The Southern Baptist Convention has been rocked by an expose by the Houston Chronicle. Russell Moore writes:
This morning’s edition of the Houston Chronicle features a major investigation into church sexual abuse in Southern Baptist contexts, looking at the harm done to over 700 survivors, including children as young as three years old. The report also details over 200 offenders who were convicted or took plea deals, demonstrating how a shocking number returned to ministry to abuse again. The report is alarming and scandalous, the courage and grace of these survivors is contrasted with the horrific depravity of those who would use the name of Jesus to prey on them. So how should Christians think about this latest revelation?
As we have written before, the legal liability for churches, staff, and members is great.
The scary part: For a female victim, the estimated total lifetime economic burden of child sexual abuse is $282,734.
Has your church ever trained its staff and volunteers on your church’s policy for reporting child abuse and neglect?
Incredibly, abuse claims are the primary reason churches end up in court.
In 2017, the top five reasons were (1) sexual abuse of a child, (2) property disputes, (3) personal injuries, (4) zoning disputes, and (5) insurance disputes. . . In 2016, the sexual abuse of a child dropped from first place to second place for the first time in 20 years.
Ignorance is often a poor excuse. Look at the Urban Meyer scandal. Do you want your deacons, trustees, committee members deposed? Could they answer what they knew and when did they know it. Churches need to proactively establish the norms. Per this article,
Churches must be aggressive. Any reasonable suspicion of child abuse must be reported immediately. It doesn’t matter if you or your colleagues are defined as a mandatory reporter in your state or not. Report it. Transfer the risk to the state in terms of what can be done about it.
In Alabama, members of the clergy, public and private K-12 employees, school teachers and officials; and day care workers or employees are mandatory reporters pursuant to Alabama law. Mandatory reporting to law enforcement is mandated “when the child is known or suspected to be a victim of child abuse or neglect.” Clergy, however, are not required to report if the abuse is revealed by a person seeking spiritual advice and when that communication was made with the understanding that it shouldn’t be revealed to someone else.
When a child suspected of abuse presents themselves, these individuals are “required to report orally, either by telephone or direct communication immediately, and shall be followed by a written report” to the local chief of police, or the sheriff, or the Department of Human Resources.
When an actual or suspected case of abuse becomes known, the clock starts ticking. In Alabama, it’s “IMMEDIATELY.”
It’s important for ministers and other church leaders to know how seriously states take these deadlines. In 2015, a high school counselor in Arkansas was sentenced to one year of probation and assessed a $2,500 fine for reporting a sexual relationship between the school’s volleyball coach and a player 14 days after first learning about it. That state’s law requires reports to be made “immediately.”
Every church should, with the help of an attorney, develop a policy for reporting abuse. Identify who is a mandated reporter, the behaviors that warrant a report, and the proper reporting procedures. Train ministry staff and volunteers to follow this policy regularly.
Moore details I think an appropriate initial response. On accountability:
What specifically does this look like in a church context? Our denomination now has a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group assigned with investigating all options and reviewing what other denominations and groups have done to keep track of abuses, while hearing from law enforcement, psychological and psychiatric experts, survivors, and many others.
Our approach is seeking to encourage policies and practices that protect children and the vulnerable from sexual abuse in autonomous but cooperating churches, all the while promoting compliance with laws and providing compassionate care for those who have survived trauma. True, we have no bishops. But we have a priesthood of believers. And a key task of that priesthood is maintaining the witness of Christ in the holiness and safety of his church. That means training churches to recognize sexual predation and how to deal with charges or suspicions when they emerge, and equipping churches to stop the pattern, in their church or from their church to others.
Faithful churches that have handled these well, and there are many, should rekindle their commitment, and should be models for others. Faithful Christians should lament this awful scandal, and should refocus our commitment that the churches should be safest places in the world for vulnerable people. Yes, we need godly sorrow, but the kind the Apostle Paul said produces repentance and leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7:10).
We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. Many, whether in Hollywood or the finance industry or elsewhere, see such horrors as public relations problems to be managed. The church often thinks the same way. Nothing could be further from the way of Christ. Jesus does not cover up sin within the temple of his presence. He brings everything hidden to light. We should too. When we downplay or cover over what has happened in the name of Jesus to those he loves we are not “protecting” Jesus’ reputation. We are instead fighting Jesus himself. No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden.