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EC recommends D.O.J. database for child sex abuse prevention in SBC churches

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee passed a recommendation June 9 urging churches to screen prospective volunteers and employees with the U.S. Department of Justice’s national sex offender database and said it believes the “potential threat of sex abuse” on the local church level “is tragically underappreciated.”

At six pages, the Executive Committee’s report on child sexual abuse -– adopted after two years of study — also said it is “strongly persuaded that no church or Baptist entity should employ a known sex offender.”

Passed with only one dissenting vote, the recommendation said the Executive Committee “believes utilizing a reliable and authoritative database is an extremely important initial step of background review Southern Baptist churches should take to provide the highest degree of protection against sexual predators.” The database is called the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender database — available at www.nsopr.gov — and includes a list of convicted sex offenders nationwide. It is linked from the SBC’s official website, www.sbc.net.

The Executive Committee declined -– as a 2007 motion by Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson suggested — to establish a database of Southern Baptist offenders. The report said that, “on the surface,” the idea of a Southern Baptist-run database “seems like a good idea.” But the report said such a proposal raised several questions and concerns:

— that it would be “impossible to assure that all convicted sexual predators who ever had a connection with a Baptist church would be discoverable for inclusion on such a list.”

— that “creating a database of ‘Baptist only’ convicted sexual offenders would leave out predators previously identified in other faith groups who could come in under the radar” and obtain employment at a Southern Baptist church. Sexual predators “frequently migrate” from victim to victim and job to job, the report said, and a national Southern Baptist database would not be of help for churches that hire someone from a non-SBC church.

— that Southern Baptists’ ecclesiology –- each church is autonomous -– “precludes the Convention from having any authority to require local churches to report instances of alleged sexual abuse to their local association, their state Baptist convention, or the national Convention.”

The Dru Sjodin database, the report said, is maintained and provided by the United States Department of Justice and is “publicly accessible without charge” and “the best resource for such use.”

“Any convicted sex offender, regardless of religious affiliation, is already listed in the Department of Justice’s national database of convicted sex offenders,” the report said.

It is not enough, the report said, for a church to only view a candidate’s criminal history. The Dru Sjodin national database, the report said, should be employed, but a thorough background check also should be undertaken.

“In summary, prevention of sexual abuse, and proper response when victimization occurs, are best accomplished by churches diligently utilizing procedures, information, and resources already readily available,” the report said. “Churches are strongly encouraged to recognize the threat or harm as real, to avail themselves of such information, and to aggressively undertake adequate steps at the local level to prevent harm and protect victims.

“The Executive Committee strongly encourages local congregations to devise policies and execute strategies (1) to be diligent as they choose and supervise their ministers, employees, and volunteers, (2) to be vigorous in their investigations of known or suspected sex abuse within their ranks, and (3) to be honest and forthcoming in revealing the facts to their sister congregations when asked about former ministers, employees, and volunteers.”

The report further said the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is “fully capable of determining the proper construction, prioritization, and provision of ministry called for by sexual abuse victimization.”

The Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup and Administrative Subcommittee discussed the recommendation and report during their morning meetings June 9. Much of the discussion centered on whether it would be reasonable for a child sex offender -– after accepting Christ -– to be employed again in a Southern Baptist church. The workgroup and subcommittee decided it would not. There are two issues, members of the workgroup and subcommittee said: a person’s salvation and a person’s employment. Although the person can be forgiven for past sins, he or she should not again be placed in a position of trust.

“God is a gracious, gracious God. God forgives. … We can restore those that do this to our fellowship [as members of the church],” workgroup chairman Stephen Wilson told EC members in presenting the report. “But … the committee felt very strongly that in terms of employment practice, this is not something that we think we ought to be doing, and that is restoring people to a leadership position after they have had this type of [incident] in their lives.”

In other business, Executive Committee members adopted, on voice votes, three recommendations from their Cooperative Program Subcommittee:

1) to leave the formula through which Cooperative Program funds are distributed to Southern Baptist Convention seminaries unchanged through the 2019-20 fiscal year, after which the formula would be reviewed to determine whether adjustments would be needed “to assure the formula’s continued effective and equitable distribution” of funds for theological education.

2) to develop, in cooperation with the six Southern Baptist seminaries, a standardized questionnaire for an in-depth survey of graduating students, beginning in 2010, “to provide feedback on issues important to the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries.”

3) to request that LifeWay Christian Resources add questions to the annual survey of Southern Baptist churches that would help determine whether those congregations are led by seminary-trained staff and what degrees those staff members received from their institution.

The latter two proposals were brought in response to an 11-member ad hoc committee’s recommendations this past February for the Executive Committee to study the impact of the seminaries’ new lower-level academic programs on their primary graduate and post-graduate programs and find ways to track whether seminary graduates are serving in vocational missions or ministry positions after graduation.

In electing new officers for the coming year, Executive Committee elected Randall James, an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., as chairman; Michael Lewis, pastor of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, vice chairman; and Martha Lawley, a women’s ministry author and speaker from Worland, Wyo., as secretary.
Reported by Baptist Press assistant editors Michael Foust and Mark Kelly and BP staff writer Erin Roach.

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  • Michael Foust