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STATEMENT: Response to ABC 20/20 segment on sexual predators in ministry

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Unfortunately, the “20/20” report last Friday had the effect of misleading at least some of its viewers to believe that the Southern Baptist Convention somehow condones, hides or denies sexual offenses committed by ministers in SBC-affiliated churches. The Convention does none of those things. Quite the contrary.

The report included accurate assertions, certainly. For instance, it is true that Southern Baptist ministers have been charged and/or convicted of sexually abusing children. It is true that in some of those instances, abuse had occurred earlier at churches where those men had been previously employed. It is apparently true that at least in one case a church previously employing a sexual predator and the church employing the offender at the time of his ultimate arrest did not communicate with each other in a way that disclosed any earlier indication of moral failure. It may be true that other churches have similarly failed to communicate.

It is not true, however, that the Southern Baptist Convention has qualified or endorsed any minister a church has chosen. There is an explicit statement saying as much on the same page the interviewer used to locate the ministers he named. So it is the local churches which do the qualifying, not the SBC. 20/20 referred to the list of ministers as “the list of available ministers.” It would have been more accurate to refer to it as the “list of serving ministers.” The Convention merely shares information provided by its affiliated churches.

It is ironic that a news service would find fault in the SBC’s reporting of a fact. Imagine what 20/20 would have said had the Convention NOT included the names of those men in its list of present church ministers. Whether 20/20 approves of the practice or not, we believe it is best to report openly, for the benefit of everyone INCLUDING VICTIMS, the names of ministers our affiliated churches are employing.

The ABC report also left a misperception regarding what the Convention “would allow.” By posing the question to President Page as the interviewer did, and editing out the bulk of the interview and Dr. Page’s responses, the report left the impression that the Convention was being arbitrary in “not allowing” women ministers or homosexual ministers, and yet “allowing” ministers who are convicted or suspected sexual predators.

The fact is the Convention does not control a church’s employment of its ministers on ANY basis. A church is free to employ anyone it wishes as pastor. All the Convention says is that if the church employs a gay person as pastor then the Convention will no longer consider that church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, but that does not mean the Convention can control whom a church employs as its pastor.

Additionally, as is always the case when alarming, but misleading information is first reported, public reaction is to call for correction. Unfortunately, the solutions being offered often relate to the misperception that was received, and therefore many of those solutions are either inappropriate or unproductive.

For instance, the suggested solution of producing a list of sex offenders at the Convention level overlooks the fact that, in most of the cases being cited, the perpetrators had no criminal record.

Additionally, the 20/20 report made the point that in the cases cited, including the egregious cases involving Ken Ward and Shawn Davies, the churches where those men initially committed their crimes did not report them.

The quality and ameliorative ability of any national database would be directly proportional to the quality of the input. In neither of those cases would a national database have been of any help at all because it would have contained no report on either of those men. Nevertheless, we are still examining possibilities of that option. But any solution which is of no real benefit holds no appeal for us, especially if it operates to create a false sense of security as people depend on it.

I do, however, see a major benefit to the airing of the 20/20 segment — that it significantly raised the level of apprehension and wariness among Southern Baptists who have responsibilities in qualifying volunteers and prospective employees.

Significant impact in reducing instances of sexual abuse must start at the local level. The authority is there, the children are there, the applicants are there, the circumstances are understood better there, and the child’s most motivated defenders are there — their parents.
D. August Boto is general counsel and vice president for convention policy with the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • D. August Boto