‘World watching’ as South­ern Bap­tists meet

Church leaders have vowed to con­front the sex abuse cri­sis. Will they take ac­tion this week?

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Dow­nen STAFF WRITER

BIRM­ING­HAM, Ala. — For months, leaders of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion have said they must re­spond more aggressive­ly to pro­tect vic­tims of sex­ual abuse within their 47,000 mem­ber churches. This week in Alabama — and with “the world watching,” as one of­fi­cial said — they’ll put for­ward mul­ti­ple re­forms aimed at a bur­geon­ing cri­sis.

Among the ac­tions that may be taken at the SBC’s an­nual meet­ing in Birm­ing­ham are ex­pand­ing a cur­rent SBC com­mit­tee and em­pow­er­ing it to field com­plaints about lo­cal churches’ han­dling of sex­ual abuse. The SBC also is ex­pected to ad­dress statute of lim­i­ta­tions laws in abuse cases, though the details were un­clear Mon­day evening as del­e­gates con­tin­ued to ar­rive.

In Fe­bru­ary, the Hous­ton Chron­i­cle and San An­to­nio Express-News re­vealed that some 380 South­ern Bap­tist church leaders or volunteers had abused at least 700 peo­ple — mostly chil­dren — in the last two decades.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, “Abuse of Faith,” prompted SBC Pres­i­dent J.D. Greear to call for in­quiries into 10 churches, though most have since been cleared by an SBC com­mit­tee. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion also spurred a new law in Texas, apolo­gies from a leading South­ern Bap­tist fig­ure for his sup­port of a church ac­cused of con­ceal­ing abuses, and the dis­missal of mul­ti­ple churches that were pa­s­tored by con­victed sex of­fend­ers. » To read our in­ves­ti­ga­tion and see our on­line data­base, go to: hous­tonchron­i­cle.com/Abuse­ofFaith

In sub­se­quent re­port­ing, the Chron­i­cle found dozens of ad­di­tional cases and vic­tims, in­clud­ing those who say their abuses by South­ern Bap­tist mis­sion­ar­ies were mis­han­dled or ig­nored by leaders at the In­ter­na­tional Mis­sion Board.

Ex­pand­ing pow­ers

In Birm­ing­ham, del­e­gates from SBC churches – known as “mes­sen­gers” – will vote on an amend­ment to the SBC’s con­sti­tu­tion that would ex­plic­itly state that any church em­ploy­ing a sex of­fender or hav­ing shown a dis­re­gard for sex­ual abuses is not el­i­gi­ble for co­op­er­a­tion with the broader con­ven­tion of 47,000 churches.

That pro­posal would need to pass with two-thirds of a vote for two con­sec­u­tive years, which is why SBC of­fi­cials are also pur­su­ing a more im­me­di­ate fix: ex­pand­ing the pow­ers of its “cre­den­tials” com­mit­tee, which de­ter­mines if churches have met the ba­sic cri­te­ria for send­ing del­e­gates to the an­nual meet­ing. Typ­i­cally, it fo­cuses on whether churches have do­nated to the SBC’s na­tional giv­ing pro­gram, or have endorsed ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or the or­di­na­tion of women, both of which are against the SBC by­laws.

The Cre­den­tials Com­mit­tee would be staffed year-round to “make in­quiries” into churches’ han­dling of sex­ual abuse. Leaders say the pro­posal would fos­ter trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, though some mem­bers of the SBC’s Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee said Mon­day that they were con­cerned that the re­forms would in­crease the SBC’s li­a­bil­ity in sex abuse law­suits.

One of­fi­cial also pro­posed an amend­ment to stress that churches must con­duct back­ground checks of em­ploy­ees to qual­ify for SBC mem­ber­ship. That amend­ment floun­dered, to the dis­may of activists and others who have called for more com­pre­hen­sive re­forms.

Some of those activists also fear that the pro­posed Cre­den­tials Com­mit­tee does not go far enough in pre­vent­ing con­flicts of in­ter­est be­tween churches and the SBC’s Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, which would re­view the Cre­den­tial Com­mit­tee’s find­ings and make fi­nal de­ci­sions on push­ing a church out of the SBC.

Sim­i­lar con­cerns were voiced in Fe­bru­ary, when an Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee sub­group ended most of the 10 church in­quiries re­quested by Greear only a week be­fore. A pas­tor of one of those churches later said that he had re­ceived sup­port and apolo­gies from Augie Boto, who was at the time in­terim pres­i­dent of the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee. The chair­man of the sub­group that ended the in­quiries later re­signed in part be­cause of what he called “un­fair” cri­tiques of the de­ci­sion.

Activists and sur­vivors have said the SBC must rec­on­cile its past fail­ures and down­play­ing that the de­nom­i­na­tion faces a cri­sis. They also have again re­quested the cre­ation of a data­base to track church leaders who have been cred­i­bly ac­cused of sex abuse, though SBC leaders have said that such a pro­posal is un­likely to get se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion in Birm­ing­ham.

On Tuesday, sur­vivors and activists will also con­duct a rally out­side the SBC meet­ing. The group co­or­di­nat­ing it, For Such a Time As This, have asked to be of­fi­cially in­volved with the SBC’s meet­ing but have been de­nied ac­cess be­cause of what SBC of­fi­cials have said were lo­gis­ti­cal is­sues.

The rally or­ga­niz­ers said that they had asked for months to be a part of the meet­ing and that their ex­clu­sion raises questions about the SBC’s sin­cer­ity on deal­ing with sex­ual abuse.

“De­spite their state­ments of pur­ported ‘car­ing,’ SBC rep­re­sen­ta­tives re­fused ac­cess to this large pub­lic area forc­ing the rally to make plans to meet on smaller side­walks,” the group said in a state­ment.

Rec­on­cil­ing the past

On Mon­day, at­tor­neys with a Vir­ginia law firm added the SBC, the Bap­tist Gen­eral As­so­ci­a­tion of Vir­ginia and a re­gional Bap­tist group called the Peters­burg Bap­tist As­so­ci­a­tion to a civil law­suit that seeks $82 mil­lion in dam­ages on be­half of eight al­leged vic­tims of for­mer youth leader Jef­frey Dale Clark.

Clark is currently in Vir­ginia prison af­ter plead­ing guilty in 2016 to at least seven counts of ag­gra­vated sex­ual bat­tery, Vir­ginia court records show. Ac­cord­ing to the crim­i­nal and civil files, at least 10 peo­ple have claimed to be his vic­tims, all for­mer mem­bers of his youth group.

The law­suit, which cites find­ings from the news­pa­pers’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion about how other South­ern Bap­tist churches know­ingly em­ployed leaders ac­cused of sex­ual abuse, al­leges Clark went to mo­lest mul­ti­ple vic­tims af­ter church of­fi­cials who su­per­vised Clark failed to in­ves­ti­gate a child’s com­plaint first made against the youth leader in 2009.

The SBC’s 2018 meet­ing was sim­i­larly dom­i­nated by dis­cus­sions of sex­ual abuse, in­clud­ing scan­dals in­volv­ing two of its most prom­i­nent fig­ures: Paige Pat­ter­son, who was ousted as a seminary pres­i­dent over al­le­ga­tions that he mis­han­dled a stu­dent’s abuse claim, and Paul Pressler, the for­mer Texas state judge who in court records has been ac­cused of sex abuse or mis­con­duct by mul­ti­ple men.

SBC leaders sub­se­quently launched a sex­ual abuse ad­vi­sory group that has of­fered churches guid­ance, as well as new train­ing tools for lo­cal churches. Un­like in other re­li­gious groups, SBC leaders can­not in­ter­fere in most of the af­fairs of lo­cal churches, and any wide-rang­ing re­form would first face a vote from church del­e­gates.

Those del­e­gates are also able to make mo­tions at the SBC’s meet­ing Tuesday, in­clud­ing re­quests that churches face in­quiries for their han­dling of sex­ual abuse.

Jon Shapley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

David Platt speaks at the Pas­tors’ Con­fer­ence on the eve of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion meet­ing in Birm­ing­ham, Ala.

Phillip Bethancour­t, from left, Brad Ham­brick, Mary DeMuth, Sa­man­tha Kil­patrick and Nathan Lino discuss the abuse cri­sis.

Pho­tos by Jon Shapley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Peo­ple look for books at ta­bles set up by LifeWay Chris­tian Re­sources at the Birm­ing­hamJ­ef­fer­son Con­ven­tion Com­plex on Mon­day, the eve of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion’s meet­ing.

SBC leaders J.D. Greear, from left, Ron­nie Floyd and Mike Stone pray dur­ing an Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee meet­ing on Mon­day.

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