When a Binding Contract With God Means Staying Silent on Sexual Abuse
Evangelical megachurches are leaning on a favorite tool of corporations to protect themselves from liability in the MeToo era.
by Alex Norcia
Jun 13 2019, 3:30pm
Stock images via Getty
God had a busy Tuesday this week.
In Alabama, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, gathered for their annual meeting, with sex abuse squarely atop the agenda. Meanwhile, 900 miles to the north, in Baltimore, US Catholic bishops met to discuss next steps in addressing the same problem, which has become a festering institutional crisis across the globe. But whereas sexual violence in the Catholic Church has been on the national radar for decades, similar crimes in the evangelical community didn't hit the mainstream until the past year or two, exploding in February with a six-part investigative series by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that documented 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers accused of misconduct. Following the articles' release, the Southern Baptist Convention put out the "Caring Well" report, an acknowledgement of past lapses that offered some guidance on how to deal with abuse allegations. It was presented at the Tuesday meeting as well, where congregants voted on amendments aimed at curbing sexual abuse and racism.
The Southern Baptists met again Wednesday, praying at length after being inundated with horrific stories of criminal sexual abuse. But among the items some members of the faith hoped they might address was something you wouldn't expect to find in either Testament: the use of binding arbitration to settle disagreements between churches and their parishioners.
In the New York Times on Monday, Elizabeth Dias reported that The Village, one of the most prominent evangelical churches in America, has new members sign agreements containing language that could prevent them from suing, and potentially force those with complaints into binding arbitration, which almost always happens in private. Such deals, which have become well-known in recent years for helping shield corporate abuses (sexual and otherwise), have an air of relative novelty in a religious context. Certainly, it's hard to imagine Billy Graham asking someone to sign one.
Experts canvassed by VICE found it difficult to estimate just how ubiquitous these documents were in the American evangelical world, which according to Pew includes roughly a quarter of the population and nearly a fifth of millennials. Nor was it clear that these supposed agreements between the faithful and their churches—sometimes called "covenants," implying a promise to God—would necessarily hold up in court. But according to Wartburg Watch, a popular blog run by two American Christian women, in addition to The Village, a Southern Baptist megachurch that boasts some 10,000 worshippers a weekend around Dallas, both Bethlehem Baptist and Capitol Hill Baptist, major evangelical churches in Minneapolis and in Washington, D.C., respectively, have similar contracts.
In other words, some of the signature outposts of the evangelical community have been relying on a uniquely American way of protecting themselves from liability, one that has come under intense scrutiny in the MeToo era. And in leaning on binding arbitration and other methods that have become notorious for silencing survivors of sexual abuse and other crimes—and infusing them with an aura of religious legitimacy—evangelical churches have made it that much harder for survivors to come forward, experts and advocates said.
"Churches want all the benefits and protections of the corporate model, and none of the accountability of it," said Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and former gymnast who was raised Baptist and became the first person to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual assault.
To be sure, some evangelical leaders have expressed interest in addressing sexual abuse, as evidenced by the meeting this week.
"Our 2019 SBC annual meeting has been devoted to raising awareness about incidences of sexual abuse, including amending our Convention's governing documents with respect to what constitutes a cooperating church with the Convention," Roger Sing Oldham, a spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement Thursday.
Advocates suggested that much like the Catholic Church's various initiatives in recent years, however, such symbolic measures would fall short—unless they addressed binding arbitration.
"The Federal Arbitration Act was designed to settle business disputes," said John Manly, a Los Angeles–based sex abuse lawyer who has represented survivors of abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. "It wasn't designed and shouldn't be allowed to be a way for people engaged in systemic criminal conduct to escape accountability in the court."
That's what critics like him think is happening within the evangelical movement, just part of a national trend away from class-action lawsuits and toward closed-door settlements buoyed by a business-friendly Supreme Court.
"Under the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, everyone has a right to a civil jury trial, and no one can take that right away from you," said Jeff Dion, an attorney and the CEO of the Zero Abuse Project, an advocacy group focused on eradicating sexual abuse of minors. "But you can give that right away—and people do all the time, whenever they rent a car, or get a credit card, or get a cellphone, or, really, anytime they click on one of those boxes that say, 'I accept these terms and conditions,' without reading it. And oftentimes, buried in there, is an arbitration clause, waiving your right to a civil jury trial."
It's still too early to tell if evangelical churches will have the same large-scale reckoning as the Catholic Church, or what it might ultimately look like. Part of the trouble in predicting the outcome is the fractured nature of evangelicalism, even in describing it: An investigative feature from the Washington Post last year, which included Denhollander as a central subject, ruminated on the difficulty of landing on precise numbers, because "there's no hard data"—though it did mention a report from 2007 in which "the three largest insurers of churches and Christian nonprofits said they received about 260 claims of sexual abuse against a minor each year." The sprawling, hierarchical system that allowed predatory Catholic priests to operate in secret for so long is the very system that'll have to be revised and stop abuse in the faith. But with evangelicals, without the same kind of rigid central governing body, individual churches have been responding to allegations of abuse on the fly.
"They're going about it in a different way, because they have different tools available to them," said Dion. "We have seen a greater concentration of cover-up in the Catholic Church, because it's a more hierarchical system. Protestant churches are more decentralized. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't control individual churches. It can't shift people around."
Perhaps most important, even in cases where contracts between evangelicals and churches don't crumble in court, they could deter those who might be afraid of literally offending God. "In the context of child abuse, this can be a very effective ruse in which to keep church secrets and to fail to protect children and their families," said Victor Vieth, the director of research at Zero Abuse.
But if MeToo has had a somewhat delayed effect on some of the most deeply religious and politically conservative institutions in the country, fear can be sustained for only so long. R. Marie Griffith, a professor in the humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, and an evangelical who has studied the movement—and especially women in the movement—for decades, thought there was a lot of work left to do to shine a light on abuses in the evangelical community. "I would expect this to take a very, very long time," she said.
Still, Griffith added, "The genie is out of the bottle, and there's no getting it back in."
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