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Goal of new organization is ‘abuse-free family of churches,’ ARITF chair says at press conference

SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force members Mike Keahbone and Josh Wester spoke at a press conference following the SBC Executive Committee's meeting in Nashville Feb. 20. Photo by Brandon Porter.

NASHVILLE (BP) – In a press conference Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 20), the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force chairman Josh Wester reiterated that the ARC, a new organization he announced to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee the night before, would be an independent 501(C)(3), separate from the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The Abuse Response Commission (ARC) is not being started by the ARITF as such,” Wester said. “Rather, it is being started by a group of concerned, individual Southern Baptists” who are current and former members of the ARITF.

One goal for the new organization is to protect the SBC and the SBC EC from liability, Wester said. The ARC also fulfills one of the recommendations that came out of the report from Guidepost Solutions on its investigation of how the SBC EC handled sexual abuse claims over a 20-year period – that a permanent home be found for sexual abuse prevention and response in the SBC.

“While we are taking these steps as the ARITF and as ARC is being launched in response to the messengers’ mandate for abuse reform, we desire to be clear that any decisions about ongoing funding or the precise relationship between ARC and the Convention remain in the hands of the messengers themselves,” Wester said. “We look forward to presenting the full details of our work to Southern Baptist at the 2024 annual meeting in June.”

Another goal for the ARC is to provide a neutral place for survivors to report abuse.

“There is simply more credibility with an external organization being responsible for this work than there is for it to be a part of the SBC,” Wester said.

Structural and financial development

The ARC’s incorporators are Wester, former ARITF chairman Marshall Blalock and current ARITF members Melissa Bowen, Brad Eubank, Mike Keahbone and John Nelson. They plan to incorporate the organization in South Carolina and eventually to name trustees.

A trustee board to oversee ARC’s work will likely be small, with roles outlined in bylaws expected to be available in less than 30 days. Made up of those who are passionate about sexual abuse reform, the board will mirror the “efficient and effective effort to meet the goals that we have outlined,” Wester said.

One of those goals, he added, is to “help the SBC pursue a future where we are an abuse-free family of churches.”

Funding for the ARC is an open question, though Wester said he is encouraged by the support he has received from SBC entity leaders and from SBC president Bart Barber.

The group is looking to raise $2.5 million in start-up funds, which would cover the launch of the Ministry Check website (a list of known sexual abusers), initial insurance coverage and the first year of operations.

When messengers established the ARITF in 2022, one of the recommendations was for the group to work with entity leaders to “identify a pathway for funding future reform efforts,” Wester said.

The task force has had real support from these leaders, he said, adding that “because of Dr. Barber’s fierce commitment to this cause and his willingness to call people together, I have a high level of confidence that our entity heads will work with us in identifying a funding pathway that we can bring to the messengers in June. … Just to clarify, [that] doesn’t necessarily mean a financial request. It may just be information, but we absolutely intend to report back to them the status of funding for reform.”

Several state Baptist conventions have expressed interest in the materials the ARC could provide, Wester said.

“There are a lot of options on the table right now,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate too far as to what the specific things those might be, but we anticipate sharing a lot of those options even as we put together the business plan or share the business plan with you over the next few weeks.”

Curriculum and database development

A curriculum introduced to trustees Monday night by Buckman and Eubank – Essentials Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Training – will be available at the annual meeting in June.

The materials will be available digitally, on thumb drives and as a printed resource, Eubank said at the press conference, and will be available to all churches, regardless of their affiliation with the SBC.

Wester cited Bishop Accountability, established in June 2003, as a model for the Ministry Check database ARC could incorporate that does not place ARC in the path of constant litigation.

“If you are proactive in working with your insurance company … you stand a much better chance of being able to create something that can endure over time,” he said. “And so, our goal is not to just put a website online that gets sued the next week and has to come down. Our goal is to do something, to take whatever painstaking measures that might be required in order to be able to serve Southern Baptist churches and entities for a long time.”