Texas bill would shield churches that report sex abuse


By Diana Chandler

AUSTIN, Texas (BP) — Southern Baptist pastors and leaders have initiated a Texas bill to allow nonprofits including churches to disclose credible but unproven sexual abuse allegations with no fear of civil liability.

Texas House Bill 4345, introduced in the legislature March 8, would protect charitable organizations and their volunteers when disclosing such information to prospective employers, even when no criminal charges have been filed against the accused.

Those who spread allegations with "malicious purpose" or "in bad faith" would remain open to civil liability, according to the bill.

The bill can strengthen churches and other charitable organizations in hindering repeat offenders, said pastor Ben Wright who helped initiate the bill.

"I don't think that it solves all of the problems related to abuse and sexual misconduct," Wright, pastor of Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Park, Texas, told Baptist Press March 15. "But it does help churches and organizations know that if they pass on information that they believe to be true, that they have good reason to believe is true, it helps them know that they will be shielded from potential lawsuits."

Wright and Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, worked together to birth the legislation with the help of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

The leaders recruited Texas Rep. Scott Sanford, executive pastor of Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen and active with the SBTC, to introduce the legislation March 8 with bipartisan support. Wright, who chairs the SBTC Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, said Sanford is a former committee member.

Travis Wussow, ERLC vice president for public policy and general counsel, helped draft the legislation to comply with state laws and meet intended purposes.

Wussow said he offered a few comments and suggestions to the draft bill before it was filed. "We plan to coordinate with and assist the Texas ERLC as the bill moves through the legislative process," he told BP today, "and depending on the outcome and issues raised this session, this could become a concept for other states to consider."

Under the bill posted on the Texas Legislature website, "a charitable organization, or an employee or volunteer thereof, acting in good faith is immune from civil liability for any act to disclose information reasonably believed to be true about allegations that any person, while employed by or serving as a volunteer of the charitable organization engaged in sexual misconduct, sexually abused another person, sexually harassed another person, or otherwise committed an offense to the current employer or a prospective employer of that person."

According to Ministry Safe, an organization that helps churches and other ministries protect children from sexual abuse, as many as 90 percent of sex abuse offenders never have an encounter with law enforcement, SBTC spokesperson Gary Ledbetter told BP.

Increasingly in the secular world and in churches, Wright believes, human resource individuals are only disclosing basic employment information to prospective employers who call for references, and withholding character details.

"But I think we have a moral obligation to do more than that," Wright said, "when we have good reason to believe, biblical justification to believe, that the person has acted inappropriately, whether in abusing their authority to manipulate or exploit those under care, or when there have been actual criminal charges that have been filed." Indications of adultery could also be shared, Wright said.

The SBTC is working to get legislative support for the bill, Ledbetter said. Rep. Ed Thompson, a member of the Texas ERLC, is among seven bill cosponsors.

Jim Richards, SBTC executive director, said churches must do all they can to protect children and others from abuse.

"As a convention of churches we will continue to work on ways to provide a safe environment for the vulnerable," The Houston Chronicle quoted Richards as saying on March 14. "We hope HB 4345 will facilitate this goal."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor.

sexual abuse, Texas