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2019 Texas law seen as a model to protect churches against sexual abuse predators

Bart Barber, chair of the 2022 SBC Committee on Resolutions and now SBC president, brings a report from the committee to messengers at the SBC meeting in Anaheim, Calif. BP file photo

Southern Baptist leaders hope a 2019 Texas law passed with bipartisan support may become a model for other states in helping churches pass information among themselves about potential perpetrators of clergy sexual abuse.

The legislation, initially written by Texas pastor and current SBC President Bart Barber, protects charitable organizations, their volunteers and independent contractors from liability when disclosing credible allegations to prospective employers. It passed in the Texas Senate and House without opposition.

The law then became a model for a resolution adopted by messengers to the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

The resolution urges Southern Baptists to encourage the adoption of laws that “empower churches by shielding them from civil liability when they share information about alleged abuse with other organizations or institutions.”

“Sexual predators are going to think hard, long and creatively about how to get into our churches and prey upon vulnerable people who attend our churches,” said Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas. “We have to think creatively, and long and hard about what our vulnerabilities are, and how to close those doors. And so passing this law in your state would be great.”

The origin of HB 4345

Barber began thinking about the need for the new Texas law in the early days of 2019, as the #metoo and #churchtoo movements were helping to re-ignite conversations within Southern Baptist churches about the handling of sexual abuse claims.

“Our church was at the point where, for several years, we’re screening volunteers very carefully and going through abuse prevention training for our Trail Life USA ministry here and our American Heritage Girls ministry here and several other things that I was connected with,” Barber said. “Everybody was thinking about this more and more. There’s a threat that people will come into your church who abused people elsewhere. How do you prevent that?”

As Barber looked for a creative solution to the problem, he began focusing specifically on ways to encourage communication between churches to prevent predators from moving from church to church to escape prosecution.

Barber knew firsthand how fear of lawsuits caused many churches to hesitate in sharing information about credible sexual abuse accusations. A few years earlier, Barber and a few other pastors had discovered an instance of disqualifying sexual misconduct of a fellow pastor. The pastor threatened to sue Barber and the other pastors for defamation of character if they disclosed the information to the church where he served. The threat didn’t deter the pastors, Barber says, but he recognized how a similar situation might cause churches to hesitate to share credible accusations of sexual abuse with other churches.

“It’s real common to receive the advice to never say anything negative about a former employee,” Barber said. “When people call for a reference check, you just confirm their dates of employment, and say whether they’d be eligible for rehire or whatever. The law doesn’t say you have to approach it that way. It’s just the advice that a lot of people get, and it’s really bad advice for trying to handle abuse and occasions where people have been accused of abuse in ministry.”

A lawyer’s job, Barber notes, is to advise his or her client that sharing credible information about sexual abuse can increase the legal risk. But a pastor’s responsibility is not to let that sway his decision about how to act.

“I believed I could help churches make better decisions by helping lawyers give better advice,” Barber said.

Barber admits he is no expert in the process of making laws, but he knows how to copy and paste. He found a couple of similar Texas laws and stitched them together to create a rough draft that he could take to a legislator.

As Barber looked at options, fellow Texas pastor Ben Wright also began investigating solutions to the same problem. The two connected via social media when they discovered they had a mutual interest in seeing a law like this pass in Texas. At the time, Wright served as both the pastor of Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Pointe, Texas, and trustee chair for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Wright had already reached out to his state legislator, a devout Catholic who was interested in preventing sexual abuse in churches, to see if he would sponsor a bill, but Wright never received a response.

Wright also reached out to another representative – Scott Sanford, a Texas state legislator and Southern Baptist executive pastor. By the time the two connected, they only had a few more days before the deadline for submitting new bills to the legislature.

“If we missed this deadline, it would be two years before we can come back and do this again,” Barber said. “So, I reached out to the [SBC’s] Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. To introduce a bill, you can’t just give the language of what you want your law to say in the end. It has to be formatted in a certain way, in other language attached to it that has to do with the process. You really need a lawyer who’s a specialist in this.”

Travis Wussow, who was on staff at the ERLC at the time, helped Barber edit the bill’s language and prepare it for Sanford’s submission.

“It was one of those moments, as I think back on it, that gives me joy to see how Southern Baptists can work together to do these things,” Wright said. “Without Travis’s help from the ERLC, it never would have happened. Without Bart’s engagement in all sorts of areas of Southern Baptist life, it wouldn’t happen. Without the connections that we had through the SBTC Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, it never would have happened. By God’s grace, the set of people knew each other, and people had the skills to get the different parts of it done.”

By the end of May 2019, just three months later, HB 4345 had passed the Texas legislature, and Gov. Greg Abbott had signed it into law.

Passing similar laws in other state

The 2022 SBC resolution, passed overwhelmingly by messengers, focused on six areas where Southern Baptists could work together related to laws about sexual abuse and clergy. SBC messengers agreed that churches should:

  • Encourage lawmakers to pass laws that would “provide consistent definitions and classification of sexual abuse by pastors.”
  • Encourage lawmakers to pass laws that would “empower churches by shielding them from civil liability when they share information about alleged abuse with other organizations or institutions.”
  • Ensure churches are not places for predators to hide through developing “a culture of transparency and mutual responsibility between churches.”
  • Acknowledge that all sin can be forgiven and everyone can be restored through Christ.
  • Support actions that protect the innocent in churches from “wolves in shepherd’s clothing.”
  • Recognize the biblical pattern of church discipline as a “clear process for practicing accountability and discipline in the body” in order to protect abuse victims.

No one-size-fits-all approach exists for Southern Baptists who want to help get these laws passed. Coyle Neal, an associate professor of political science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., notes that the law-making process differs from state to state, yet he has a few practical suggestions for Southern Baptists applicable across most states.

“First, and because this law is passed in Texas, the good news is there’s already a document that exists as a law that can be used as a starting place,” Neal said. “Copying laws of other states is a time-honored practice, though, obviously with modifications to make it appropriate for your state.”

Next, he adds, contact a state representative. Most states require a legislator to initiate a bill.

Wright encourages churches to reach out to their state convention offices. They can often point you to Southern Baptists or fellow evangelicals in the legislature who might make good partners in the process.

Local Roman Catholic organizations and those involved with private schools will likely also be effective partners for the effort, Barber says.

“I promise you this,” Barber said. “It’s not going to be hard for you to find people associated with nonprofits who have had this threat made against them at some time or another. ‘I’m going to sue you for defamation. I’m going to sue you for tortious interference with contract.’ Anybody who has been on the receiving end of that, with regard to allegations of abuse, will be motivated to help you get your bill all the way through to the passage of the law.”

Because the bill will likely have bipartisan support, it may go through the law-making process quickly. But Neal cautions that state legislative work is necessarily slow. Because many state legislatures meet every other year, the process may take multiple years. For example, a similar law stalled in Missouri in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill still hasn’t passed two years later.

“Be patient and keep plugging away at it,” Neal said. “But realize that even if everyone is on board with it, it can still take time to pass.”

Barber asks Southern Baptists to continue to think creatively about how churches can fix vulnerabilities in their congregations that allow predators to prey on vulnerable people.

“We just need people in our churches who, rather than just looking to check boxes saying we’ve done these three things, therefore, we’re safe against this,” Barber said. “We need people in our churches to think creatively about how to prevent abuse from happening in our churches in the first place.”

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  • Tobin Perry