Judgment begins with the household of God. Evangelicals have frequently pointed out the sins of the world. But they have not yet addressed their own serious internal failings. The number of churches and other evangelical institutions with moral, ethical, operational, and even criminal problems is absurdly high. Unfortunately, many of these institutions also have serious problems regarding sexual abuse and how they respond to it. While the Catholic abuse scandals get the most press, there are grave problems among Protestants as well.
A recent third-party report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is another entry in the sad litany of problems here. With nearly 14 million members, the SBC is a very large community. Any group this large will have bad things happen within it. Demographer Lyman Stone has suggested that the report shows the SBC has lower levels of abuse than we would expect, given its size. Yet even if that’s true, it certainly doesn’t excuse the evildoers or those in positions of authority who failed to adequately take action. Churches must respond forcefully to these real problems. But how should they do that?
The 30 pages of recommendations in that third-party report are troubling in this regard. The report addresses some of the most heinous felonies on the books: sexual assault and sexual abuse. Yet the criminal and civil legal systems play little role in the recommendations. They are essentially absent apart from references to so-called “mandated reporting”—cases where churches are legally obligated to report suspected abuse to the police.
Instead, the report recommends creating an administrative entity to adjudicate allegations of abuse in a manner roughly analogous to that of the infamous “Title IX” panels in universities. This is a mistake. The American legal system offers standards and protections that separate administrative entities like Title IX panels do not. For instance, it is a misdemeanor or felony to lie to a police officer or under oath. Criminal and civil procedures are open to the public, and they have due process for the accused, standards of evidence, defined burdens of proof, the ability to compel testimony and evidence production, and rights of appeal. The recommended SBC administrative entity, like Title IX panels, would afford none of these protections. The report recommendations, for example, do not mention consequences for making false statements, the right to due process, the right to compel testimony or evidence production, or a requirement to make processes public and transparent.
The heart of this new entity would be a register called the “Offender Information System” (OIS) to “alert the community to known offenders.” To be added to what is effectively a privately run sex offender registry would likely permanently destroy a pastor’s career. How would somebody get put on this registry? All it would take is an accusation. A person would be registered as an “offender” for “having been credibly accused…of acts including sexual abuse or those established to have aided and abetted in the cover-up of such conduct.” What does it mean to be “credibly accused”? The third-party report defines a credible accusation as any allegation that is not “manifestly false or frivolous.” To be accused, according to the report, is essentially to be guilty.
On Wednesday, after Matthew Schmitz and I had critiqued the third-party report’s low standard for deeming accusations credible, the Southern Baptist Convention's Sexual Abuse Task Force issued its own recommendations. The task force's recommendations have a somewhat higher standard of credibility. They say that an outside party must determine that it is “more likely than not” that an accusation is credible. But still, according to the task force, a mere accusation, without any process to adjudicate its veracity or any guarantees of due process, would remain sufficient to see a pastor added to the offender registry. The task force recommendations also make no mention of referral to the police or legal system.
The fact that these reports seem allergic to the legal system and due process is a major red flag. As is the creation of a university Title IX panel-style approach to accusations. As we see with universities, in all cases in which such administrative entities exist, they operate in accordance with progressive principles and in a generally “political” manner. There’s no reason to believe that would not be the case here.
Indeed, unlike with the Catholic abuse scandals, there’s been a curious selectivity of outrage over Protestant abuse. Few of the major anti-abuse Protestant figures have so much as mentioned the allegations of abuse in the church of Rev. Raphael Warnock, now a sitting Democratic senator. In 2019, the New York Times ran a major feature on allegations that the church of SBC superstar pastor Matt Chandler had mishandled abuse, and later that the victim had sued the church for $1 million. This has already largely been memory-holed, and there’s little if any pressure on Chandler or his Village Church today over abuse—despite the recent focus on the issue and the feeding frenzies around other SBC figures. It seems likely that this incident would be deemed “not credible,” despite appearing in the New York Times. (In my view, these allegations have genuinely not been proven and Chandler and Village Church should be presumed innocent.) The less politically favored may not be so lucky.
Also, the third-party report and the SBC task force both support expanding the SBC’s credentialing committee into a more powerful accrediting agency that would expel any church that doesn’t comply with the Title IX-style entity. In Baptist polity, local churches are completely autonomous. The SBC presently functions more as a cooperative association than as a denomination. But if the SBC goes ahead with these proposals, SBC polity would start to look more like the presbyterian model of pastoral credentialing and oversight of local churches—although it’s unclear what would keep churches in the SBC if they didn’t like the denomination's direction (or if they didn’t like a growing share of offerings going to legal expenses instead of missionaries and seminaries).
The recommendations of both the third-party report and the SBC task force avoid taking what should be the obvious first step in sexual abuse cases: Call the cops. Instead, they seek to establish a Title IX-style administrative bureaucracy that would control the fate of every SBC pastor, employee, and church by virtue of its ability to brand them as abuse “offenders” or “abusers” without proof or due process.
Aaron M. Renn writes at aaronrenn.com.
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Photo by George Bannister via Creative Commons. Image cropped.