‘Something has to change’

The database would include people credibly accused or convicted of child sexual abuse who have worked in SBC churches, of which his church is a part.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University, Burleson (pictured) and many other Southern Baptists have capitalized on the moment to get the word out.

He won approval for the idea at the SBC’s annual convention in 2007, with the proposal then handed over to the executive committee for study and recommendation.

In June of 2008, that panel released its findings, which recommended against building a database.

It cited three reasons for rejecting the idea: impossible to log all predators, the migratory nature of predators, and church autonomy.

“But is autonomy more important than the safety of our children?” Burleson said.

The executive committee decided that local churches as autonomous entities could not be compelled to report, nor is it feasible for the larger convention to assess which accusations were “credible.”

Ryan Abernathy, who pastors West Metro Community Church in Yukon, said he understands the undertaking is complicated, but believes the database is crucial.

“Even a voluntary system is better than what we have right now,” said Abernathy, whose church is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

“Waving around ‘autonomy’ as an excuse does not protect our children. I’m grateful that the BGCO provides access to a nationwide database of offenders, but all offenders aren’t convicted yet.”

That is the reality Burleson wants his fellow Baptists to understand: “There are cases in which predators slip through,” Burleson said.

Rick Thompson, lead pastor of Council Road Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, said he favors Burleson’s idea.

In the meantime, Thompson said his church has implemented rules for working with children.

“We’ve installed cameras in every possible location,” he said. “We don’t allow adults to be alone with children. There are steps we can’t take to mitigate the risk, and of course, we do extensive background checks on everyone.”

Burleson said he is hopeful the SBC will eventually act.

“Something has to change, and I believe it will eventually,” he said. “Just ask Penn State how autonomous they feel right now.”

Photo by Mark Hancock

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