A few people were kind enough to ask me about the recent SBC Guidepost Report as well as the “Secret List” maintained by former Executive Committee members. I thought it might be helpful to compile my thoughts and advice here. I could not bring myself to read the entire 288-page document, nor the catalog of over 700 abusers and their horrific crimes. However, I read the bulk, as well as Joe Carter’s summation for The Gospel Coalition.
I’m Not Southern Baptist. Should I Care?
If you’re not Southern Baptist, you might mistakenly believe you don’t need to worry about the SBC Guidepost Report. However, its findings are unfortunately consistent with patterns of abuse I’ve witnessed in every other denomination I can think of. I could write an almost identical report for the OPC, PCA, and other NAPARC denominations, for example. The prevalence of abuse, nature of crimes, and repeated failures to report child abuse to law enforcement are endemic throughout the church.
Subsequently, the recommendations which the SBC Guidepost Report outlines are things every church should consider. By commissioning this report and making it public, the SBC has gifted the entire church with an opportunity to learn, improve, and better protect children. Let’s not let pass it up.
A Few Things to Note:
- Neither the SBC Guidepost Report nor The List are comprehensive. Both are tips of very deep icebergs, exposing a small fraction of the evil and corruption which is rotting the church from the inside.
- The List catalogs 703 abusers who committed heinous sex crimes over many years.
- 409 of the 703 abusers are believed to have been affiliated with the SBC at some point in time, yet only 9 are supposedly still in ministry and only 2 remain affiliated with the SBC.
- Statistically speaking, for only 2 sexual predators to be active in 47,592 churches is not only improbable, it’s impossible. There are more sex offenders in most neighborhoods.
- In order to create a list like this, you almost have to cherry-pick data by focusing on offenders who never were or no longer are affiliated with the SBC. A list created to catalog current offenders would have come up with far more than 2.
- Guidepost is a secular organization. They approach this issue from a strictly practical and legal perspective. Subsequently, their recommendations are the bare minimum of what the church should consider as moral, responsible, and godly responses to abuse.
So Why Make This List? And Why Keep It Secret?
According to the Report, “Their main concern was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.” However, this makes absolutely no sense. You don’t avoid liability by creating liability. You avoid liability by following the law, telling the truth, and being responsible, ethical, and honorable. You don’t subvert and violate the law. You don’t bully and shun crime victims. You don’t deceive, blackball, or slander people who report crime. And I don’t believe for one second that the men who made this list are idiots.
So, this explanation for their behavior does not hold water with me. I really want to trust Guidepost and I believe their intentions are good. I also want to trust the SBC Executive Committee, but I can’t as long as they’re citing fear of liability as a motive for creating liability. It’s like saying someone lit their house on fire to prevent it from burning down. I fear we’re being asked to believe the lies of liars who are lying about why they lied.
Generally speaking, if you want to know why a person is behaving in a subversive or abusive manner, you need but look at the affect they’re creating. For example, if a loud and confrontational person is getting in your face and making you feel uncomfortable, then making you uncomfortable is probably their objective. Just so, I believe this List likely had the exact effect it was intended to. And I don’t believe it had anything to do with liability.
Rather, I believe this List was created to maintain a status quo where abusers could slide easily between unsuspecting congregations, and where certain men in power could control who was exposed and who flew under the radar. I think this was about power and ego; control and arrogance. I think this was about covering up dangerous evil in order to deceive Christians at the expense of the church so a few men could feel important.
Where Did the Data in The List Originate?
According to the Report, “For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) Executive Committee (“EC”) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff.” (Pg. 1)
While some cases in the List seem to have been sourced from the media, others seem to have been sourced directly from victims and witnesses who contacted the EC. Presumably, the latter make up the majority of “unconfirmed” reports which were redacted from the List.
Here’s what concerns me about that:
- Have all the “unconfirmed” reports been reported to law enforcement?
- If they have been reported, why are they still “unconfirmed”?
- Why are some “unconfirmed” reports redacted entirely, while others reveal disturbing details such as kidnapping or sodomy, yet redact the offender’s name?
- If the confirmed reports consist entirely of publicly available information, why was anyone reluctant to release the list? This is a big red flag to me. It does not seem honest or make sense.
What are Guidepost’s Recommendations to the SBC?
The majority of the SBC Guidepost Report recommendations are logical and practical. However, I do have some suggestions. For example, Guidepost recommends:
The formation of an Independent Commission and later establishing a permanent Administrative Entity to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct within the SBC.
This needs to be expanded to include all other forms of criminal abuse including domestic violence, child abuse, and really any form of violent or sexual crime. Often, one type of abuse indicates another. Someone who is capable of hitting his wife is likely capable of preying on a congregant, and visa-versa. To fail to take all forms of abuse into account is to put blinders on. You’re effectively ignoring the vast majority of abusers, who are probably sexual predators, they just haven’t been caught doing that yet.
Creating and maintaining an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders. Make the OIS available to churches on a voluntary basis.
This is a good idea, but it feels … voluntary. And when it comes to protecting children, I’m not a big fan of voluntary. I also want to be cautious that this alert system doesn’t become a substitute for background checks or reporting crimes to law enforcement.
I’m not sure what all goes into developing such a system, but it might be more cost-effective and efficient to provide churches (particularly smaller churches) with the funding they need for background checks. This way, you’re utilizing resources the government already provides, while also reducing liability and a dreadful amount of work creating and maintaining this system.
Providing a comprehensive Resource Toolbox including protocols, training, education, and practical information.
There are existing programs such as MinistrySafe, GRACE, and the Caring Well program which could be made available to congregations without creating a new platform from scratch. Or, perhaps this Resource Toolbox would be a sort of online hub featuring all these resources? I’m not really clear.
Creating a voluntary self-certification program for churches, local associations, state conventions, and entities based on the implementation of “best practices” to bring awareness to, and enhance prevention of, sexual abuse.
Again, ditch the voluntary, and again, outsource. We really need to stop in-housing everything. The Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention (ECAP) has already developed such a program and they’re rolling it out January, 2023. A program that’s unaffiliated with the SBC will carry more weight, reduce liability, and mitigate the time and expense of reinventing the wheel. www.ECAP.net
Improving governance controls, including the use of enhanced background checks, Letters of Good Standing, and Codes of Conduct to voluntarily strengthen hiring standards and improve governance.
I speak as a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian here, but please, for the love of all that is holy, my dear Baptist brothers and sisters, establish parameters in which the SBC can defrock perverted pastors and excommunicate wolves. It is simply not fair to place such a heavy burden on sheep. There’s a reason Paul wrote letters and traveled between churches, and it wasn’t because indie congregations were incredibly wise or brave. Your hyper-autonomy is killing you. I do not expect you to trust authority, especially now, but you need authority that can be held accountable. You need checks and balances to protect you from corrupt or unwise authority figures. You should not trust any authority who resists the idea of accountability. Accountability is not a Presbyterian concept. It’s biblical and logical and vital.
Restricting the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements which bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters, unless requested by the survivor.
Agreed. We do not fear truth and we should not trust people who do.
Adopting a “Declaration of Principles” that sets out fundamental standards regarding how sexual abuse allegations will be handled at every level of the SBC, and how those who report will be treated going forward. These Principles may provide a model for SBC entities, state conventions, local associations, and local churches to adopt and follow.
Again, broaden this. What about child abuse? What about domestic violence? What about assault and battery? What about human trafficking and prostitution and pornography? What about drug abuse?
I once advised on a case where a teenager had been raped and experienced a panic attack. Instead of dialing 911 or informing the child’s parents, a church youth leader slipped the kid a Xanax and told them not to tell anyone. That’s a federal crime. Will these principles cover such instances?
Different forms of abuse often coincide. One may indicate another. Some build up to another. For example, a camp leader may give teenage boys cigarettes, drugs, or porn, to lure them in and make them feel complicit before raping them. By zeroing in on abusers who’ve already been caught committing sexual crimes you’re effectively putting blinders on to the vast majority of abusers, who are probably also sexual predators, they just haven’t been caught doing that yet.
Acknowledging those who have been affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, through both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritizing the provision of compassionate care to survivors through providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.
What does this mean? How will you accomplish this practically speaking? What type of expenses would the compensation fund cover? Would it cover therapy, legal fees, relocation services, medical bills, housing for victims who can’t work, childcare, or prenatal services? Would therapy be limited to Christian or Biblical Counselors, or can the victim select a therapist who they feel comfortable with and who specializes in their particular needs?
Who would be eligible for aid? Would it only be survivors whose abusers have been convicted, or would anyone who said they were abused in the church be believed and helped? If the latter, how will you differentiate real victims from people who are trying to take advantage of victim aid?
To be clear, I’m not against this idea. If we’re talking about a diaconal fund allocated to supporting victims of church abuse, that’s wonderful, but there are a lot of details to consider and refine. Also, many states already have similar programs in place. Is there a way we could network with lawmakers and existing state resources to accomplish all of this without reinventing the wheel?
How Can the Church Earn Back Trust?
I’m so glad you asked. One very important aspect of repentance is making amends. So, here’s what I’d recommend. I’d love to see the SBC organize a Commission focused on influencing public policy around various forms of abuse. For example:
- Close legal loopholes that allow abusers to avoid prosecution.
- Eliminate Statutes of Limitations (SOL) for crimes against children and sexual assault.
- Remove options for sexual predators to have their names removed from sex offender databases. Let’s not let the cockroaches skitter back into the shadows.
- Make church leaders mandatory reporters in all states, and enact penalties for those who break state law. For example, in Texas, clergy who break mandatory reporter laws face absolutely no repercussions. None. What is the point of having a law with no penalty? Nobody knows.
- Lengthen sentences for violent crimes and crimes against children. There are states where convicted rapists may never serve prison time. Let’s change that.
- Make it impossible for abusers to get reduced sentences for “good behavior.” I don’t care if Pervy Pete ate all his green beans and didn’t shank anyone. He should stay in prison.
- Work on refining legal terminology to better protect victims. For example, in some states, sexually assaulting a male carries a lesser penalty than assaulting a female because “sodomy” isn’t considered “rape.” California Penal Code 261 (a) defines rape as “non-consensual sexual intercourse with another person who the offender is not married to.” So, what happens if you’re married to your rapist? Because, based on this law, he apparently can’t be charged with rape in California.
I have a whole list of these legal loopholes which I’d be happy to provide to anyone interested. I’d also be eager to assist the SBC in efforts to influence public policy, and I’m already in touch with lawmakers to better protect children and improve laws around abuse.
The ERLC (Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) already has established relationships with lawmakers, experience influencing public policy, and they’re already familiar with the topic of abuse through their work on the Caring Well Curriculum and Conference. So, I believe the ERLC is already equipped to take up this project. However, if the SBC follows through with appointing the Independent Commission recommended by Guidepost, it’s possible they could tackle this as well.
The SBC Sexual Abuse Hotline
Finally, Guidepost has announced the creation of an SBC Sexual Abuse Hotline, “for survivors or their proxies to submit allegations of abuse within the SBC. All submitters will remain confidential.”
My concern is, we could not trust these people before, so, why should we trust them now? I’m not trying to be insulting, it’s just my honest reaction to this. They certainly did a good job of keeping The List confidential, and far too much so. Previously, I guess, victims and witnesses called the main phone number to report abuse. Now there’s a special phone number we’re calling a hotline, so that’s a change, but what’s changed about how the information will be handled? Who is holding whoever answers the phone accountable? Are crimes being reported to law enforcement? Can you outline this for us?
I fear we’re once again in-housing cases of abuse. Not only that, we’re addressing an incredibly narrow type of abuse and ignoring all the others. What about battered wives? What about boys and men who are being abused but don’t want to call a number associated with “Sexual Abuse” because it’s too humiliating? Who do they call? Can we have a hotline that addresses abuse in general?
Far more emphasis needs to be placed on reporting crimes to law enforcement, especially sexual crimes and crimes against children. The vast majority of abuse related fiascos in the church could have been avoided had the church not confused its role with that of the legal system. We need to change this. When your car it stolen, you call 911. When your home is burgled, you call 911. When you or your child are abused, call law enforcement. After law enforcement is involved and after you’ve filed a police report, then loop in your church so they can support and comfort you. But they cannot protect you. They will not get you justice. And the church has made it abundantly clear that they’re great at bungling a crisis situation.
Subsequently, the SBC and all denominations need to be extremely careful and clear about when and why they ask abuse victims to report to them. Here are some good reasons:
- To help you file a police report if you haven’t already.
- To network you with counselors, lawyers, and other resources.
- To prevent the abuser from harming more people in the church.
- To remove the abuser from positions of authority and restrict access to children.
The cycle of the church bungling and covering up abuse cases will continue until the church realizes that it’s not a law enforcement agency, it cannot in-house abuse cases, it needs transparency and accountability, and it needs to outsource tasks it was never intended, designed, or equipped to handle well.