Southern Baptist state convention offers anti-sex-abuse measures

Associated Baptist Press/September 13, 2007

Grapevine, Texas -- Two groups affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention are attempting to respond to the problem of child sexual abuse in churches by recommending a company that does background checks.

However, clergy sex-abuse activists say the solution is insufficient given the scope of the problem.

Officials of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have named Child Guard Systems of Richardson, Texas, as a resource for congregations that want to ensure "safety for children and integrity for ministries." The Sept. 12 announcement came three months after the Louisiana Baptist Convention began offering its churches a similar option -- also through Child Guard -- for stemming sex-abuse.

The conventions took action after a spate well-publicized abuse case involving Southern Baptist ministers. Recent scandals in churches in Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kentucky have led advocate groups to pressure SBC officials to conduct a nationwide investigation into the abuse.

But while national convention leaders have expressed sympathy for the victims, they deny allegations that denominational officials have perpetuated it. Denomination-wide enforcement efforts are impractical, they say, because of the Baptist tradition of local-church autonomy.

In Texas convention's agreement, Child Guard will be linked on the convention's website and recommended by SBTC staff to all of its approximately 1,900 member churches. The company will provide background checks for potential child workers, training in how properly to work with children for church staff and volunteers, and online testing and certification for trainees.

The service also provides identification badges for the children that are electronically encoded with medical and parental information. The badges can be programmed to track drop-off and pick-up times from nursery and day-care services.

Rates for services vary, but each participating church must pay a $500 one-time setup fee. Training and testing sessions cost $25 per staff member or volunteer, while background checks cost $9.75 per person.

"Our main hope is to provide what help we can so that our churches can maintain solid and safe ministries," said Gary Ledbetter, the Texas convention's communications director. "As for the duration of the agreement, it can be ended by either party at any time. I would think that it would continue so long as both parties find it beneficial."

So far, leaders in the Texas convention have received no negative responses to the initiative. But, given the Baptist form of church government, participation in the program is voluntary. And that means some victims' advocates aren't satisfied with the arrangement.

Christa Brown, who operates the website, said anyone who believes a $500 online training program will be enough to make Baptist churches safe is fooling themselves.

"The best way to prevent more clergy-molestation victims is to provide a safe and welcoming place to which victims may report abuse with an expectation of being objectively heard. That does not currently exist in any SBC-affiliated group," Brown said via e-mail. "Until that exists, there should be no peace of mind for families in Southern Baptist churches."

Denominational leaders have tried other risk-management efforts, such as toll-free sex-abuse hotlines for missionaries and the approval of anti-sex-abuse resolutions at annual meetings. But Brown and other activists have clamored for much more proactive measures.

Ultimately, Brown continued, Baptists should not "tolerate from their leaders what would no longer be tolerated by people who sit in Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Lutheran pews."

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