Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's wrong with the "sexual predation" resolution

In anticipation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 14-16 annual meeting in St. Louis, Pastor Bart Barber of Farmersville, Texas, has floated a proposed resolution “on sexual predation in the Southern Baptist Convention.” In explaining his reason, Barber wrote: “What drives me to submit this resolution is my concern that the worst days of church sexual misconduct may be ahead of us rather than behind us.”
I believe Barber is probably right that the worst days of clergy sex scandals may be ahead for Baptists -- because they don’t yet seem to have learned the needed lessons from past scandals -- and I applaud Barber for his apparent recognition that Baptists do indeed have a dire problem. However, I don’t think for one second that Barber’s resolution will actually bring about any significant change in how the Southern Baptist Convention deals with clergy sex abuse. Here’s why.
1. What’s being proposed is a “resolution.” Nothing more. It’s just talk. A resolution doesn’t actually do anything. It was almost 10 years ago that SNAP wrote its first letters to top SBC officials, requesting specific action, and action is still what’s needed. It is not enough -- not nearly enough -- to simply resolve that things should be better.
2. While the resolution generically expresses disapproval of churches that have acted in ways to prevent victims or others from reporting sexual abuse, the fact of the matter remains that the SBC provides no denominational mechanism by which survivors may safely report clergy abuse and church cover-ups with any realistic hope of being compassionately and objectively heard. By continuing to insist that clergy abuse survivors must go to the church of the accused pastor, the denomination itself institutionally discourages the reporting of clergy abuse, and assures that, most of the time, denominational officials will not even have to feel the discomfort of hearing about clergy abuse and cover-ups. Cases that make it into the media are the bare tip of the iceberg. If the SBC wants to express disapproval of churches that have acted in ways to prevent people from reporting instances of sexual abuse, then it must start by being willing to institutionally hear the voices of those who are trying to tell about such instances. And that would require a system by which survivors could make a report to a “safe place” office staffed by people with the training, experience, objectivity and professionalism to at least receive them with compassion and care.
3. While the resolution affirms the role of “proper authorities” in investigating sexual abuse allegations, it gives no consideration to the reality that the vast majority of clergy sex abuse claims cannot be criminally prosecuted -- often because of church cover-ups in the past -- and it makes no mention of how the SBC should deal with the many clergy abuse survivors who, even when their claims cannot be criminally prosecuted, would nevertheless seek to report their claims within the faith group in the hope of protecting others.
4. While the resolution cites 1 Timothy 5 with its call for “public rebuke” of "sin on the part of elders,” the resolution itself does not even attempt to actually make any rebuke of any church, pastor, deacon or minister. Denominational entities have disfellowshipped churches for having women pastors and for being too welcoming of gay people, but I am unaware of any instance in which the SBC has ever disfellowshipped a church on the basis of a clergy sex abuse cover-up. So, rather than a toothless resolution, it would be far more meaningful if this were an actual motion to rebuke or disfellowship a specific church based on a clergy sex abuse cover-up. The prominent Dallas megachurch, Prestonwood, would be a good place to start. Thanks to the enormous efforts of SNAP member Amy Smith, it was finally brought to light, as reported in several news sources, that Prestonwood church officials had not reported child molestation allegations involving a staff minister, John Langworthy, but rather had allowed him to move on to another church, essentially unleashing him into the denomination at large where he was able to continue in a position of leadership with children. It was only years later, after more than two years of effort on Smith’s part and with no help from Prestonwood or the SBC, that Langworthy finally pled guilty on multiple molestation charges in Mississippi. Not only did Prestonwood officials, including senior pastor Jack Graham, fail to make kids’ safety a priority at the time, and not only have they shown no public remorse since then, but in a statement to WFAA-News, executive pastor Mike Buster publicly bragged that the church had “dealt with the matter firmly and forthrightly” because Langworthy was “dismissed immediately.” Thus, from all appearances, to this day, Prestonwood officials seem to think that what they did was right. Furthermore, since SBC officials made Jack Graham a featured speaker on “leadership” at the 2013 Pastors’ Conference, it appears that SBC officials have no problem with what Prestonwood did either. Yet, this is exactly the sort of conduct that the SBC should rebuke in its affiliated churches if the SBC hopes to have any moral credibility on this issue.
5. Finally, by using the language of “sexual misconduct,” the resolution inappropriately (and perhaps inadvertently) minimizes conduct that should not be minimized. When you are talking about the molestation and rape of children by trusted religious leaders, and the cover-up of those crimes by other religious leaders, you are talking about something a great deal more serious than mere “misconduct.”
Conclusion:  The time for mere talk is long past. The Southern Baptist Convention needs to undertake cooperative action for (1) the provision of a denominational “safe place” office to which Baptist clergy abuse survivors may make a report when it cannot be criminally prosecuted; (2) the systematic logging of clergy abuse reports within the denomination; (3) the assessment of clergy abuse reports by a panel of experts who are outside the church of the accused pastor; and (4) the provision of a denominational resource by which local churches may obtain reliable information about clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

1) The comments under the SBC Voices "preface to a resolution" post are worth reading as are the comments under this related post which argues for "grace" to those pastors who handled things poorly in the past.
2) Thanks to the widely-read for linking to this post, saying "Christa Brown discusses the limits of that resolution, and what more the SBC needs to do."