Friday, August 27, 2010

Baptists must face fear and prioritize risks

Baptists must face fear and prioritize risks
Southern Baptist leaders refuse to take action on reports of clergy sex abuse because they claim it’s up to the local church. They say that all those 43,000 local churches should just tell other churches about anything troubling in a minister’s past conduct.

But that’s not what happens in the real world, and we all know it. Southern Baptist leaders know it too.

For starters, churches are afraid.

A Texas Monthly journalist pondered this reality when he considered the question of why Southern Baptist pastor Matt Baker was able to keep church-hopping despite the many abuse and assault accusations against him. He offered this explanation:

"To avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy, which is perhaps why First Baptist officials said nothing about the allegations when other churches later called, interested in hiring Matt.”

Churches are afraid of being sued by the very ministers who cause trouble. It’s easier to just let a minister move on. It’s easier to “pass the trash.” It’s easier for church leaders to simply keep their mouths shut when other churches call for a reference.

It’s not right. But it’s reality.

The average Baptist church has less than 100 people in the pews on Sunday morning. It needs to keep money coming into the offering plate so it can pay the salaries, keep the lights on, and maybe make the mortgage payment. It doesn’t have extra cash to spend on legal fees. So when trouble with a minister rears its ugly head, it’s easier to quietly let the minister go than to worry about the lawsuit he might bring if you say something to his next employer.

“Besides,” they tell themselves, “we don’t actually KNOW anything for sure, do we?”

The excuses they come up with are cowardly. But I understand their fear.

It’s similar to the fear that many Baptist survivors deal with because the denomination doesn’t provide any safe place for reporting clergy abuse. So what happens? The ministers may accuse us of “slander.” And the churches usually stand behind the ministers . . . even when we have significant substantiation. And no one in the denomination helps us. We’re out on a limb all alone.

So I understand what that fear of a lawsuit feels like. In my own case, even though the church’s music minister knew about the other minister’s molestation of me as a kid, the church still threatened to sue me when I reported it. And they did it with help from the attorney for the largest statewide Baptist organization in the country, the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

I was intimidated. I felt afraid. I nearly went right back to keeping my mouth shut. So yeah… I understand that fear.

Accused ministers often use fear to silence church leaders. And church leaders use fear to silence victims.

It stinks. Fear usually does.

But what stinks even worse is that Southern Baptist leaders refuse to help churches deal with that fear in a responsible manner. They refuse to provide churches with the resource of an office for the objective assessment of clergy abuse reports, and they refuse to keep any denominational records on clergy who have been credibly accused.

Instead, Southern Baptist leaders wash their hands of it and say “not our problem.”

They wash their hands of it and tell all the 43,000 local churches “it’s your problem.”

The reason Southern Baptist leaders wash their hands of it is because they too are afraid. They’re afraid of the risk of liability.

That’s what “Louis,” a frequent commenter on Baptist blogs, says, and I’ve seen others say it as well. Louis is an attorney, and some say he’s on an SBC-related board. (I’m only about 90 percent sure of who Louis is and so I’ll leave off his identity.) But this is likely a man who advises high-level Southern Baptist officials, and this is what he says:

“If the SBC endeavors to take this on and begins investigating, keeping records, dossiers on people, whatever. It opens itself up to liability if it fails to perform that function correctly.”

Louis is right. There is always risk connected to responsibility. But that’s all the more reason why the Southern Baptist Convention should take on that risk. It has more resources to better deal with that risk than the average church does.

In essence, Southern Baptist leaders are telling local churches that they should do the very thing that Southern Baptist leaders themselves are afraid to do. They’re telling local churches that they should face their fear and “make that call” to a sister church. Yet, Southern Baptist leaders won’t even hear complaints about ministers, and they sure won’t face their fear and actually tell churches about credibly-accused ministers.

They want to lead by talk but not by example.

Southern Baptist leaders want to avoid any potential liability risk because they want to protect their mighty coffers. But local churches also care about their coffers even though the dollar amounts are smaller. Just because a local church has less money in the bank doesn’t mean it worries about that money any less.

Change carries risk. But the status quo also carries risk. What Southern Baptists need to consider is how they prioritize the risks. As things stand, Southern Baptists are prioritizing protection for the institution far ahead of protection for kids.

It’s apparent that attorneys such as Louis have been giving Baptist officials the same advice for a lot of years: If the SBC does nothing, it won’t open itself up to the risk of liability.

I first saw Louis’ analysis a couple years ago in comments on the Burleson blog; I saw it a few days ago on the SBC Voices blog, and I’ve seen it repeatedly on other blogs.

It’s an analysis that reflects the nature of how attorneys think. They are trained to be risk-averse on behalf of their clients.

But here’s the thing: Louis is being risk-averse on behalf of the institution of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s not being risk-averse on behalf of the local churches, and nor is he being risk-averse on behalf of the kids who are within those churches.

Louis is looking out for the institution.

So, is that what the SBC’s do-nothingness comes down to? Institutional self-protection? Minimizing risk to the organization’s coffers? (Of course, the SBC could possibly insure against that risk, but that’s another topic….)

If indeed the fear of liability risk is the reason why Southern Baptist leaders won’t provide churches with information about credibly-accused clergy predators, then they should let people in the pews know this. Debate it openly and honestly. Quit telling people that it’s because of biblical principles. Quit telling people that Baptist do-nothingness is based on Baptist polity.

Mistakes happen in almost all human endeavors . . . and yes, mistakes open institutions to the risk of potential liability. But other major faith groups have taken on that risk of liability in order to take action that lessens the risk to kids.

Aren’t Southern Baptist kids just as worthy of protection as Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran kids?

Is it any wonder that many question whether the Baptist faith holds any true meaning?

One thing for sure: The message of Jesus wasn’t about institutional self-protection.

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