INDIANAPOLIS – 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 identify 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.
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.