The SBC Sexual Abuse Report and its Consequences

*Author’s Note: Shortly following the original publication of this article, the Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse Task Force published a set of proposals to be voted on in Anaheim that would implement a number of Guidepost’s recommendations. This article has been updated to account for those new proposals.

Two weeks before its annual meeting in Anaheim, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is at a crossroads. A recently issued report on sex abuse in the SBC has provided a lengthy discussion of abuse cases that allegedly implicate the executive committee of the SBC. Some of these cases are merely alleged, others appear to be substantiated. Guidepost, author of the sex abuse report, has also put forth recommendations, some of which are common-sensical, others likely to lead to disaster. Now the Southern Baptist task force has put forth a number of proposals that incorporate many of Guidepost’s recommendations. None of these proposals, however, will get to the heart of the problem; namely, that the pervasive conflicts of interest and quid pro quo behaviors that permeate the various SBC entities and the boards that purportedly provide oversight. Unfortunately, the SBC will have little time to make sense of the proposals before it is asked to start making fateful decisions about its path forward. In the absence of reasoned deliberation, the pressure to adopt at least some of the report’s recommendations will be significant on the day of the convention. As such, the SBC and the messengers who will vote at the convention need to start having reasoned deliberations now if they intend to take a course that is both just and effective.

Background

To provide a brief history: in the lead up to the 2021 meeting of the SBC, Russell Moore (the departing ERLC chief) and a number of his allies launched a campaign against the Executive Committee (EC) of the SBC on a number of fronts, but a chief line of attack were accusations that the members of the EC had covered for, or directly committed, sexual abuse. The 2021 SBC convention voted to commission a Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) to oversee an investigation and prepare a report regarding alleged abuse and coverups by members of the EC. The SATF engaged Guidepost Solutions, a non-profit focusing on abuse investigations, to take lead in the investigation and report preparation. On May 22 of this year, the SATF publicly released its fact findings and its recommended policy proposals.

There are many things that can and should be said about the facts of the SATF report. It contains accounts of numerous abuse cases—most of which were already known—that are deeply troubling. No doubt there are many who will contest particular factual aspects of the report, or who will notice dogs that did not bark. But this article will take as given for the sake of discussion that the SATF report’s fact findings provide a fair, accurate and comprehensive accounting of all known or alleged instances of sex abuse that implicate the SBC’s executive committee in any way.

SATF Report Recommendations

The pressing question that demands our careful attention is what the SBC should do now. The SATF has made clear that it intends to push for implementation of a number of Guidepost’s recommendations now, in Anaheim, and then study feasibility of other recommendations for implementation at a later date. We must proceed in this deliberation understanding that the particular remedies in the SATF report far exceed the scope of the problems uncovered in the report. The report focuses on a handful of leaders at the SBC’s executive committee, but the recommendations propose a systemic overhaul of the entire SBC. And given the transformative implications of the SATF report’s recommendations, the question of what the SBC should do is fundamentally a political question, intrinsically tied up with questions of Baptist polity and various institutional incentives. In these matters, Guidepost should not play the role of a final arbiter. To the contrary, as this article will show, Guidepost’s recommendations require our scrutiny, as some of them betray fundamentally flawed understandings of the SBC’s polity, what justice requires and what would effectively prevent future abuse in this context.

The biggest structural change called for by the SATF report is the creation of a new administrative entity to oversee the promulgation of best practices for abuse prevention and to partner with local churches in the implementation and enforcement of a number of other recommendations set forth in the SATF report. This proposal may seem mundane to those from more hierarchical church structures, but within the SBC, it is a fundamental structural change. Recall that the SBC is a voluntary organization. Its member churches are autonomous. Churches participate in the SBC in order to pool their resources to give to missionary efforts (both overseas and domestic), fund seminaries and gain access to employment benefits (health insurance and retirement plans) for pastors. The SBC does not own its member churches’ properties or pick their pastors and has never undertaken any supervisory or managerial role with respect to local churches. The SBC has a very low membership threshold; namely, matters to which a member must assent, chiefly the very broad Baptist Faith and Message statement (BFM). As such, there is currently no entity that has undertaken to promulgate policies and procedures to member churches of the SBC. Lifeway, perhaps the closest analog, primarily resources churches by promulgating Sunday School curricula that members can choose to use if they desire. A Credentials Committee lightly polices membership and typically only acts if a member church publicly, unambiguously and repeatedly repudiates the BFM. Churches can – and frequently do – leave the SBC at very little cost.

However, the new administrative entity’s policies and procedures would become binding (inasmuch as any SBC measure can be said to be binding) on local SBC churches through proposed changes to be made to the Credentials Committee. Under Guidepost’s proposed construct, the Credentials Committee would be empowered to make a determination that an SBC church is not in friendly cooperation with the SBC—i.e., that it must disfellowshipped—if the Credentials Committee determines that such a church is not cooperating with the new administrative entity. Further, the composition of the Credentials Committee would be altered to require that no less than four out of the nine members be women, and also to include experts or advocates on matters of abuse and trauma. Because the Credentials Committee would have a significantly expanded workload (now including inquisitorial functions), its staff would be correspondingly increased.

The SATF report also calls for the creation of a “Survivor Compensation Fund”—overseen by an independent Special Master—to provide compensation to abuse survivors. The effect of the fund would be to distribute liability for abuse cases. Cooperative program giving by small local churches will in part be awarded to the fund in order to pay for abuse compensation by other churches. Additionally, the SATF report expressly calls for the sale of SBC assets in order to fund the Survivor Compensation Fund.1

Perhaps the most noteworthy of the SATF report’s recommendations is the creation of an Offender Information System (OIS) that would be created and maintained by the new Administrative Entity. The OIS would be public and would include a list of persons “legally convicted, personally confessed, or those having been credibly accused or having substantiated allegations of acts including sexual abuse.”2“Credibly accused,” in turn, is defined to mean “not manifestly false or frivolous.”3 Including the “credibly accused” on a public list shifts the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused. Or to put it another way, it means that the accused will be considered guilty until proven innocent, which is a basic violation of biblical justice.

Now, the SATF itself recommends creation of a “Ministry Watch” website to be voted up or down at Anaheim. The SATF does call for a higher evidentiary burden (preponderance of the evidence) than did Guidepost, but the due process afforded to the accused is still inadequate insofar as it would not depend on testimony made under oath or afford the accused due process rights such as the right to cross examination and discovery.

Inclusion within the OIS/”Ministry Watch” list would, presumably, make an SBC pastor unemployable. As such, the low evidentiary and due process standards associated with it are inappropriate and represent a significant departure from the evidentiary standards set forth in scripture (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:1; Deuteronomy 19:15) which inspired the common law tradition’s presumption of innocence and evidentiary requirements. To be blunt, the originally proposed construct is a version of “believe all women” for the Church. Even as amended in the SATF’s formal proposal for Anaheim, it is directly analogous to the Dear Colleague Letter promulgated by Obama’s Department of Education in 2011, which lowered the standard of proof for college sexual assault proceedings, ruined the lives of numerous innocent college students and resulted in an unexpected tactical convergence between feminist professors at Harvard Law School and Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s Secretary of Education who worked to roll back the Dear Colleague Letter’s pernicious effects.

It is unclear whether there is anything to salvage out of the idea of an OIS/”Ministry Watch” list. A good case can be made that the idea itself is fundamentally flawed. Most organizations, including those that provide adults with access to children, rely on standard and widely available background checks that pull from public court records and registries. Information provided to law enforcement or under oath is simply more reliable than information provided to non-governmental investigators. Admittedly, there will be a subset of people who are actually offenders who evade detection if standard background checks are relied upon. However, why should the SBC have confidence that it will fare better in casting a net that would detect this small additional group of violators without also sweeping in a host of innocent church leaders? Law enforcement officials and courts are supposed to be experts at weighing evidence and making conclusions in a manner that affords due process to all parties involved. It is hubristic and legally risky for any organization with no expertise in these matters to attempt to step in and create its own public offender list. This is presumably why public schools and a host of other institutions rely on standard background check procedures.    

Consequences of SATF Recommendations

In order to have reasoned deliberation about what should be done, the SBC needs consider the likely consequences of the SATF’s recommended actions. If the SBC undertakes to investigate, issue conclusions about, and provide compensation for abuse allegations in local churches, the SBC will, in a technical legal sense, be undertaking a duty of care that will form a basis for civil liability against the SBC if the SBC makes a mistake. This risk runs in both directions. The SBC could be liable both for failing to act with sufficient clarity on an allegation (i.e., could be liable for failing to flag an abuser on its OIS) but it also could be liable for defamation (i.e., for including individuals on its abuse list due to unsubstantiated allegations). The creation of a Survivor Compensation Fund (and the sale of SBC assets to fund it) creates another fact that will be used to establish liability, and essentially represents the SBC setting up a flashing light to attract plaintiff’s lawyers. What happens when, inevitably, the bill for such legal liabilities starts to increase? If we game it out, it seems certain that member churches would head to the exit door as they see increasing portions of their CP giving being allocated to liabilities because of actions taken by sister churches over whom they have no control. Small local churches want to give to the CP to fund missionary efforts and seminaries and so their pastors can have access to health benefits and retirement products. They do not give to provide compensation for the misdeeds of other churches. As churches leave, the relative proportion of the budget taken up by liability funding will increase. Insurance policies will be imperiled. Credit ratings may decline, resulting in bond defaults. Younger pastors and SBC entity employees may depart over credible questions about whether health insurance and retirement products will remain a viable choice. This dynamic creates a potential financial death spiral for the SBC.

It is important to note that the liability death spiral risk does not depend on the ultimate legal merits of claims in all states. Much of the damage will be done if cases are allowed to get past summary judgment to discovery. And needless to say, the credible threat of a class action lawsuit (or a criminal investigation by an attorney general of any state) will have broad implications.

There is also an argument about organizational function here. Heretofore, the SBC has not held inquisitorial or policy-making functions. By taking the steps recommended by the SATF report, the SBC would be treating abuse as a sui generis issue. Of course, many other conceivable issues could become subject to inquisitorial functions within the SBC. Allegations of any number of moral improprieties, financial and/or tax fraud, emotionally abusive/dictatorial leadership styles, drunkenness, degeneracy, etc. could theoretically be subject to similar treatment. It’s unclear what the limiting principle would be that would limit these new inquisitorial functions. It’s also unclear what would keep member churches involved in the event that they dislike the SBC’s aggrandized role.

But there is an even more fundamental question: what does justice require? Who should be held accountable? To reach a just outcome requires not only that victims receive justice, but that the right person or entity is held to account. Much of the discourse has run past this bedrock question. It is clear that individuals who have abused or covered for abusers should be held accountable. Names should be named so there can be accountability. And in some cases individual SBC entities who, under the direction of their current leadership structures and boards, have failed to provide accountability and appropriate policies should be held responsible as organizations in ways that make sense. But when we consider the SBC itself, things are much murkier. It is very difficult to articulate a theory of why the SBC in general should be liable for abuse that has occurred in local churches (over which the SBC has no authority or managerial function) or in particular SBC entities (over which the SBC has no operational control). However, the SATF’s recommendations will change this current situation. The steps that the SBC is being asked to take significantly increase the likelihood that the SBC will be held liable for abuse going forward. The SBC will be undertaking the responsibility for abuse and as such it will willingly undertake the liability for the same.

When you seek justice in an untargeted fashion, there are perverse results. Targeting the SBC itself—the umbrella organization that has a tenuous nexus to the actual wrongdoing—creates diffuse responsibility. In other words, saying “we are all responsible for abuse” is another way of saying that no one in particular is responsible. Further, if it is found in any proceeding (class action lawsuits or state government investigations) that the SBC, its entities, state and local associations and all of their member churches are one unified enterprise, that finding will create risk on the assets of faithful local ministries whose leaders had no part in the abuse scandal. If compensation to victims requires the closure of ministries that had no part to play in any abuse scandal, that outcome is not just. And yet, that may very well happen if the SATF’s recommendations are adopted. We should expect coordinated action or perhaps even class action lawsuits against the SBC if it takes the path suggested by the SATF. We should also expect state attorney generals (particularly in Democratic states) to open investigations against the SBC, echoing the investigations against the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal.

The Road not Taken

In all of these matters, there is a road not taken. The SBC has endemic governance issues. These issues primarily flow from SBC entities that are not held accountable. Boards of trustees are hopelessly conflicted, often widely populated with trustees who themselves are employees of other SBC entities. Training is poor and bylaws and policies are frequently disregarded. Boards of trustees tolerate countless misdeeds that would form the basis of litigation for breach of fiduciary duty in the context of a for-profit corporation. In fact, mishandling or ignoring abuse cases by SBC entities is just one symptom of these accountability issues. Other symptoms include quid pro behavior, unapproved golden parachutes, dictatorial/unaccountable leadership styles, lack of transparency, disregard of bylaws and policies. All of these behaviors are scarcely known amongst the gentiles in their for-profit corporations. SBC entity boards should be reformed in a way that minimizes these conflicts and maximizes the number of church pastors and faithful lay members with business and management backgrounds. Without doing anything to address the underlying accountability issues, the SATF’s recommendations are mere band-aids. At the same time, because they give SBC entities so much discretionary power, they are tools that will be easily employed by those in control to punish rivals or political enemies.

Leaders and messengers of the SBC need to start having reasoned discussions about these matters now. The SBC will need leaders who have discernment, moral clarity and a backbone. Those running for leadership in the SBC must use their platforms in the coming two weeks to lead the way on deliberations about proposing constructive paths forward. Given the emotional fervor behind this issue, suing for prudence at this moment may feel a bit like stepping in front of a freight train, but we cannot afford to have our discussions shut down over fear. The enemies of the church would love nothing more than for the SBC to destroy itself. Now is the time for those who desire to see the SBC flourish and remain faithful in coming years to stand up and speak.

Image Credit: Pexels

  1. Report of the Independent Investigation: The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s Response to Sexual Abuse Allegations and an Audit of the Procedures and Actions of the Credentials Committee published May 15, 2022 (hereinafter, the “SATF”), p. 268. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/6108172d83d55d3c9db4dd67/t/628bfccb599a375bece1f66c/1653341391218/Guidepost+Solutions+Independent+Investigation+Report_.pdf
  2. Ibid., p. 266.
  3. Ibid.
Josh Abbotoy

Josh Abbotoy

Josh Abbotoy is a Managing Director at New Founding, a network designed to serve the American people. A seasoned private equity lawyer by background, Josh is a grateful beneficiary of Christian education, having been homeschooled and earning his B.A. from Union University before earning his J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas with his wife and three children and is a member of University Park Baptist Church.

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