A Response to Sexual Misconduct Issues

On February 20, the Houston Chronicle began publishing a 3-part series titled Abuse of Faith. You can read all three parts on the newspaper’s website by clicking here.

The introduction to the series states,

“In the past 20 years, a disturbing number of Southern Baptists with formal church roles have engaged in sexual misconduct, a new investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reveals. They were pastors. Deacons. Youth pastors. They left behind more than 700 victims. Read and hear the stories of those victims, and learn the depths of the crimes and misconduct of the church leaders they trusted.”

The report is sobering, especially when considered against the backdrop of repeated efforts by advocates to hold churches accountable for sexual misconduct, and calls by SBC messengers to establish a reporting system for sexual abusers. While the overwhelming majority of pastors and church leaders are not sexual predators, the damage left behind by those who are is heartbreaking.

On February 18, SBC President J.D. Greear addressed the convention’s Executive Committee and outlined, “a wide-ranging plan against sex abuse (that) includes education, proven sincerity and diligence, accountability and possibly a sex abuse database and congregational disfellowship.”

For more than ten years, the Executive Committee has declined requests to create a sexual abuse database citing local church autonomy. It is true that false accusations could occur, but complete inaction has only made the problem worse. For every excuse to do nothing there are dozens of victims.

For our purposes, in the wake of this reporting, what are some things that churches can, and should, do now to protect our members and children?

Churches must be diligent to conduct background checks for staff, volunteer leaders, and even for those they seek to ordain into ministry.

The time has long passed that churches can excuse the failure to conduct thorough background checks on employees and volunteers. Any legitimate person should not be uncomfortable with this process. Less than two years ago this proved valuable for a church in our own association.

An individual attending a PBA church expressed interest in working with the youth program. When told that he would have to submit to a background check, he told the youth minister that he had an issue in his background that would show up. He described it as a misunderstanding and blamed the incident on a vendetta by his ex-wife. He also claimed that he was in the process of clearing things up.

In fact, this man had been sentenced to 10 years probation after pleading guilty in another county for sexual assault of a child. He was required to register as a sex offender. County officials provided us with the terms of his probation which he was repeatedly violating on church property.

In an act of grace, church leaders offered a solution that allowed him to attend Sunday worship under strict supervision. He refused and left the church with his family claiming that church leaders were mistreating them. He has since been arrested and convicted of violating probation.

The Chronicle also reports that some churches have hired individuals knowing that they have had these problems in their past. While we want to preach grace and redemption, this is clearly one of those things that disqualifies someone from leading a congregation.

Churches will have to stand firm to provide the utmost protection for children and their families.

Churches must develop and maintain adequate training and policies for supervision of children and the behavior of leaders.

Again, the time has long passed when churches can allow familiarity to override adequate policies for supervising children. Parents should be reassured that their children will not be left alone with an adult, and that volunteers and staff are adequately screened and trained to work with children and youth.

In the example cited above, the person in question actually showed up and “hung around” at the church building during the church’s Vacation Bible School before the church was aware that he is a registered sex offender. This could have had tragic consequences.

In another recent incident in a PBA church, a pastor was discovered to have had a series of suggestive text messages and conversations with some young adult women. While there is no evidence of sexual involvement, the behavior was inappropriate and the pastor resigned rather than answering to the evidence presented.

The Chronicle’s series details how youth ministers began their abuse by using flattering and then suggestive text messages, video chats, and isolated visits with teenage girls in their homes.

Churches need to consider adequate policies that set expectations and accountability for their leaders regarding both personal and electronic conversations, as well as personal meetings.

Allegations regarding sexual abuse will have to be taken seriously and investigated by an independent party adequately trained to do so.

One of the sad revelations regarding sexual abuse, and any abuse in general, is that churches often fail to adequately investigate allegations. They may try to investigate internally even though they are neither trained nor resourced to do it well.

Sometimes they investigate with a pre-conceived bias that leaves victims to feel victimized a second time, often being told to quietly “put it behind them.” Other times the accused are quietly told to leave, and they move on to another unsuspecting church leaving a trail of victims in their wake.

False accusations can be sorted out by trained, independent investigators and the false accusers can be held to account. The fact is that there are far more cases of allegations ignored.

We cannot afford to place our fear, our reputation, or our autonomy ahead of protecting and defending the vulnerable placed in our care. And we certainly cannot sacrifice victims in the interest of church growth.

These are only a few suggestions. I’m sure there are more, and I appreciate the attention brought to this by our current SBC President. I pray that our actions will match our words in the future.

As an Association of churches, I hope that we will set a high standard for one another regarding appropriate conduct by our leaders and support one another to make the right choices when necessary.

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