Sunday, October 5, 2014

Florida Baptist clergy sex abuse case a game changer?

A church planter comes to Florida to plant churches affiliated with the Florida Baptist Convention. He is not an employee of the FBC but is supported by the Convention through training, administrative services such as insurance and retirement, and is acknowledged through listing of Florida Baptist ministers. The local association assists the planter by giving him office space. The churches he plants are autonomous.

The planter is also a child sex abuser, though not one with any record of arrests or convictions.

While planting churches in Florida he abuses a minor, is arrested, and convicted.

The FBC is sued by the victim's mother and is awarded a $12.5 million judgment.

The FBC appeals, signalling confidence in its case that the man was independent and that they did not supervise the man and are not responsible for his actions.

Buried in a Florida Baptist Witness article of September 26, 2014 are a few paragraphs noting that the lawsuit has been settled out of court. Find the relevant passage beginning at the ninth paragraph in this news article.

The article notes that the settlement is confidential, will not impact the FBC's financial "bottom line," sets no precedent, and "no record will exist".

Little may be said publicly among Southern Baptist leaders and entities but it's hard to view this lawsuit, even as settled out of court, as not being a game changer for clergy sex abuse liability in the SBC, among our state conventions and various entities.

The insulation from liability that our convention structures have had as a result of local church autonomy is clearly weakened.

The sex abuse victim of an independent church planter and autonomous local church pastor sued the Florida Baptist Convention and won the suit and a large judgment. The convention settled, presumably with a monetary award and the predictable confidentiality agreement. Insurance companies were undoubtedly involved. Perhaps the FBC is not out any cash.

This isn't what a successful defense of autonomy looks like. The wall of separation between the individual pastor and the state convention (or, by extension a national SBC entity like NAMB) is cracked.

Here's what this may mean:

1. Lawyers for victims of clergy sex abuse will be encouraged to sue along the same pattern as this suit. Although the FBC was determined not to be the employer of the abuser, it did have some connectivity through background checks, training, and pastoral support.

2. Those who appoint, approve, support, and sponsor church plants and church planters have a responsibility to be thorough in vetting personnel, even if they are not considered employees. The abuser served previous churches where abuse was suspected and the FBC could have easily found this out by checking references. They did not.

3. Life is more complicated for autonomous Southern Baptists and it should be. If a church, NAMB, state convention, or local association sponsors, assists, encourages, or appoints any personnel they should be as thorough in vetting them as they are with those who are their formal employees.

The goal here is not to protect assets but to protect children from being abused at the hands of ministers, staff, and volunteers in our churches and entities.

One hopes lessons have been learned here. 


Anonymous said...

If he didn't have any arrests or convictions how in the world was the FBC supposed to know he was a danger? Baptists are autonomous and rightfully so but we have a responsibility to tell others if we know someone is an offender. In this case, I don't see how the FBC is liable but in today's world anyone can sue anybody for anything and get at least something.

William Thornton said...

All that was needed was to check his previous places of service, standard stuff when vetting candidates. They would have learned from people in those churches of a highly questionable record of behavior.

This case has some complications but isn't that difficult. A jury of ordinary people found the FBC negligent in their duty. As a result, kid was abused.

Anonymous said...

Good thing I wasn't on that jury. The FBC would not have been found negligent.

RLBaty said...

If the IRS can come to the conclusion, contrary to the facts and the law, that Pepperdine University is an "integral agency" of the "Churches of Christ" so that the basketball coach can sign up as a "minister" and have tax free income, it is easy to see how, given the facts of the case as described, a jury can, in effect, find the abuser to have been acting as an "agent" of the Baptist Convention.

William Thornton said...

RL, IRS case aside, gets the point here that a jury of ordinary citizens can hear a case and conclude that some level of SBC life was negligent in spite of a finding that the abuser was not an employee. That being the case, SBC entities like NAMB, FBC et al should be all the more diligent in their loose relationships with non.-employee ministers.h

Bert Ross said...

I am not surprised at the settlement and the connection between the different agencies, churches, etc. As a Human Resource professional I would highly advice churches, associations and state conventions to review their hiring policies and employee manuals. These organizations are responsible to obey current Federal and State employment laws and they change often.