Monday, June 11, 2012

The changing landsape of clergy sex abuse in the SBC

We are autonomous; always have been and always will be.

Every church that identifies with the SBC, with any state Baptist convention, with any local association of Baptist churches hires and fires their own clergy and any crime committed by the pastor or staff is a local church matter, Responsibility and liability fall to the individual and perhaps the church.


Yes, maybe, sort-of. But not always.

Last month a jury in Florida held the Florida Baptist Convention and the Lake County Baptist Association partially liable for a pastor of two FBC church plants who was convicted of abusing a boy. (My blog on this case is here.) The FBC and association provided funding and training and were found to have been negligent in checking the perpetrator's former churches.

Damages were to be assessed and the case is continuing in that phase.

But just last week a pastor of a cowboy church in Alabama, affiliated with the Alabama Baptist Convention and the Marshall Baptist Association, was arrested on sex abuse charges for alleged crimes in Texas.

The pastor was a former convict with a long record. Evidently, someone in Alabama didn't do their homework.

No accusations have been made of crimes by the pastor while at the Alabama church but the Alabama cowboy church that he pastored has fired him.

The association's Director of Missions released a statement that refused comment due to "legal issues." No comment was reported from the Alabama Baptist Convention.

While further details weren't given, these cowboy churches almost always are congregations promoted, supported, and touted by state conventions and local associations. Were I with the Alabama Baptist Convention or the Marshall Baptist Association, I would be just a bit nervous. Who knows what the man might have done while in this church in Alabama.

Another month, another SBC clergy sex abuse report.

A few observations:

  • The landscape for liability of SBC clergy has changed. State conventions, associations, along with the North American Mission Board and any other SBC entity have to be deliberate, meticulous, and thorough when finding, training, supporting, and placing clergy into churches or they may be liable for the actions of the clergy. Local church autonomy may no longer be a bulletproof defense.
  • State conventions have to take the lead here, since most laypeople in churches and many associational missionaries are not sufficiently current on the legal issues in clergy sex abuse.
  • NAMB has the resources to put internal controls in place immediately for their church planting program. If they have not already addressed this I would be surprised.
  • It is not a bad development that Southern Baptists at every level have a strong incentive to be more careful in calling ministers. It has always been a scandal that SBC clergy who act unethically and sometimes criminally, have been able to move to new places of service with tacit approval of former churches, DOM's, and others who have knowledge but kept quiet because they didn't want to ruin a brother's ministry.
It is somewhat surprising to me that we loyal, dedicated, and supporting Southern Baptists have yet to hear from our denominational leadership on this matter.

Business as usual, where SBC clergy who behave badly easily move among our churches because of the silence of those who know, has to end. Would some denominational leader please take the lead in this? We are all harmed.

I have yet to read a syllable from the Executive Committee, Baptist Press, the Florida Baptist Witness, the Florida Baptist Convention, or other SBC entity on the issue.

We do have lawyers on the payroll, right?

Let's hear from them.


Amy Smith said...

Your post is spot on and so timely and critical. When will they wake up, those who are prioritizing the protection of names on brick buildings instead of the precious lives of children?

I wrote about the astounding NYT magazine story about the secret history of sexual abuse at the elite private NYC school Horace Mann on my blog.

This story resonates with me as an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse and as a whistle blower to the child sexual abuse that has occurred at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas by my former youth music minister John Langworthy who is awaiting a criminal trial in Mississippi for felony child sexual abuse there. I have also heard from and about victims of 2 other former Prestonwood ministers and one adult volunteer. To my knowledge, none of these incidents of child sexual abuse has been reported by Prestonwood to law enforcement as required by law, though they have heard directly from victims.

Like at Horace Mann, the leadership of Prestonwood, headed by Dr. Jack Graham, has never said anything- not to the congregation, not to parents of kids in the church, not to the police, not to subsequent unsuspecting churches and communities of these credibly accused ministers, thus endangering more kids and enabling these predators. Silence.

Outrageous. Unacceptable.

Jack Carver said...

The defense in this case argued that the state convention did the criminal background check on the perpertrator. Since he had no prior charges or convictions, he was deemed acceptable. Are they not affirming that a simple criminal background check is inadequate for protecting minors in the church from minister predators who hop from church to church with impunity? If we know that criminal background checks are inadequate, then what are we doing in light of that knowledge to make our churches safer for our children?

Anonymous said...

I do not wish to say that the FBC does not have some accountability in this, that is up to the courts. I am wondering why the focus is not upon those who did know, instead of those who didn't?

Any type of history check could have turned up nothing. It is possible the churches he was at previously would continued to have remained silent.

The guilt is in the silence here, not the ignorance.

I would support following the trail to where someone knew and prosecute to the highest level possible there. If we don't remove the root of the problem, then it will continue to grow. I think if the goal of the victims (I am not pronouncing judgment but wondering why the FBC is liable) is to go for the money then the goal is wrong.

Jon L. Estes

Christa Brown said...

Amy pointed out how "the leadership of Prestonwood, headed by Dr. Jack Graham" had kept quiet about reports of clergy sex abuse, allowing the perpetrator to simply move on, and thereby placing many more kids at risk over the course of many years. Yet, despite that egregious conduct, and despite the fact that Prestonwood's two-decades-long keep-it-quiet cover-up came to light less than a year ago, Jack Graham will be a featured speaker at the SBC Pastors' Conference on June 18th in New Orleans.

So... not only does the Southern Baptist Convention do diddly-squat to hold accountable those who keep quiet about clergy sex abuse, but it actively promotes pastor Jack Graham despite the keep-it-quiet history in his own church . . . as though Graham were a good example and model for other pastors to follow. The implicit message the SBC sends is this: "Clergy sex abuse cover-up? No big deal."