The South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) held a Sexual Misconduct Summit Mar. 12 at Lexington Baptist Church in Lexington attended by more than 500 leaders and staff from about 200 churches across the state. Leaders received information to better protect children and members from misconduct and harassment onsite and during church-sponsored activities. Community and faith-based organizations also shared about available services and education to care for and assist victims.
At the summit a panel of legal experts defined and explained South Carolina law as it pertains to churches, and discussed issues related to improving safeguards for staff and members within the local church. Leaders also received sample policies and materials to use in their context. Community and ministry partners at the event included South Carolina Victim Assistance Network (SCVAN), the Department of Crime Victim Compensation, a victim advocate with the Lexington Police, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands and the human trafficking ministry Lighthouse for Life.
SCBC Executive Director-Treasurer Gary Hollingsworth said the convention is working to equip churches to prevent negligence and misconduct and encourage church staff to actively minister to former victims of abuse that may be currently in their congregations.
“It’s likely that there are victims in our churches. There are people in your pews that are suffering in some regard. We need to be better prepared to care and minister to them in the name of Jesus,” says Hollingsworth.
“The convention wants churches to have conversations about what are the next critical steps to take moving forward. How can we, through our churches, join with God to see that every life is saturated and transformed by the hope of the gospel,” says Jay Hardwick, SCBC associate executive director and chief strategist.
At the summit church leaders gained an understanding of what constitutes negligence, abuse and misconduct, and then what South Carolina law mandates as clergy responsibility and how to report suspected abuse. The attorneys involved in the summit are experienced in cases involving churches and church staff and, among them, have experience prosecuting and defending cases related to misconduct and abuse. As they shared relevant data on perpetrator indicators and behaviors and areas of risk within church sponsored ministries, the attorneys discussed the importance of church policies, volunteer training and signed agreements.
Robert Showers is an attorney at law practicing in Virginia who, in addition to having served hundreds of churches and nonprofits and created a national law center for antipornography intelligence, is also an active local church member who has helped to plant three churches. He urges churches to create and employ policies addressing child and member abuse and conduct regular trainings to safeguard members.
“This is a national and worldwide problem hitting everywhere, but it’s also hitting our churches. The issue I want you to walk away with is this – child abuse in the church is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when.’ It must be made a first priority,” he says.
According to Showers, background checks are not enough to successfully screen for perpetrators since, he reports, less than 10 percent of them encounter the criminal justice system and one-quarter to one-third of offenses don’t make it to the national indexes. Churches should exhaust a volunteer’s reference checks, conduct internet searches on the applicant including on social media and expand volunteer training to include how to recognize signs of child abuse.
Attorneys at Law Sally Wagenmaker and Angela Thomas spoke to the importance of churches creating effective child protection safety systems and sexual harassment policy and procedures, which they link to leaders’ responsibilities to shepherd God’s people and express His care for them. Churches should create clear policies that include appropriate behaviors with children and compliance commitments, and that employ “zero tolerance” statements. A church should consider requiring other groups that may use its facilities to comply with its safety and protection policies and consult its insurance carrier to understand related coverages.
“Optimal protection of children requires that churches implement safety systems and require certain things of its volunteers,” Thomas says.
Speaking to work place issues, Wagenmaker says churches should have an anti-harassment policy and proper related training for staff and volunteers, commit to taking appropriate action if complaints arise and, most importantly, be reminded to live out biblical values in the work place.
“Churches should want to address all concerns and take them seriously,” Wagenmaker says.
South Carolina Baptist churches should be aware that the SCBC offers a variety of assistance and resources to churches on the topics of policy making, recommended training and safety measures for staff and volunteers. Churches are also encouraged to contact associational offices to inquire about training on related content that is offered through SCBC's Human Resources Office.
The SCBC maintains that any allegation of sexual misconduct should be taken seriously and dealt with immediately. Offering training, like the summit, is one way that the SCBC is working to partner with experts from various fields to help ministry leaders understand and implement best practices for preventing abuse as well as the appropriate handling of abuse scenarios. The SCBC is also committed to improving ministry efforts to and care of survivors of abuse.
Hardwick reminds churches that they are not exempt from having to grapple with the challenging issues related to sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse. “We should ensure that our churches are places where people can hear the gospel in a safe environment and a place where those that have experienced the terror of abuse can also experience the love and restorative hope of the gospel. These are gospel issues, and we want to minister effectively the hope of the gospel,” he says.
In June 2019 the Southern Baptist Convention will launch an online curriculum and resource site called “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” located at www.churchcares.com. For additional information available to churches contact the SCBC at 803.765.0030.