Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Princeton professor says SBC prevaricates

Princeton professor Marci Hamilton hit the nail on the head in explaining why the Southern Baptist Convention’s reasons for rejecting a clergy predator database are so lame. Let me share some excerpts with you.

“The SBC prevaricates by saying that, as there is a comprehensive federal database of abusers, the creation of a Baptist database would just confuse matters.

The way SBC officials make it sound, the issue is now dead and individual churches should just do their own individual background checks. Never mind that such checks would be profoundly easier – and more likely to be thorough – if an intra-organizational database could be consulted.

There is a basic procedural answer to what the SBC has portrayed as an insuperable barrier – agree among all independent entities to coordinate. If Baptist churches cannot coordinate on a shared, national strategy in favor of children at risk, they rightly lose a great deal of moral capital.

Thus, the autonomy excuse is nothing more than that: an excuse.

The church-network database suggestion was visionary – and the suggestion that it would simply overlap with Megan’s Lists or federal databases is dead wrong.”
Hamilton’s words are strong. But read for yourself the “reasons” given by SBC Executive Committee president Morris Chapman. Are they really "reasons" or just excuses?

I think Chapman reveals the falsity of his reasoning when he repeatedly refers to “convicted” sexual predators. It shows that he’s making a straw man argument.

Chapman claims that a “Baptist only” database of convicted sex offenders would be less comprehensive than the federal database of convicted sex offenders. Because the federal database of convicted sex offenders is the most comprehensive one, it’s the “best resource,” says Chapman.

But this was never about creating a database of only the convicted. It was about creating a database of convicted, confessed and credibly accused clergy predators. That last part – the “credibly accused” part – is critically important.

For Chapman to focus only on the convicted shows either ignorance or disingenuousness.

Experts far and wide – scholars, law-enforcement, and child advocacy groups – universally recognize that most active child molesters have never been convicted of anything. This means they won’t show up on the federal database of convicted sex offenders.

This reality – i.e., that most child molesters have never been convicted and can’t be prosecuted - is why most other major faith groups have systems to objectively assess the credibility of abuse allegations against their clergy. Even if faith leaders can’t put such men in jail, they can at least prevent them from using their weapon of ministerial trust to molest and rape kids in some other unsuspecting congregation.

Over 700 Catholic priests have now been removed from active ministry based on “credible accusations” of child sex abuse. Only about 3 percent were ever convicted of anything. If Catholic leaders still professed the same tragically low standard as Southern Baptist leaders, about 679 of those “credibly accused” priests would still be in ministry and working with kids.

For that matter, if they took off their collar, those “credibly accused” priests could now go to work in Southern Baptist churches. After all, they aren’t going to show up on the federal database of convicted sex offenders.

In real-world effect, Southern Baptists are allowing that men may continue in ministry unless and until they show up on a federal database of convicted sex offenders. This is a terrifyingly low standard that leaves kids in harm’s way.

In that light, Morris Chapman came close to getting something right when he reiterated the SBC’s oh-so-useful autonomy excuse. “The world may never understand our polity,” he said.

What the world will never understand is how a powerful religious group that purports to be a moral beacon can possibly prioritize the protection of “polity” over the protection of kids against the clergy who prey on them.


Junkster said...

I read Marci Hamilton's full article; it was excellent. Her suggestion that the insurance industry could be an agent for positive change is intriguing. Perhaps you can collaborate with her to lobby the insurance industry to work toward the reforms she proposes. I have suspected that SBC leadership refuses to take action for fear that taking any responsibility would open them up to lawsuits. If that's the case, then maybe they'd respond to the greater liability that would be faced if insurance coverage might be at risk.

Christa Brown said...

In her new book, "Justice Denied," Marci Hamilton talks in much more detail about how the courthouse doors are usually closed to survivors of childhood sex abuse and about the role of the insurance industry. She is precisely correct in stating that "private organizations are too self-interested and too amateurish to handle investigations into child sex abuse." This is exactly why local churches cannot be expected to responsibly assess reports of clergy child molestation. It's why the denomination needs to provide local churches with the resource of an independent professional investigatory body and review board that could consider abuse reports that are outside the time limit for criminal prosecution (which is most). And a review board would not need to exercise any actual authority over the church. An objective assessment would hold meaning in and of itself as a valuable piece of information.

The review board wouldn't need to actually instruct the church on what to do with the information. If a congregation chose to retain a minister even after a denominational review board concluded the child molestation allegation was credible, then I would expect the church's insurance carrier might step in and exercise some influence at that point. This is still another way that the insurance industry could play a role in this.

Junkster: Just noticed your own blog posting from last March on "Abusive ministers and autonomy" - well-said.