The SBC sexual offender database that isn’t: my inside peek

The Southern Baptist Convention meets this week in Dallas, after a  tumultuous spring with a whole lot of bad publicity having to do with domestic and sexual abuse.

Once again they’re looking at a resolution to develop a sexual offender database that will keep a public record of offenders who are not on the national database (who, for example, have confessed to their crimes but never been taken to court).

In the fall of 2014 I had the opportunity to correspond with a member of the SBC Executive Committee about this very subject. This is that story.

That fall I was working on the book Tear Down This Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Our Churches with Dale Ingraham. As part of my research, I read Christa Brown’s book This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang (in one sitting, I might add). Here is my review of her book that I posted on Amazon:

Only about 20% of this book focused on the Baptist Preacher Predator–the youth director who molested and raped Christa and the difficulties that abuse produced in her life. The other 80% focused on the Gang–the author’s attempt to find some sort of compassion and concern, first with the local church, then the wider body, and finally the national convention of the Southern Baptists. I was amazed at Christa’s perseverance and appalled at the stone-cold stonewalling she received from the church and the denomination, again and again and again.

 I’m ignorant and naïve, but still can’t understand why people wouldn’t want to do all they can to protect the vulnerable from abuse and show compassion to those who have been abused. I cannot understand it.

I received this book at lunchtime and had finished reading it by a late suppertime. I could not put it down. It was gripping, compelling, and nauseating.


So, since her book was published in 2009 and I was reading it and working on my book in 2014, I wanted to find out what progress had been made in a matter that seemed so clear-cut. Someone on the Executive Committee was recommended to me, so I wrote to him.

After introductions, I asked: Has the SBC made any progress in the past five years on this matter? Specifically, have they established a database? Because I’m going to put a footnote in this new book, and I want it to be accurate.

Part of my letter said this:

I can see how experiencing the treatment that Christa described at the hands of leaders of the SBC . . . would have propelled more than one person to a complete loss of faith. Though my own experience and advocacy work is primarily in the area of independent Baptist churches and Bob Jones University, I was sickened to see that the Southern Baptists appeared to be just as bad.

 So my hope is that all that terrible stonewalling and lack of care was the past, and in the past five years some massive strides have been made to love and care for abuse victims and to keep the evil abuse offenders from being able to hurt the people in the Southern Baptist churches.

The Committee member did reply, in fact, almost immediately, with some links to articles that didn’t answer my question. We link to the US sex offender database, he said, and we passed the Resolution of 2013 that included such information as how church officials should call law enforcement when there’s abuse in the church.

A resolution is good. Just like pinwheels on the lawn in April are nice.

When he told me they couldn’t have a database because the SBC never interferes in the autonomous local church. I replied,

I wouldn’t think of a database of admitted offenders that are not in backgroundcheck.com as being any sort of operation of authority. I would see it as simply helpful information that a local church could use or not use as they see fit, sort of like the Sunday school or VBS material or the LifeWay connection to backgroundcheck.com that you currently provide.

So why did he then ask to talk on the phone? I wasn’t sure, but when we did I took very careful notes, because I know how it can be with phone calls . . . unless they’re recorded, one can deny having said the things one said.

As I made my non-brilliant points, he said more than once, “I’ve never thought about it that way.” I confess I was just a bit in eye-roll mode there because I knew these were only things Christa herself had discussed.

For example, I told him the database can be for offenders who for one reason or another won’t be going through the criminal justice system (statute of limitations or some other reason) but (1) have open-and-shut evidence against them (which might necessitate an investigation) or (2) have admitted their offense.

 “It’s not that unusual for offenders to admit to their crimes if they think they can get a quick forgiveness and restoration,” I observed. “And one way the SBC can show they really care about this issue beyond just making a ‘resolution’ is to say that you’re willing to name admitted offenders who have fallen through the cracks.”

Then I brought up the matter of how the SBC de-members churches who are “not in friendly cooperation.”  (In theory it could be a number of things, but in practice it was only about homosexuality and women preachers.)

“Couldn’t this also apply to an SBC church in which you become aware that a person in has sexually assaulted an underage person, even if that crime has never been reported?” I asked.

His reply kept on along the lines of, “You have some really great points. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ll think about these things and get back with you.”

 But regarding that last one, I added,

 “This is not a hypothetical scenario. This is what happened in Christa Brown’s situation and in the cases of several other people she has written about either in her book or on her blog or her other blog, and Bob Allen has written about too (at www.baptistnews.com).”

Then I also asked him if he had ever read Christa’s book—after all, her story created quite a furor in the SBC in the mid-2000s and surely played a major part in the resolution they passed in 2013.

He said no. This Executive Committee member had never read the book that so clearly documented abuse in his own denomination.

“Will you read it?” I urged. “It’s a quick and easy read. I finished it in an afternoon.”

Yes, he would read it, he said. He’d read it in the next couple of weeks. And he’d get back with me.

To be honest with you, I rolled my eyes again. Was I too cynical? If so I’m sorry. But after the phone call I wrote to him immediately synopsizing all we had discussed, saying, “I’ll look forward to hearing from you as to whether you think this is an accurate synopsis.”

I never heard from him again.

What was I to conclude from that? That he could say conciliatory things to me on the phone when he never truly intended to follow up? That was certainly the impression I got.

I made the footnote in the book. I went on with working to expose the abuse in the Bob Jones University world.

And here we are. The database resolution is on the floor again. I pray that the Southern Baptist Convention will this time have ears to hear.

I am, I believe, less ignorant and naive than I was in 2014, but I still can’t understand why GOOD people wouldn’t want to do all they can to protect the  ulnerable from abuse and show compassion to those who have been abused. I cannot understand it.

4
Leave a Reply

avatar
2 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
3 Comment authors
christabrownRebecca DavisNorma Brumbaugh Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Norma Brumbaugh
Guest

Organizations are caught in the middle of legal considerations. Lawsuits are a constant possibility. That may factor in on what and how this could be done. But to do nothing or little is not okay.

christabrown
Guest

Fascinating post! And yet strangely familiar in a deja vu sorta way. Along with SNAP, I first proposed the denominational database idea, in connection with a request for an independent review panel, back in 2006. This is my own latest articulation of that:

For dealing with sexual abuse, the single most important change the SBC needs is to cooperatively empower one or more organizations or entities, independent of the local churches, to receive and assess reports about abuse committed by clergy, deacons, and other church and denominational officials. Here’s how such an independent body would dramatically improve the handling of sexual abuse reports within the SBC:
1. It would provide a much needed “protected space” where those abused by clergy could make a report with a reasonable expectation of being objectively and compassionately heard, and would spare abuse survivors the enormous re-traumatization of trying to go to the church of the alleged perpetrator, where typically, the reception is akin to a bloody sheep going into the den of the “wolf” who savaged it.
2. For survivors whose claims are not subject to criminal prosecution – which is most – it would offer clarity about the first step for reporting institutionally and would lift the burden of trying to track church-hopping preachers on their own.
3. It would furnish local churches (most of which have less than 100 people in the pews) with the ready resource of an outside organization with an established process for assessing abuse allegations responsibly, fairly and consistently, and for making recommendations to churches about an accused pastor’s continuing fitness for office. Outsiders are essential to any system of accountability.
4. It would afford the broader faith group a solid basis for imposing consequences on churches that harbor pastors who are unfit for ministerial office. Consequences are needed in order to bring about change. And nothing about “local church autonomy” would preclude denominational bodies from ousting such churches from affiliation so as to at least preclude them from carrying the imprimatur of the “brand.”
5. It would equip the faith community as a whole with a centralized resource for recordkeeping and information sharing. This would allow churches to readily ascertain whether a pastor may have accrued multiple accusations and to make better hiring decisions. I see this as empowering churches, not as intruding on their autonomy.