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Executive Committee Still Studying Feasibility of Clergy Sex-Offender Database

The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t yet ready to respond to a motion referred from last year’s convention calling for a feasibility study of a denomination-wide database of clergy sex offenders, a work group studying the proposal said Tuesday.

Stephen Wilson, chairman of the bylaws work group, told EthicsDaily.com the Executive Committee will respond at a meeting June 9, on the eve of this year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Indianapolis, to Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson’s motion about the feasibility of a database of “Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.”

Wilson, vice president of academic affairs at Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., said a potential database is only one component of response to the problem of sexual abuse by Baptist clergy, and that developing resources and helping churches will be an ongoing concern for the Executive Committee. “I want it to be ongoing,” Wilson said. “It has to be.”

The bylaws work group discussed the issue for about 90 minutes Tuesday morning in a session open to reporters on background rules that prohibit either direct quotation or attribution.

Based on the discussion, the work group appears to be near the end of the information-gathering phase. One motion was floated about working with LifeWay Christian Resources and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission to develop resources and help alert churches to the danger of clergy predators, but it didn’t receive a second because committee members had agreed beforehand Tuesday’s meeting was for discussion-only.

Information given to work group members included news stories from EthicsDaily.com, including one from December about the number of legal cases involving sexual abuse reported in 2007 and a story last week about a seminary president’s response to a woman claiming she was raped as a child by a Southern Baptist preacher still active in ministry.

Some comments said the press had done a service by helping to make Southern Baptist churches more aware of the real need to carefully screen prospective ministers and staff members for allegations of sexual abuse. Others said media reports unfairly portrayed Southern Baptist leaders as uncaring and unresponsive to victims of abuse.

In addition to news reports, work group members reviewed processes developed by other religious bodies, including a policy adopted last November by the Coordinating Council of the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship allowing both individuals and churches to report ministerial sexual abuse and including a process for “good-faith investigatory action” if the charge is disputed.

Members of the Executive Committee work group said they had no problem with listing names of clergy who have been convicted of sexual abuse, but some balked at the idea of the denomination becoming involved in a process of adjudicating what constitutes a “credible” accusation of clergy-sex abuse.

Despite limitations of the SBC’s governance system of local-church autonomy, others said the convention needs to do more to crack down on sexual abuse by clergy, such as withdrawing fellowship from congregations that knowingly harbor a predator.

“I thought it was a good meeting and a good discussion,” Wilson said after the meeting.

The bylaws work group was already discussing the issue of clergy-sex abuse before Burleson’s motion last summer. The group held a lengthy discussion in February 2007 focused largely on miscommunication between SBC leaders and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group pushing the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics to change the way it handles predatory preachers.

The SBC adopted a resolution in 2002 mentioning the scandal of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and encouraging “religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers.”

Another resolution passed last summer in San Antonio expressed “moral outrage and concern at any instance of child victimization” and renounced “individuals, churches, or other religious bodies that cover up, ignore, or otherwise contribute to or condone the abuse of children.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.