Friday, January 24, 2014

Is the $12.5 million judgment against the Florida Baptist Conv. a game changer?

The assessment of a $12.5 million judgment against the Florida Baptist Convention last Saturday, damages awarded to a victim of sexual abuse by a Florida Baptist church planter/pastor, is being called a "game changer" by the victim's lawyers and by advocates for clergy abuse victims.

The story is reported by ABP in this article: Florida Baptists to appeal abuse award

A subsequent ABP article with comments from the plantiff's lawyer: Lawyer: Abuse verdict possible game-changer

Christa Brown of Stop Baptist Predators and the most well known advocate of Southern Baptist clergy abuse victims has a commentary: Change is coming to Baptistland

The matter of clergy sexually abusing children in SBC churches is no small matter and certainly not a game. I would offer that the landscape has already changed in the way abuse is viewed at every level in SBC life; however, the judgment against the FBC does escalate things. If the judgment stands (the FBC expresses confidence that their appeal will be successful, no surprise there) it will be the first time a denominational entity has been successfully sued in such cases (save for one other occasion where an insurer settled to avoid high legal costs) and awarded damages for the action of a local church minister.

We Baptists do have this polity that we tout early and often, local church autonomy. In our system everyone knows that "Southern Baptist Convention" hires, supervises, and fires exactly zero local church ministers. Each church does that on their own, as they see fit. Critics maintain that SBC leaders "hide behind" this local church autonomy polity to avoid responsibility for the actions of local church ministers. SBC leaders respond that there is no material connection between an SBC church and the denominational machinery, since the Executive Committee of the SBC, state conventions, and associations have no control and power over any church or any church's ministers. 

But  we do have some hybrid arrangements where ministers receive funds from various SBC organizations other than their local church, where some ministers have some supervision by denominational entities, and where some have mandatory reporting requirements. Church planters, for example, are interviewed, trained, vetted, and selected by various people representing associations, the North American Mission Board, or other entity and some by joint arrangements among these. The failure of the FBC to check the abuser's previous places of service was the cause of the jury's decision in this case.  

I'm guessing that associations and associational missionaries, denominational executives, seminary administrators, state convention executives, and some pastors are pondering this matter now moreso than ever. 

Questions:

1. Associational Missionaries often handle resumes, try and place ministers seeking a church position, and provide references to churches asking about particular ministers. Will the association be held liable for negligence if an abuser with a history easily discovered is passed along to a church? Will associational missionaries just stop handling resumes altogether?

The common scenario for a clergy sex abuser is for him to leave a church where he has been suspected of abuse, either voluntarily or by forced termination, but without arrest or prosecution and relocate to another association or state where he is unknown and can start over with the same behavior. Associational Missionaries are the closest to the local churches, so they may be involved, unknowingly, in helping such a minister relocate and find another church. 

2. State conventions maintain online resume services. Will they continue or require more of those whom they permit to place a resume on their server? Will the state convention pastor relations staffer restrict or refuse to make referrals?

Most of us have been referred to churches sometimes in our career by state convention staff who assist in relocations. In my state a minister may create and place his resume on the state convention's website where church may access it and contact the minister about a position. I am unsure if state conventions are as helpful in placing ministers as they once were.

3. Will any SBC entity who provides funding, training, and supervision for church planters or other ministry positions tighten up their vetting processes?

The answer to this had better be 'yes' or we have cases of denominational malpractice. We would be severely ill served were our denominational staff not to have already done and be doing this.

4. Will churches or SBC entities that sponsor an individual as a church planter by providing funding be open to liability for his actions?

Take the mammoth and successful North American Mission Board's Send North America church planting program. Among other things, each planter must have a sponsoring or partner church, some local SBC congregation that commends him and is involved in some way with his church planting work. Does this expose that church to liability for the planter's actions? NAMB provides millions in funding for planters. Do they thereby acquire liability for each planter's actions?

5. What can be done?

The question of what Southern Baptists can do is a rather prickly one. We have in the past refused to establish an SBC Executive Committee level registry for convicted and confessed clergy sex abusers. Part of the reason for not doing this was, as I have heard, the question of liability. Even if there were such a registry, the abuser in this Florida case would not have been on it.

Should Southern Baptists establish an independent committee of professionals who would receive and maintain credible accusations against SBC clergy? This is one of the goals of Christa Brown and Stop Baptist Predators. The abuser in this case might have been reported to such a committee. Do SBC clergy wish to have an independent committee evaluating accusations against them and judging whether or not they are credible accusations? 

The long running Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal has caused the matter of clergy sex abuse in local SBC churches to undergo not a few changes. Many, perhaps all, church insurers require churches to have formal sex abuse policies and to do background checks on staff and volunteers. State conventions and otther entities have had such policies for years. I expect more change is coming. 

Perhaps our denominational brain trust could be roused to address this.

Whether the FBC award stands or not, now would be a good time to do something more than we are doing.


10 comments:

Robert Baty said...

Meanwhile, the Baptists appear to be the first to report on and make a pledge to intervene and help out the Justice Department against Judge Crabb's ruling that IRC 107(2) is UNconstitutional.


http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=41896

William Thornton said...

Yep...the saga continues.

Bert Ross said...

As a Human Resource professional that specializes in non-profit and church related HR issues i recommend that churches, associations, state conventions and national conventions make sure they are in compliance with HR laws and regulation. This case is the tip of the iceberg of what is coming.

William Thornton said...

Part of the issue in the case is that the Jury found that the abuser was not an employee of the FBC.

dr. james willingham said...

There are forces at work to destroy the Southern Baptist Convention and its affiliated state conventions as well as the churches which are members, usually, of the SBC, a state convention, and a local association. And then we have theological manipulation, individuals who go to extremes in theology without any perception of how a theology works. They also do not cite relevant examples. This process was used in the Primitive/Missionary, Landmark, as well as the later controversies. It is interesting to read Carroll Quigley's Tragedy and Hope and note the theology that he sets forth for the conspiracy folks and the theology they oppose. Imagine: the mentor for Mr. Clinton at Georgetown, the person who recommend him for the scholarship to Oxford, talking about a conspiracy in a 1200+ page subtitled "A History of The World in Modern Times." Extrapolate to many of the controversies rending denominations as well as to political controversies rending nations and the other areas of life, and one might began to get a handle on what is really happening in the world at large and to our denomination in particular.

dr. james willingham said...

There are forces at work to destroy the Southern Baptist Convention and its affiliated state conventions as well as the churches which are members, usually, of the SBC, a state convention, and a local association. And then we have theological manipulation, individuals who go to extremes in theology without any perception of how a theology works. They also do not cite relevant examples. This process was used in the Primitive/Missionary, Landmark, as well as the later controversies. It is interesting to read Carroll Quigley's Tragedy and Hope and note the theology that he sets forth for the conspiracy folks and the theology they oppose. Imagine: the mentor for Mr. Clinton at Georgetown, the person who recommend him for the scholarship to Oxford, talking about a conspiracy in a 1200+ page subtitled "A History of The World in Modern Times." Extrapolate to many of the controversies rending denominations as well as to political controversies rending nations and the other areas of life, and one might began to get a handle on what is really happening in the world at large and to our denomination in particular.

dr. james willingham said...

I meant to add: Just think of the largest Protestant Mission force being destroyed from within its own ranks by infiltrators and individuals who have a fuzzy grasp of what is really happening? These happenings are far larger than one can imagine. That is, they require some tremendous resources, detailed planning, and resolute determination to destroy.

dr. james willingham said...

I meant to add: Just think of the largest Protestant Mission force being destroyed from within its own ranks by infiltrators and individuals who have a fuzzy grasp of what is really happening? These happenings are far larger than one can imagine. That is, they require some tremendous resources, detailed planning, and resolute determination to destroy.

Anonymous said...

"There are forces at work to destroy the Southern Baptist Convention ... Just think of the largest Protestant Mission force being destroyed from within its own ranks by infiltrators...."

Infiltrators? That is nutty. If the SBC implodes it will do so with and by the hand of SBC people. If such happens, perhaps one day one might develop a few index cards researching such.

Diane Polonsky said...

Clergy Malpractice runs without restraint in the Los Angeles "orthodox" community with no oversight. There is no high achy when it comes to clergy malpractice and hiding of predators, and allowing victims to be victimized under the umbrella of religious constraint.
ballandofphilipfishelcohen.blogspot.com

Diane Polonsky