Houston Chronicle’s long article on SBC autonomy: Can the SBC maintain it’s non-liability in abuse cases?

In their latest article on abuse in the SBC the Houston Chronicle and their reporters John Tedesco and Robert Downen do a good job drilling down into details that are seldom touched on by secular reporters.

Southern Baptist Convention claims no control over local churches. But new rules, lawsuit may test that argument 

[You might have to have an account to read the entire article or access it from a different computer. It’s worth reading.]

A few quotes and observations:

For decades, Southern Baptist lawyers have argued the convention has no oversight over any of the churches that voluntarily cooperate with one another, but do not answer to an authority figure such as a pope. They maintain that the SBC cannot be held liable in lawsuits filed against any of the 47,000 churches that make up the nation’s second-largest faith group.

Their legal argument has never been tested in court.

There is a new lawsuit in Virginia that claims negligence by local, state and national Baptist leaders. A number of boys were molested by a youth minister who was later convicted of criminal charges. The SBC was added as a defendant in the lawsuit brought by one lawyer for the victims.

For years, I’ve read many abuse victims and their advocates maintain that the SBC’s system and claims of autonomy are self-serving and fail to protect children. The lawyer in the Virginia case calls autonomy a “facade” and describes it as “self-serving.” The SBC has been said to hide behind autonomy and that until there is a financial penalty to “the SBC” the denomination will never do anything about abuse.

Offered as evidence of “control” of churches by “the SBC” is the ability of the convention and Executive Committee to exclude churches. The action was seen by messengers and leaders as an improvement in the convention’s ability to separate itself from churches that do not handle abuse properly. Others see in the action an increased opening for liability of the SBC Executive Committee for actions of member churches.

There is a lot of money floating around in the SBC: Almost $12 billion in donations to local churches, $463 million to the Cooperative Program, and just under $200 million to the SBC Executive Committee for distribution to the entities. Widespread abuse in the Roman Catholic church has led, according to one reference, judgements that total close to a billion dollars for abuse leading to the bankruptcy of 19 Roman Catholic dioceses.

It is maintained that lawsuits against the SBC Executive Committee will be unsuccessful even though the convention has increased the role of it’s Credentials Committee. Some expressed concern that the action increases potential for liability at the SBC Executive Committee level. If the Credentials Committee examines and takes no action on a church for which there was a complaint, does this inaction constitute a formal endorsement of that church’s staff and policies, or somehow convey the convention’s approval? Likely not, says the convention attorney, who notes that the SBC has always had the power to exclude churches.

It was stated at the Executive Committee meeting where the subject of the enhanced credentials committee was discussed that the Executive Committee has no assets save for its building. The hundreds of millions of dollars that flow through its bank accounts to the entities are all restricted gifts. They are not funds that the EC has any discretion about in spending. This was offered, my lay legal opinion here, as another safeguard against claims on the EC’s bank accounts.

Give the reporters credit for getting into a level of details seldom covered by secular outlets. Lawyers love this stuff, while SBC leaders, pastors, and laypeople don’t know and have little interest in such things. One of these is the fact that for the purposes of charitable giving to churches, the required IRS document, a 501c3 approval letter, is held by the state convention. Does that make, for example, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board liable in any sense for the actions of member churches? I think not but I’d guess the day is close when this will form one argument for liability by a plaintiff.

My guess is that considerable attention will be given by the Executive Committee, our national entities, all state conventions, and even local associations on these matters. The new, younger state convention CEOs will likely spend more time and CP money on lawyers and legal matters.

I’ve served several SBC churches. Never did anyone beyond the local church hire or supervise me. I was never fired, but could have at any properly called and conducted business meeting of that church.

But, let’s delve into wild conjecture and hypotheticals here: What if your state convention or the Executive Committee was handed a huge judgment as part of an abuse lawsuit? I expect that such would quickly end the Cooperative Program, churches not interested in paying for lawsuits by pooling funds into and distributing them out of the CP.

It looks to me like the SBC at the national level is doing about as much as can be done to persuade churches to put in place policies and staff that will keep kids safe. The one exception is rather prickly and complicated: the creation of a national SBC abuser database. The Executive Committee has been called upon to create, fund, and staff an independent review board to receive, examine, and handle reports of abuse in SBC churches, and maintain records of all reports and actions.  This has not been done and I don’t know of any serious discussions to even examine this. Were it to be done, I’d guess the road would be paved to connect the local church to the Executive Committee in regard to liability for local church action.

More to come, no doubt.

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The Executive Committee’s lawyer is Augie Boto who is retiring this month. The SBC’s longtime counsel is Jim Guenther. Both are quoted in the Chronicle article. At some point, I’d guess that Southern Baptists will have to be informed on these things by other than secular newspapers and reporters.


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