Monday, May 21, 2012

Game changer on sex abuse liability in the SBC?

A church planter who received support and training from the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC) was convicted of sexually abusing a thirteen year old boy in one of the autonomous churches he planted. The man is in prison for his crime and a jury has just found not just the church involved but also the FBC to be liable for damages he caused.

Is this jury decision that jumps beyond the autonomous church to both the local association and state convention a game changer in sex abuse liability for Southern Baptist entities?

I don't know the answer but the case is perhaps the single most significant development on clergy sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Here's a link to a news report of the case: Florida Baptist Convention found liable for former pastor who abused Eustis boy

The sex abuser was a pastor who planted two churches in the area with financial support from the Florida Baptist Convention and the Lake County Baptist Association.

Some of the facts of the case (from the news report):
Before Myers started his church work in Florida, the convention ran a background search on him, including a search of criminal cases, motor-vehicle violations and a credit check, according to testimony. However, none of the convention officials had checked his references or called the prior churches, according to testimony.
 [Lawyer for the FBC] argued that the convention is more of a support group for the affiliated Baptist churches and that Baptist churches are run independently. The convention doesn't maintain any kind of authority over churches, he argued.
"We had no right to control anything he did," [lawyer for the FBC] said to the jurors. "We didn't hire him. We didn't fire him. We didn't control him."
 However, the argument of the lawyer for the plaintiff proved to be persuasive to the jury:

[the sex abuser, Myers] came to Florida as a "church planter," and that the convention had a more direct role over him. Baptist churches may be independently run, but it wasn't a church committee that brought Myers to town, he argued to the jury.
Instead, Myers received his funding and training directly from the convention, was in contact with the convention's mission division and was included in church directories and Baptist publications as being affiliated, Weil argued.
"He wasn't a rogue. He wasn't on his own," Weil told jurors. "He was part of an affiliated church."

The Florida Baptist Convention did background checks on the man and found that he had no arrests or convictions. What the jury saw as negligent on the part of the state convention was their failure to check previous places of service where there was there was controversy over his behavior with young boys. 

If a Baptist pastor or staff member receives financial support, is included in denominational directories, is a recipient of training, and/or other types of support does this make the state convention or association liable for the independent actions of that pastor or staff member even though they do not employ or supervise him?

It does in this Florida case, so far.

If the verdict stands it could be expensive for the Florida Baptist Convention and catastrophic for the  Association. The latter could be easily bankrupted and the FBC with substantial assets could be hit hard.

The issue of how Baptists handle clergy is problematic. A man like the felon in this case may move from association to association, state to state, with impunity. That's not good for any of us. I don't know what the best solution to this is, but if the FBC has to pay damages in this case, the incentive should be sufficient for any SBC entity to ratchet up their level of scrutiny for all whom they fund and train.

A legitimate question out of this is whether or not state conventions and other Baptist entities are able to provide sufficient scrutiny for all the non-employees who may receive some funding and for all those who are involved in some level of training but who work in local churches.

For example, will the North American Mission Board, which is launching a major church planting effort as I write, one that will involve training and support for perhaps thousands of church planters, have to retool their vetting process? The same NAMB church planting initiative will employ a principle of not utilizing any planter or planting a church that is not related to a current SBC congregation. Does this relationship expose all those churches to liability even though they will not supervise the planter?

Will any of these SBC entities be able to thread the needle and support these people but without acquiring liability for their independent actions?

Serious questions. The answers should be formulated on the basis of what policy and procedures are best for protecting children and for keeping abusers out of our congregations. 

The solution proposed by some child protection advocates is a national, SBC funded, independent, objective review board to research abuse allegations. Even with that in place, this abuser would probably have not have had any record on such a board. No one can require churches to report unproven accusations. My thinking is that the vast majority of SBC churches are unlikely to send a report of local church gossip about a minister to any national board.

The holy grail for church sex abuse litigation among Baptist or other traditions where there is local church autonomy is to get liability moved up from the abuser's local church to one of the higher Baptist bodies.

As it stands now, this case has accomplished this. 

Is it a game changer?

I don't know but you can be sure every state convention, along with the Executive Committee, and SBC entities are looking at it closely.

So, how long do we have to wait for denominational executives and lawyers to address this with the greater SBC public?

Not long, I hope.


Anonymous said...


I wonder if the churches that he was previously at have any information on behavior that needed to be reported. If they do, they should also be liable. If not, what more could the convention have found?

I hope this things gets run to the end of all possibilities for the sake of victims everywhere. I hoe this even makes it harder for preachers to walk away from churches for any reason if God is not moving them. I hope churches looking for staff will do due diligence more than ever... all for the sake of the victims.

Jon L. Estes

Bert Ross said...

William, As a Professional Human Resource expert and one that serves in SBC ministries I would encourage churches and ministries to become very aware of all the new laws that have been enacted over the past few years when it relates to background checks, checking references, etc. We can no longer hide behind the statement, "we didn't think the laws applied to our church and ministry." Churches need to show due diligence when it comes to checking references, etc. I hope our State Conventions and Executive Committee will offer some insight and help with this issue. Check out (Society Of Human Resource Management) The HR issues are not for the faint of heart and for those who not live with it everyday.

Bert Ross PHR

Jonathan said...

Deciding to embrace the practice of due diligence is far less painful than having it forced on you.

Strange that Baptist institutions are just now getting around to learning this.

Blake said...

I hope it not only changes hiring practice, but also our polity. The pure autonomy we hear espoused is a delusion. It's a scapegoat so no one has to be responsible for what their brothers and sisters are doing. It's unbiblical and unChristlike.

William Thornton said...

State conventions are usually pretty sophisticated and ahead of the curve on such things. I'm guessing that we will hear from the FBC before too long. I can see how an association or local church might not have adequate awareness.