Newly proposed legislation in Texas would allow churches and nonprofit organizations to disclose allegations of sexual misconduct without being sued.
The bill comes amid fallout from extensive investigative reporting in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News about hundreds of cases of sexual abuse where both leaders and volunteers in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes. Their investigations explained how, in dozens of instances, churches failed to disclose concerns about former staff members who were abusers and who sought employment at other churches, and would go on to abuse more victims.
The measure, HB 4345, was introduced by Texas House Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, who's also a Southern Baptist minister, and is the latest among similar proposals around the country now being considered in light of the #MeToo movement and other religious sexual abuse scandals, the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday.
A spokesperson for Sanford said the bill was “brought to us by faith leaders” and that Sanford “saw this as an important step to reporting and preventing sexual abuse.”
The legislation came together within the past month, according to the spokesman for the Texas state convention of the Southern Baptist denomination, Gary Ledbetter, who noted that he did not know what "directly prompted" the legislation.
Lawyers often advise churches to “say nothing except that the person did work here” when discussing former employees with potential new bosses, Ledbetter said.
“Basically, we don’t say anything,” he said.
“This bill would encourage churches to tell the truth as best as they know.”
Executive director of the Texas SBC, Jim Richards, also supports the bill, and told the Houston Chronicle that the convention “must do everything we can to protect the innocents from predators."
"As a convention of churches we will continue to work on ways to provide a safe environment for the vulnerable. We hope HB 4345 will facilitate this goal,” he said.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC's public policy arm, also backs the bill.
Widespread sexual misconduct and systematic cover-up of the perpetrator's crimes occurring within churches and their affiliated ministries has come to the fore in recent months not only with the release of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's report on clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church but in Independent Fundamental Baptist churches and Southern Baptist congregations.
Abuse within the SBC, the Texas newspapers found, was allowed to go on because of “local church autonomy.” Although connected by a common mission and an overarching denominational structure, each Southern Baptist congregation governs itself and governs itself independently.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
"This is a scandal crying out to Heaven," wrote Russell Moore, who leads the ERLC, when the story broke in the Houston Chronicle last month.
"The church’s message to survivors should be a clear communication that they are those who have been sinned against, not those who have sinned, that they are not troublemakers in the church but those who are helping the real 'trouble' to come to light."
Similarly, SBC President J.D. Greear, who pastors Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, said that the February report means that it was time "to mourn and repent" as a denomination.
"Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to 'do better' and expect that to be enough," he said.