“I have some concerns about potential liabilities,” Joe Knott, a North Carolina lawyer, told fellow Baptists at an executive committee meeting in Birmingham, Ala., where the country’s largest coalition of Baptist churches was conducting its annual gathering in June.
The national spotlight was on the SBC as it debated how to protect its flock from sexual abusers. But Knott was also worried about a proposal for an SBC committee to conduct “inquiries” into how churches handle abuse allegations.
Such a proposal, he warned, could weaken the SBC’s argument that it has no control over its member churches — an assertion that leaders have said gives the SBC immunity in sexual abuse lawsuits.
“I don’t see how in the world we’re supposed to know how 50,000 churches are acting,” Knott said. “But if we’re telling the public, ‘We do know, we’ve given them credentials,’ that seems to be a big problem potentially.”
The story so far
An investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed in February that more than 700 people, most of them children, had been sexually abused by Southern Baptist pastors, church employees or volunteers during the past two decades.
The newspapers also published a database of about 220 Southern Baptist church pastors, leaders, employees and volunteers who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes. That database has now been expanded to more than 260 with the help of tips from victims and others who read the stories.
The series, “Abuse of Faith,” sparked a national outcry. More than 350 readers contacted the newspapers to offer tips or share their own stories of abuse. In response to the series, the Southern Baptist Convention has taken steps that leaders believe will help prevent sexual abuse.
Nearly all of Knott’s colleagues voted in favor of the proposal. But he raised an issue that has frustrated victims’ advocates: How the convention’s decentralized structure deters lawsuits against the SBC in sexual abuse cases — and limits judgments or settlements that can prompt institutional changes.
Every year, churches in the SBC collectively raise about $11 billion — revenues that put them on par with a mid-tier Fortune 500 company such as Office Depot. The SBC and state Baptist conventions collect a portion of those donations — nearly half a billion dollars a year — to pay for missionaries, seminaries and other religious operations.
But while dioceses in the Roman Catholic Church have paid billions to the victims of sexual abuse in civil litigation, few lawsuits have targeted the church at the national level. Likewise, abuse survivors have sued Baptist churches, but the SBC itself has rarely been named as a defendant and it has yet to pay any civil damages to victims.
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 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.
August “Augie” Boto, a longtime leader and general counsel for the SBC’s executive committee, said the SBC has yet to be named in an abuse lawsuit that reached the appellate courts.
That means that there’s no legal precedent for the argument that the SBC has routinely claimed — that church autonomy protects the SBC from litigation, Boto said.
“In the few instances where a plaintiff has named the SBC as a defendant in a child abuse case growing out of the activities in a church, such cases typically are dismissed as a result of a voluntary nonsuit or on some grounds which did not address the merits,” Boto said through a spokesman.
A new lawsuit
The SBC is facing increasing scrutiny — both publicly and in a new lawsuit — regarding its handling of sexual abuse. In February, the Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reported that about 380 SBC church leaders and volunteers had been credibly accused or convicted of sex crimes.
The newspapers also detailed years of failed attempts by activists and survivors to persuade the SBC and its national leaders to adopt reforms to prevent sexual abuse.
Those findings are now at the heart of a Virginia lawsuit that claims negligence by local, state and national Baptist leaders. The suit’s plaintiffs say eight boys were molested or raped by youth minister Jeffrey Dale Clark, who was later convicted of criminal charges.
The victims sued Clark’s church and other parties. Then, in a rare move, they added the SBC as a defendant.
“This idea that everyone’s completely autonomous is a facade and it’s self-serving,” said Kevin Biniazan, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case.
In an attempt to counter the claim that the SBC has little oversight of its churches, the lawsuit states the SBC has had no problem exerting authority over churches when it wants to, pointing out that churches that “endorsed homosexuality” were kicked out of the convention.
The money flows from local churches to Southern Baptist associations at the state level. The state conventions send a portion of those donations to SBC entities such as the executive committee, which is headquartered in Nashville and acts as a fiduciary for the entire convention.
Under the cooperative program, Southern Baptist churches have a common goal of “sharing the gospel with every person on the planet.”
“These organizations are working together in harmony,” Biniazan said. “The success of one benefits the other. And vice versa.”
Seeking broader liability
Most of the lawsuits involving predatory Catholic priests were filed against individual dioceses, which are led by bishops. Minnesota lawyer Jeff Anderson has tried suing the bishops’ national organization, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asserting that it bears responsibility for the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse. He’s had no success.
“It’s very difficult,” Anderson said. “But it’s all dependent upon being able to break new ground and having the evidence to do it.”
If a judge or jury agrees with the arguments in Biniazan’s lawsuit, it would push the SBC into uncharted legal territory.
In scores of lawsuits reviewed by the Chronicle that accuse a church employee or volunteer of sexual misconduct, the SBC usually isn’t listed as a defendant. Biniazan said it’s possible few victims sue the SBC because sometimes it’s not clear that a church is tied to the convention. Other plaintiffs might be deterred from suing the SBC because its lawyers have publicly stated it can’t be held liable for the actions of its churches.
In Pennsylvania, a woman sued First Baptist Church of Lansford in 2008 and alleged that her pastor, Jeremy Benack, had tried to groom her when she was a minor “to satisfy his own sexual desires.”
The SBC was named a defendant in that case. But Jim Guenther, a lawyer for the convention, told the Morning Call newspaper at the time that churches are responsible for hiring and firing their pastors — not the SBC.
“We knew nothing about it,” Guenther said of the allegation against Benack. “And if we knew anything about it, we could not have provided any relief or prevention.”
In Harris County, a prominent Southern Baptist leader and former state judge, Paul Pressler, was sued by a man who alleged Pressler had sexually assaulted him for decades. The plaintiff, Duane Rollins, accused the SBC and other defendants of covering up the alleged abuse.
Boto, speaking on behalf of the SBC, filed an affidavit in the case stating the convention exerts no control over Southern Baptist churches.
“Every Southern Baptist church is autonomous and controlled in ways approved only by its members,” Boto said in the document. “The Southern Baptist Convention does not exercise any control or authority over any Southern Baptist church.”
Rollins’ lawyer at the time, Daniel Shea, painted a far different picture of the SBC, claiming its assertions of autonomy were a “sham.” Shea learned the SBC’s executive committee was structured for tax purposes as a nonprofit parent organization of some Southern Baptist churches.
In order to reduce paperwork for both the Internal Revenue Service and nonprofits, the churches were allowed to seek tax-exempt status with the IRS through the executive committee.
Under IRS regulations, the churches must be subject to the “general supervision or control” of the parent organization — the SBC’s executive committee. Rollins’ lawyer cited the arrangement as evidence that Southern Baptist churches aren’t as autonomous as they claim.
A judge ultimately dismissed the case against Pressler and the SBC, saying Rollins waited too long to bring his case. The ruling is being appealed.
Guenther declined to offer a detailed response to Shea’s legal claim, saying he didn’t want to litigate the case in the media. But he insisted Shea was wrong.
“I can tell you his argument has no validity,” Guenther said.
While the SBC has avoided any legal liabilities in sexual abuse lawsuits, a recent case in Florida involving a convicted child molester resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement in 2014 against the Florida Baptist Convention, a state organization of Southern Baptists.
That lawsuit argued that Florida Baptist leaders failed to fully check the background of Doug Myers, who had been accused of misconduct in Maryland and Alabama in the years before he began abusing a child at a church he had established on behalf of Florida Southern Baptist groups.
“For decades, pedophiles have been utilizing the Southern Baptists’ legal strategy of autonomy to maneuver through their large network of churches undetected,” said one of Myers’ victims. He contacted the Chronicle and asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t yet ready to share his name publicly.
“While most of the public is only now learning about this, the SBC leadership has been very aware for a long time,” the man said. “They repeatedly chose not to act.”
Assessing the risk
At the SBC’s annual meeting in Birmingham earlier this summer, SBC President J.D. Greear said the Southern Baptist Convention couldn’t afford not to act.
Greear cited a recent survey by the SBC’s publishing arm, Lifeway, that found one in 10 churchgoers under the age of 35 have left a church because they felt abuse wasn’t being taken seriously.
The Chronicle’s investigation found at least 30 SBC churches since the 1990s were aware that a pastor, employee or volunteer had faced allegations of sexual misconduct. The churches hired them anyway or allowed them to continue serving in their spiritual roles.
In at least two cases, church employees were arrested on charges that they failed to report allegations of child sexual abuse to authorities.
SBC leaders say they have no authority to tell a church what to do. But they proposed forming a credentials committee to review the facts when a concern is raised about a church, and to make a recommendation to the SBC’s top leadership body, the executive committee, which can remove churches from the convention.
That’s when Knott, a member of the executive committee, raised his concerns in Birmingham. He was worried that the proposed credentials committee would essentially serve as an SBC stamp of approval for churches, and plaintiffs’ attorneys might be able to draw a direct line between the negligent actions of a church to the deep pockets of the SBC.
“Whoever has drafted this (proposal) has made a connected pathway to the checking account of the Southern Baptist Convention in the event of a successful lawsuit against us,” Knott said.
“If you have some little child who’s been abused by some pastor or whatever, it may be a long shot,” Knott said. “But why open our checking account to that case?”
Others told Knott that the committee wouldn’t be certifying churches as safe for children or conducting full-fledged investigations; its job would only be to make “inquiries” into whether a church was clearly disregarding or mishandling abuse.
Guenther, the longtime SBC lawyer, predicted the SBC would likely prevail in any lawsuits. He said the convention has always had the ability to remove churches — the credentials committee would simply change the process to accomplish that task.
Other executive committee members said that the SBC needed to focus on protecting children, regardless of its legal exposure. If the credentials committee helps churches understand their duty to protect children, one member said, “it is worth every penny.”
When the vote was finally taken, the executive committee almost unanimously approved the proposal. It became official a day later, when thousands of Baptists gathered in the arena of Birmingham’s civic center and voted for the credentials committee.
Biniazan, one of the few lawyers who has sued the SBC in connection with a sexual abuse case, said it’s time to test the claim that church autonomy shields it from any liability. He’d like to have a judge decide.
“I think it’s ultimately up to somebody to say whether that’s allowed,” Biniazan said. “Are you allowed to take all this money from these organizations, and then cut ties and sever yourself from responsibility just when the going gets tough?”