The very future of the Southern Baptist Convention could be in the balance as a lawsuit threatens to undermine church autonomy—a key feature of Southern Baptist polity. Making the situation even more dire, one Southern Baptist entity, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has in a separate case advanced a legal theory that undermines claims of church autonomy. Now lawyers for sex abuse victims are set to attack this vulnerable area.
Hundreds of Virginia Southern Baptist Churches were subpoenaed in a $82 million sex abuse lawsuit. There are at least 2,000 pages of subpoenas to SBC churches, according to Will McRaney. McRaney revealed the startling information during a Facebook live broadcast Monday evening. McRaney’s sourced included a subpoena recipient and a search of courthouse records. McRaney said he was provided copies of a couple of the subpoenas. The lawsuit was filed over the summer now includes the local church Immanuel Baptist Church, the Petersburg Baptist Association—the local association, the Baptist Convention of Virginia and the Southern Baptist Convention. The lawsuit was filed in Chesterfield County.
According to Baptist News Global, the lawsuit “involves Jeffrey Dale Clark, a former youth group leader at Immanuel Baptist Church in Colonial Heights, Virginia, serving a 25-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to three counts of aggravated sexual battery and two counts of indecent acts with child by a custodian in 2016. Eight individuals with ages now ranging from 14 to 24 allege they were sexually molested by Clark while he worked as an assistant and leader of the youth group between 2008 and 2015.”
Lawyers expanded the case to assert the Southern Baptist Convention’s failure to do anything about sex abuse among its congregations made it liable for the abuse of children.
McRaney is the former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware. McRaney is embroiled in his own lawsuit against the alleged illegal activity of the North American Mission. McRaney claims NAMB and its director Kevin Ezell forced his termination. The evidence made public supports McRaney’s claims, but so far that evidence hasn’t been considered in court. His lawsuit was dismissed and is now on appeal before the federal appellate court.
According to the Baptist Message, “NAMB’s legal response included claims that the entity “had the legal ‘right to interfere’” as well as ‘an absolute privilege and/or a qualified privilege’ with regard to its actions relating to McRaney’s employment with the state convention.
“Moreover, NAMB stated it also enjoyed “’n absolute privilege with regard to any statements it may have published’ about McRaney, essentially arguing that they are shielded from defamation charges because of the ‘ministerial exception’ allowed in U.S. law that says a court cannot interfere between a religious institution and its ministers.”
In other words, NAMB could exert supervisory controls over lower levels of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Hence the problem, and the threat to the future of the SBC. One of its own entities has made the same argument as sex abuse victims. McRaney challenged Southern Baptist leaders to hold NAMB accountable instead of allowing its legal strategy to destroy the mission efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention.