Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Florida Baptist Conv hit with $12.5mil judgment in sex abuse case

The Florida Baptist Convention plans to appeal a jury's decision to award $12.5 million in damages in a lawsuit claiming Baptist officials didn't check far enough into the background of a church planter convicted in 2007 of sexually abusing a 13-year old boy.
 Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press has the story on this: Florida Baptists to appeal abuse award. He has done more to publicize sex abuse in churches than any other Baptist I know of.

Baptist Press almost never carries stories involving sex abuse in SBC churches or involving SBC entities but they used the Florida Baptist Witness article on this one: Fla. convention to appeal jury judgment.

Another jury in May 2012 found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for running criminal, credit and background checks but neglecting to check references before helping Myers plant two now-defunct churches with training, financial aid and what the lawsuit termed implied endorsement by reporting news of his endeavor in the Baptist state newspaper.
The perp in the case was an officially sanctioned church planter for the Florida Baptist Convention who received funding, insurance, and other institutional support from the FBC and was working in an area where he was given office space by the local association. He started two churches there before he was convicted in 2012 of abusing a child.The damages were awarded after a second trial, completed this month.

I wrote on the original case back in 2012.

There are three things important about this case, aside from the main issue of children being abused by a miscreant Southern Baptist minister.

1. Local church autonomy and connectionalism is in jeopardy

It has long been the position, rightly so in my view, that associations, state conventions, and the SBC cannot be held liable for the acts of ministers hired, supervised, and fired by any of the almost 50k local SBC churches and missions. The Florida jury found the state convention to have liability because they failed to check the abuser's references and former places of service.

The perp has no money. The two churches he started in Florida are defunct. If there is any money to be found to award to victims it has to come from some higher level. The FBC has money. Although it is confident (read "slam dunk" in the comments of the FBC lawyer) it will win on appeal, I daresay that these are uncomfortable times for the state convention.

2. There are gaps in our autonomous system that make it rather easy for criminals like this man to move around without being caught and to victimize more children.

While the abuser was serving a church in Alabama, a deacon became suspicious when the pastor "surrounded himself with preteen boys" and on one trip made the boys swim nude. The concerned deacon took the matter to the church which split over the matter and the pastor left. 

But get this. The deacon who pushed the matter "asked his pastor to alert directors of missions in his association and two neighboring counties about his suspicions." God bless a deacon like that. There was no arrest, no confession by the perp,  and no conviction.  

Should Southern Baptists have some sort of arrangement whereby credible accusations could be referred, kept, and consulted? 

3. Those entities which provide funding for church planters and other non-employee positions should tighten up their vetting process. 

A few phone calls to former churches likely would have smoked this abuser out.

Somewhere, at some point, some SBC entity is going to be in the position of paying millions for a sex abuse case involving a local church. The FBC is confident this is not the case (the jury made a finding that the abuser was NOT an employee of the FBC, yet still assessed them for damages). 


Peter Reilly CPA said...

It might be worth studying the whole trajectory that this matter took with the Catholic Church. At some point and it really should be sooner the denomination should be looking at what it can do to help victims heal rather than focusing on defending itself financially.

The fact that you have a different polity does not change that you are supposed to be unified somehow in a spiritual sense. So shouldn't the first response be about what can be done to help the victims?

William said...

The 'go to' folks for some of these articles might be less than fair in their assessments of SBC actions or inaction. There has been a considerable change in denominational attitudes toward clergy sex abuse in the last 15 years or more.

There are marked and substantial differences between Baptists and Roman Catholics in regard to hiring, supervising, and firing ministers. The case in question here was one where several levels of SBC life were involved; hence, the jury's conclusion of liability.

I have followed and written on these things for some years and I would agree that far too many cases where an SBC church that has a minister who is accused of abuse their initial responses are to cover up, excuse, keep quiet, and protect the perp rather than to help the victims.