TX passes bill to shield churches that report abusers

by Diana Chandler, posted Thursday, May 23, 2019 (3 months ago)

AUSTIN, Texas (BP) -- The Texas Legislature unanimously passed a bill initiated by Southern Baptists to provide civil immunity to churches that disclose credible sex abuse allegations.

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The Texas Senate passed House Bill 4345 late yesterday (May 22) without opposition, two weeks after the House approved the measure. The bill is written to protect charitable organizations, their volunteers and independent contractors from liability when disclosing credible allegations to prospective employers, even when no criminal charges have been filed against the accused.

Texas pastor Ben Wright, chairman of the Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC), helped initiate the bill.

"For it to go through without opposition in the House and the Senate is pretty remarkable," he told Baptist Press, "especially on an issue where there are a lot of people that have different views on how we ought to deal with these issues. Obviously we're not at the finish line yet.

"We need the governor's signature, but ... I'm pretty optimistic," said Wright, pastor of Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Park, Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott has 10 days to sign the bill.

Wright worked with Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and others to recruit Rep. Scott Sanford, a Southern Baptist executive pastor, to introduce the bill in March. Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy and general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, helped draft the legislation to comply with state laws and meet intended purposes.

Wright told BP, "This couldn't have happened if it weren't for the sort of partnering relationships we have in the SBTC.

"This bill, without any of the people who were involved, it probably couldn't have happened," he said. "Obviously Rep. Sanford deserves the lion's share of the credit, but I think it's just a testimony of what we can accomplish when we work together on things, and when we have relationships like we have here in Texas and beyond."

SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards expressed gratitude for the bill.

"We are grateful for the passage of this bill and pray that it will serve to make our church ministries safer," Richards told BP. "I'm also grateful for the initiative taken by Pastor Bart Barber and Pastor Ben Wright in developing this legislation."

The bill is designed to help prevent abusers from continuing the crime in a series of workplaces, Rep. Sanford has said.

"Sexual abuse thrives in secrecy," Sanford noted when the bill passed the House, "and this bill provides the protections for nonprofits to come forward to prevent any future harm."

Informing churches and other nonprofits of the legislation, if it becomes law, is important to its success, Wright told BP.

"This bill doesn't do a lot of good if churches don't realize that they can pass on information to prospective employers," Wright said. "The goal we're all aiming for here is to reduce opportunities for offenders to get further opportunities to commit crimes and misconduct. We need to get the word out for the legislation to have that effect."

Wright also believes the bill could serve as a model for other states.

"We would hope that other pastors, other legislators in other states would see what's been possible here in Texas, and use similar strategies and help protect the vulnerable," Wright said. "We had representatives and senators urging us, thanking us as Southern Baptists for our engagement on this issue and on a wider range of issues. And I know in a lot of other state legislatures there'd be similar sentiment."

The bill "would make charitable organizations and their employees or volunteers immune from civil liability for good-faith disclosure to an individual's current or prospective employer," according to the official House bill analysis, "information reasonably believed to be true about allegations that the individual, while an employee or volunteer of the charitable organization, engaged in sexual misconduct, sexually abused another individual, sexually harassed another individual, or otherwise committed a sexual offense or an offense of public indecency."

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and Texas Private Schools Association are among others who supported the bill.

The bill's full text is available at https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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