Child Sex Abuse and Overture 37

I write this as a teaching elder (M.Div., Covenant Theological Seminary) who is also a registered nurse (B.S.N., University of Memphis) who used to work in pediatrics. In the last 30 years I’ve done a lot of work with at risk children and the victims of child sexual abuse.

I also served as an assistant pastor in an independent church whose senior pastor molested at least 8 boys over a period of 20 years. There was a strong suspicion that the number of his victims approached 30 but a lot of the boys refused to come forward out of shame. He was a heterosexual married male with children (as research shows up to 80% of child sex abusers are). He went to prison for his crimes.

The legal fallout was something. I don’t think most people understand how deep a dive plaintiff lawyers will make into all the church constitutional documents and how much things said or not said will have an impact on litigation. The following reflects my life experience and training. I believe we unintentionally created a high risk for an unnecessary legal nightmare.

At the PCA General Assembly in 2021 Overture 37 was passed by a large margin thanks to the Overtures Committee working very hard to create a compromise that would appeal to a broad range of elders with various concerns. The overture, as presented to the presbyteries for ratification, contains the following language:

BCO 21-4e. In the examination of the candidate’s personal character, the presbytery shall give specific attention to potentially notorious concerns, such as but not limited to relational sins, sexual immorality (including homosexuality, child sexual abuse, fornication, and pornography), addictions, abusive behavior, racism, and financial mismanagement. Careful attention must be given to his practical struggle against sinful actions, as well as to persistent sinful desires. The candidate must give clear testimony of reliance upon his union with Christ and the benefits thereof by the Holy Spirit, depending on this work of grace to make progress over sin (Psalm 103:2-5, Romans 8:29) and to bear fruit (Psalm 1:3; Gal. 5:22-23). While imperfection will remain, he must not be known by reputation or self-profession according to his remaining sinfulness, but rather by the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 6:9-11). In order to maintain discretion and protect the honor of the pastoral office, Presbyteries are encouraged to appoint a committee to conduct detailed examinations of these matters and to give prayerful support to candidates.

In the compromise language, rather than focus exclusively on homosexuality, the Overtures Committee added different kinds of sinful behavior. In their zeal to accommodate concerns of elders on the committee the Overtures Committee inadvertently created a situation of legal and public relations risk.

I think the poison pill is the phrase “child sexual abuse” (“CSA” throughout this writing). Everything else in the list is largely, if not exclusively, seen as a moral failure. But CSA is both a moral failure and a criminal act. In fact, our society embraces homosexuality, fornication and pornography as matters of personal choice. There are no legal repercussions, except for pornography involving children. However, CSA is a crime that is universally condemned in the strongest terms. Society views it still as the most shocking of crimes.

In the late 1980’s CSA by Roman Catholic Church (RCC) clergy received a lot of public attention. What was most scandalous was the fact that the RCC helped priests avoid legal consequences for their acts of child molestation by helping them avoid criminal investigation. The RCC treated CSA as a moral failure, not a crime to be reported to authorities. To this day the RCC is paying for that failure to understand that CSA is both a moral failure and a very serious crime.

In the last three years, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been embroiled in its own scandal of churches independently covering up CSA by pastors and ministry staff. Again, SBC treated CSA as a moral failure, not a serious crime to be reported to authorities. They just wanted to move the pastor along rather than report him to authorities.

Many in our society are on the lookout for churches that cover up CSA. Activist groups run PR campaigns against those churches. Trial lawyers are looking for clients to sue cash rich organizations and churches usually carry big liability policies. As the second largest Presbyterian body in the United States we are a rich target for negative press and lawsuits. We don’t want to do anything in a society hostile to Christianity to provoke anything that would damage our witness unnecessarily.

By treating CSA primarily as a moral failure rather than a crime to be reported all of Christianity has been given a black eye. The way various denominations have failed to properly address CSA has made people very suspicious of churches. Good stewardship requires that we be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves”.

What does this have to do with Overture 37? Overture 37 unintentionally treats CSA as a moral failure to be explored by Presbytery committees but it does not recognize that CSA is also a crime. There is no statement that requires that, upon becoming aware of suspicions of CSA by the committee, that it must be reported to the proper authorities according to the laws of the state where the candidate resides. In fact, we have nothing in our Book of Church Order stating that PCA officers are required to follow local laws related to CSA reporting. The assumption by people outside the PCA, who don’t know our serious commitment to Scripture, could understandably be that we treat CSA as a merely moral failure and will engage in the same kind of cover up that other denominations have done.

Many PCA churches have spent a lot of time and energy coming up with CSA prevention policies and procedures that protect children in their congregation. Up until Overture 37 CSA policy has been a matter for a local church. However, Overture 37 nationalizes CSA policy by placing it in our Form of Government, a constitutional document. If Overture 37 passes I’d recommend that each Presbytery come up with a policy poste haste that further fleshes out a presbytery response to the discovery of potential CSA.

Imagine a trial lawyer who is representing children that were sexually abused by someone who at one time was a candidate being examined per the new BCO 21-4e (Overture 37). The candidate was not allowed to move forward for ordination because of some uneasiness. In fact, there were signs of potential abuse that the committee didn’t recognize because not enough members of the committee had the proper training. Besides the committee is focused on making sure the candidate’s character meets the requirements of O37 for ordination, not detecting CSA. The committee becomes concerned about the candidate readiness for ministry and doesn’t move through with the ordination. The candidate gets a job teaching at a local Christian school based on his status of being under care of that presbytery. He molests a couple of young boys. In the investigation its comes to light that there were signs the committee didn’t recognize and didn’t report. There was an uneasiness with the candidate but nobody felt it was reportable. Maybe the committee never even explored the area of CSA. Based on experience I could see a lawyer coming after the presbytery for neglect.

At this point I can imagine elders saying, “So what? I don’t know a Presbytery that would not take action against a candidate suspected of child sexual abuse.” You’re right, I don’t know a Presbytery that would approve a man for ordination with a history of sexually abusing children or someone who makes a presbytery uncomfortable with regard to his relationship with children. I’m fairly certain that a history CSA would permanently disqualify a man from ordained office in the PCA.

The problem is that this overture is not clear about where we really stand on reporting CSA. We will require a presbytery to explore the area of CSA with a candidate in the screening process? But what is required of the committee should they feel there are red flags with regard to CSA? What red flags does the committee need to recognize? Where is the direction to follow local laws in cases of becoming aware of or suspecting sexual abuse against children? What if the presbytery committee doesn’t even explore the issue of CSA with a candidate? Too many in our denomination still don’t realize that the vast majority of child sex abusers are heterosexual married men with children, even those who molest little boys. Do we expect the little boy’s attorney not to pursue neglect because the presbytery committee didn’t thoroughly explore the issue of CSA?

We’ve been so focused on reading this overture through the lens of SSA that I fear we haven’t read it through the lens of CSA. The current public perception is that denominations cover up and protect those charged with CSA. The way O37 reads is, in my opinion, a public relations nightmare. By adding “child sexual abuse” to O37 we also added the need to provide formal direction to a Presbytery on how do deal with CSA when it is suspected. But there is nothing in our BCO that comes close to that. It appears that we are taking the route of discipleship. We are treating CSA as a moral failure, not a serious felony crime.

Someone not familiar with the PCA and our moral convictions would assume that a man that says to a Presbytery, “I’m struggling with sexually abusing children,” will be treated as someone who needs protection so that he can rely on Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit to contain his persistent sinful desires. As long as he isn’t publicly known or admits to struggles with sexually abusing children, his struggle will remain, but will be kept quiet. It has all the earmarks of a church providing a pathway to cover up child sexual abuse and protect child sexual abusers from legal accountability. That is absolutely not what we’d do. We’d treat a CSA discovery as something very serious, and I can’t imagine that a presbytery wouldn’t report to appropriate authorities. The problem is that we don’t say formally that’s what we’d do.

We can’t assume people will read O37 in the same manner we do and as ones who know who we are as a denomination. They are not theologians. And most are not even Christians in any biblical sense. When dealing with CSA as an issue, precise language is a must and it is a must that the church recognizes in its documents that CSA is a crime that must be reported to the proper authorities.

As written, O37’s reference to CSA could provide the PCA with some legal and public relations headaches. It could also cost our denomination a lot of money. Our church went through a process of creating a child abuse and prevention policy. We did it to protect children. But the added bonus was a significant discount on our insurance premium. It seems to me that we need the Administrative Committee to inquire of major church insurers about the impact of passing O37 as written and what impact it would have in their risk assessment of our presbyteries and our denomination as a whole.

In our contemporary society both what is said and what is not said means something. A number of elders have called O37 a “word salad”. It is open to being misunderstood. In fact, as we debate the practical effects of O37 if passed, we have a number of different opinions. We’ve been so focused on the issue of SSA that I fear we don’t see the broader implications of adopting O37.

I get that there is a strong sentiment to get something in our BCO that can be used to protect our church from ordaining practicing homosexuals. I would urge us to slow down and think about this compromise language for O37.

I know the voices that strongly favor O37 feel that we’ve got to pass something now. The feeling is that O37 is urgent. My presbytery passed O23 and rejected O37. As I reflect on the decision, I think there is wisdom there.

2 thoughts on “Child Sex Abuse and Overture 37

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