Messengers to the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention called on lawmakers in all 50 states to enact legislation creating uniform definitions for pastoral sexual abuse, and they gave Baptists in the states a tool for urging the legislation. Resolution 5 “On Consistent Laws Regarding Pastoral Sexual Abuse” was part of a package of actions on the agenda that included the 288-page report from the Sexual Abuse Task Force on the Executive Committee’s handling of abuse claims, recommendations adopted by the messengers including creation of a database to track offenders, and a season of lament and apology to abuse survivors for past failures.
“We do see this as part of a movement that goes from state to state,” said newly elected SBC president Bart Barber of the development of consistent laws. Barber also served as chair of the 2022 Resolutions Committee
Resolutions may not appear to carry the same weight as floor votes requiring specific studies and actions by SBC entities, but Southern Baptists have used resolutions effectively to state what they believe. And in cases such as this, resolutions give force to local movements seeking to bring change the culture.
Barber was particularly supportive of Resolution 5 based on his own experience as a pastor in Texas urging passage of a “shield law” to give legal protection to churches sharing information about cases of abuse. A bill he drafted was supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a private schools coalition. Texas lawmakers approved it unanimously.
He pointed out that a Southern Baptist wrote the bill, Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission “translated from preacher-ease to lawyer-ease,” and a state representative who is a Southern Baptist ushered it through the approval process in the Texas legislature.
“We would be delighted to see not just Southern Baptist churches, but people of good will across the country” join the movement to create consistent legislation. That would prevent an offender in one state from moving to a state with lesser penalties without consequent, Barber said.
The legislation would clarify the illegality of pastors who engage in sexual acts with people under their care, despite age or consent. The resolution says, “These laws make no exception for the consent of the victim since pastors and ministers are in a position of trust, which is broken when the one in authority engages in a sexual act with the victim.”
The resolution also advocates legislation to shield churches from civil liability when they share information about alleged abuse with other organizations.
Such laws would also aid in the legal protection needed to contribute information to a national database of credibly offenders in SBC churches, and could assuage concerns from some church leaders about legal exposure from sharing information on claims of abuse.
Barber said he hopes the government will come alongside church leaders to end “a patchwork contradictory and inconsistent laws.”
“That’s advantageous for us to help prevent abuse,” Barber said, and as the resolution says, “to protect the innocent within the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention from wolves in shepherd’s clothing.”