back or rescinded the workgroup’s statement. It stands as a dreadful testament to a methodology of denominational do-nothingness that the proposed amendment will do little to quash.
If prior judicial determinations are needed, few cases will face scrutiny.
For all four standards of how churches may “evidence indifference,” the statement makes plain that “in most cases, a judicial body would have already determined these items as matters of fact.”
By suggesting the need for prior judicial determinations, the workgroup set in place a remarkably high threshold for denominational action, effectively rendering even egregious cases outside the realm of inquiry.
The workgroup claims that “where criminal convictions along with ecclesiastical actions by the church body” prove indifference to sexual abuse, “the Convention stands ready to act.” But this amounts to a not-so-artful dodge because simultaneously, within the same statement, the workgroup sets up circumstances that will allow the convention to avoid action in most cases.
By making “evidence of indifference” contingent on “criminal convictions,” the executive committee abdicates the faith group’s own moral responsibility for safeguarding children. Effectively, the committee conflates judicial determinations with institutional accountability and disclaims its own power to hold SBC-affiliated churches accountable.
Loopholes make church accountability even less likely.
In addition to making institutional accountability contingent on prior judicial determinations, the workgroup created huge loopholes by announcing that it would consider whether the “passage of time” and “changes in the church’s administration or membership” had rendered the launching of an inquiry to be “of no value.”
Let’s think about that.
Certainly, the mere “passage of time” does nothing to ameliorate the harm to those victimized by clergy abuse and church cover-ups.
“By insisting that accountability should be imposed only when there is action by the entire church body, the executive committee effectively rewards successful cover-ups.”
Furthermore, the “passage of time” renders a church’s cover-up of abuse to be more egregious, not less. The longer a cover-up continues, the more likely it is that statutes of limitations will pass so as to preclude the very criminal prosecutions the committee deems essential for triggering denominational inquiry.
And how are we to imagine that a church would ever be held accountable if some slight change in church “administration or membership” is enough to preclude an inquiry? Could a church simply put a new person on the payroll or round up a new member?
The workgroup’s statement reinforces this evasive approach to accountability by citing Matthew 18 and suggesting that there should be no inquiry unless the entirety of the “church body” takes action to “endorse or affirm” the criminal conduct. The very nature of a church cover-up is that church leadership doesn’t inform the congregants about abuse allegations against the leaders. By insisting that accountability should be imposed only when there is action by the entire church body, the executive committee effectively rewards successful cover-ups.
With catch-22 standards such as these, you can be sure that SBC-affiliated churches will rarely face any accountability.
Finally, the fact that the executive committee voted unanimously for this self-serving, dodgy amendment shows how far leaders of the largest Protestant denomination in the country still have to go before there is any true reckoning with the scourge of sexual abuse that rots the very core of this Baptist faith group.
Previous opinion on this topic:
Christa Brown | Another alarm sounds on clergy sex abuse: Will Southern Baptist leaders just hit snooze again?
Bill Leonard | An ‘apology’ is not ‘repentance’: responding to clergy sexual abuse and other crises in American Christianity
Christa Brown | Clergy sex abuse: why the SBC’s ‘studying it’ response isn’t enough
Mary Day Miller | Addressing clergy misconduct: American Baptists do things differently