Under pressure to fight child sex abuse, the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee said Tuesday that the denomination should not create its own database to help churches identity predators or establish an office to field abuse claims.
The report decried sexual abuse as reprehensible and a sin. But the Southern Baptist principle of local church autonomy means it's up to individual churches — and not the convention — to screen employees and take action against offenders, the committee said.
Opening its two-day annual meeting, the nation's largest Protestant body also elected a new president, Georgia megachurch pastor Johnny Hunt, a theological conservative. He is of Native American descent, a biographical detail that might help the convention reach out to minorities.
Hunt, 55, prevailed in a crowded field of six — winning 53 percent of the vote on the first ballot — and will seek to reverse troubling trends, including a decline in membership.
The clergy sexual abuse scandal that struck the U.S. Roman Catholic Church starting in 2002 has also touched the Southern Baptist Convention, although to a much lesser degree. The past two years have seen a few high-profile allegations against Baptist clergy, and a key victims advocate in the Catholic crisis, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, began lobbying the Baptists.
In 2006, an executive committee panel began studying how to address the issue. Then, last year, Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson proposed that the convention develop a database to track clergy and staff who are "credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse." The database would then be available to all churches.
Responding to abuse
The executive committee report, "Responding to the Evil of Sexual Abuse," urges churches to conduct background checks using a U.S. Department of Justice database of sexual offenders.
But it rejected establishing a new Southern Baptist database, arguing it would be impossible to build a comprehensive list. Referring churches to a more exhaustive federal database is better than a limited "Baptist only" system that predators could slip through, it said.
The database idea also is undermined by the fact that the convention cannot require churches to report instances of sexual abuse to local, state or national conventions, the report said.
Local church autonomy rules out creating a centralized investigative body to determine who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse or anything else, it said, and the convention has no authority to bar known perpetrators from ministry or start an office to field abuse claims.
The report made clear that sexual abuse is a serious threat, and urged local congregations to vigorously check out employees and share information when warranted with other churches.
"One sexual predator in our midst is one too many," said Morris Chapman, president of the SBC executive committee. "Sexual predators must be stopped. They must be on notice that Southern Baptists are not a harvest field for their devious deeds."
Handling abuse claims
The vastly different approaches taken by U.S. Catholic bishops and Baptist leaders illustrates the differences in the two traditions. As a hierarchy, the Catholic Church adopted a much more top-down approach, establishing standards for the reporting and handling of sexual abuse claims and holding individual dioceses accountable through audits.
Christa Brown, SNAP's Baptist outreach director, rejected the argument about local church authority and questioned the convention's commitment to taking the problem seriously.
"Having a review board that would assess the credibility of allegations against clergy could be a great resource for local churches, especially small churches," Brown said. "It doesn't step on the toes of local churches. It helps local churches."
Burleson, who proposed the SBC database be considered, questioned whether local church autonomy should matter in putting together a database of offenders.
"A database is only information," he said. "What a church does with that information is their decision."
Frank Page, the outgoing SBC president, called the report on abuse a "home run." Anyone questioning the convention's commitment to fighting child sexual abuse need only look to its Web site, which has a prominent link to information about preventing the problem, he said.
Page, of Taylors, S.C., sought to build consensus and bring a softer image to a denomination many outsiders associate with incendiary rhetoric and boycotts. He was an outsider championed by reform-minded bloomers, and his election two years ago came as a surprise.
The ease of Hunt's election was surprising. With an unusually large field, a runoff was expected. He is a Lumber Indian, a North Carolina-based tribe. SBC officials could not immediately confirm whether he is the denomination's first Native American president.
At a news conference, Hunt said radical change and leadership was needed to "turn the tide in our denomination." After five decades of declining growth, the SBC reported an actual drop in membership — a decrease of about 40,000 people from 2006 to 2007. Seven out of the last eight years, baptisms have decreased, a more important statistic to many Southern Baptists than membership.
Hunt said he would try to unite Baptist around common causes and use his experience mentoring younger pastors to reach out to a younger generation.
"We come across almost only for what we're against when there's so many wonderful things we're for," Hunt said.