Princeton Professor Debunks SBC Excuses Against Predator Database

This article is from FindLaw’s Writ. I’ve only posted the first half of the article here and the rest is well worth reading.


By Marci Hamilton

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has recently proven why it is that children are at risk for sexual abuse in our society: It’s easier not to protect them, and especially easy to issue ineffectual platitudes while looking the other way.

According to the Associated Press, the SBC has concluded that its decentralized structure of independent churches makes it impossible for it to establish a website of pastors credibly accused of child sexual abuse, or even to require the reporting of such crimes to the police. Yes, you read that right: The SBC is citing these lame procedural reasons for not taking the most basic steps to protect children from devastating abuse that can have repercussions that leave victims suffering for a lifetime (and that severely taxes society in medical and other resources).

In this column, I’ll rebut the Convention’s claims that policing and reporting abuse is an impossible task to put on its shoulders, and also describe how change in this quarter needs to come from what may seem like an unlikely source: the insurance industry.

Why the SBC’s Claims Don’t Hold Water

To begin, the SBC prevaricates by saying that as there is a comprehensive federal database of abusers, the creation of a Baptist database would just confuse matters. The way SBC officials make it sound, the issue is now dead and individual churches should just do their own individual background checks. Never mind that such checks would be profoundly easier – and more likely to be thorough — if an intra-organizational database could be consulted. As I discussed in a previous column, the federal database is not without its own serious problems.

Independent entities can coordinate their actions for the greater good, and there is rarely a more powerful reason to do so than here.

Consider an analogy: Under the Articles of Confederation, the states that are now the United States of America were incapable of coordinating their activities for the general good. The group re-considered those relations at a Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, where a committee of representatives from each state created a system that made it possible for them to coordinate their efforts to achieve important ends – without sacrificing sovereignty.

In short, there is a basic procedural answer to what the SBC has portrayed as an insuperable barrier – agree among all independent entities to coordinate. If Baptist churches cannot coordinate on a shared, national strategy in favor of children at risk, they rightly lose a great deal of moral capital.

Thus, the autonomy excuse is nothing more than just that: an excuse. If the members and churches of the SBC were truly interested in protecting children from predators within the organization, then they would create mutual obligations among their individual churches to report all reports of abuse to the police (not only the ones the churches’ themselves unilaterally find “credible”) and make public the names of those about whom they have received reports already.

A straightforward “report any complaint” policy combats the natural human tendency to protect friends and coworkers and creates a simple bright-line rule. No one likes to believe he or she is working alongside a monster, especially if that monster is engaging in other “good works,” but with clergy child abuse, that is too often the case. If individual churches’ credibility determinations are allowed to govern, reports may be made or not made according to the popularity of the accused, not the credibility of the accuser. The SBC needs to learn, as the Roman Catholic Church has had to, that even the most charming clergy can be dangerous predators.

The church-network database suggestion was visionary – and the suggestion that it would simply overlap with Megan’s Lists or federal databases is dead wrong. In too many cases, churches’ databases will have information about predators that would have been otherwise unavailable, because victims are barred from going to court by short statutes of limitations. No government may put a name on a criminal sex offender list without a conviction. (The barriers imposed by statutes of limitations are especially acute in Alabama, which has the most backward and predator-friendly statute of limitations in the country, with a mere two-year limit.)


Read the rest of the article here as the author goes on the describe a potential ally in the fight against clergy predators in insurance companies.