GREENSBORO, N.C. — Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) leaders took proactive steps to help churches prevent sexual abuse and care well for survivors during its recent annual meeting, which drew 1,150 messengers to the Joseph S. Koury Convention Center in Greensboro on Nov. 8-9.
Messengers received resources and heard a panel discussion on proper ways for pastors and church leaders to respond to allegations of abuse. Officials also announced plans for a review of state convention policies and procedures related to sexual abuse awareness, prevention and response that was approved by the executive committee of the BSCNC board of directors prior to the start of the annual meeting.
Every messenger attending the annual meeting received a free copy of the book “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” a resource that focuses on taking appropriate steps to prevent and respond to abuse.
During a report to messengers, BSCNC board of directors President Matt Capps encouraged church leaders to read the book and take their pastoral staff and key volunteers through the accompanying “Caring Well” training curriculum available at caringwell.com.
During his report, Capps also moderated a panel discussion with Amber Henderson, director of biblical counseling at Fairview Baptist Church in Apex, N.C., and attorney Samantha Kilpartick, a contributor to the “Caring Well” resource. Henderson and Kilpatrick shared their expertise related to how to respond to abuse allegations and practical ways to care for abuse victims and survivors.
Kilpatrick said caring for victims and survivors of abuse is a “gospel issue” that requires the same care and compassion that Christ showed to the weak and vulnerable.
“We need to remember as churches that are caring for these folks that the way we respond will significantly contribute to their healing journey,” Kilpatrick said.
Both Kilpatrick and Henderson said the first step in responding to abuse is preparation. Churches should have policies and procedures in place before any abuse allegation or disclosure is made. The “Caring Well” book and curriculum are resources that can help churches put appropriate policies and procedures in place, they said.
“When your leadership knows what to do before an event has happened, it allows them to respond appropriately versus reacting out of fear and uncertainty in the moment,” Henderson said.
Henderson and Kilpatrick encouraged church leaders to take abuse claims seriously, avoid judgments and report allegations to the appropriate authorities. Kilpatrick said missteps in abuse cases often happen when church leaders try to handle abuse investigations on their own or put the reputation of the institution or the offender above that of the victim.
Henderson added that false allegations of abuse are not common. She said research shows that only 2-10% of abuse reports are false or unsubstantiated. Henderson said what’s more common is that victims do not report abuse, which she said happens in about 63% of cases.
Kilpatrick said abuse reporting laws in North Carolina require anyone to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect to Child Protective Services or the Department of Social Services in their respective county. Additionally, reporting is required to local law enforcement when there is knowledge or suspicion of a violent crime, sexual offense or abuse committed against someone under the age of 18, Kilpatrick said.
Henderson and Kilpatrick encouraged pastors to remember that the church can be a vital ministry to victims of abuse. Coming forward takes courage, they said, and victims need someone they can trust who will be there for them long term.
“We need to guard against protecting ourselves and our institutions over the opportunity to proclaim the gospel that can breathe life, hope and healing to those situations,” Henderson said.
Kilpatrick added: “Be Christ to them and be in there for the long haul because they need to be able to trust you.”
Following the panel, BSCNC Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Unzicker told attendees in a video message that the state convention wants to serve pastors, churches and associations by providing information and resources to help them “care well for those bearing the pain of abuse.”
The state convention has already developed a number of resources related to preventing and responding to abuse that are available online at safetyandsecuritync.org. Resources available at the site are designed to help churches in areas such as developing policies, procedures, guidelines, practices and more.
“How we respond to sexual abuse in our midst speaks volumes about what we believe,” Unzicker said in the video. “North Carolina Baptists must be proactive in our approach to not only preventing abuse, but also caring for anyone who has suffered through a traumatic experience.”
Capps also told messengers that during a regularly scheduled meeting prior to the start of the annual meeting, the executive committee of the state convention’s board of directors unanimously passed a measure directing convention leaders to conduct a comprehensive review of existing “policies, procedures and materials related to sexual abuse awareness, prevention and reporting.”
The review will include all convention ministries, as well as Fruitland Baptist Bible College and the camps and conference centers owned and operated by the state convention. Results of the review, in addition to any recommendations or actions taken, will be presented to the BSCNC’s board of directors during its regularly scheduled meeting in September 2022. Results of the review will also be presented to messengers attending next year’s N.C. Baptist annual meeting, scheduled for Nov. 7-8, 2022, in Greensboro.
Capps said that while neither he nor other BSCNC leaders are aware of any allegations or mishandling of abuse cases by the state convention, the review is a proactive measure by leadership to remain “vigilant” in addressing the issue of sexual abuse.
“We must be proactive in this very important issue,” Capps said. “Sexual abuse is a grievous sin, and we must make every effort we can to protect the vulnerable within our midst.”
The review approved by the executive committee is the latest in a series of steps taken by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in recent years to address sexual abuse.
In the spring of 2019, former BSCNC Executive Director-Treasurer Milton Hollifield led the executive committee to endorse a “Statement of Principles on Abuse,” a nationwide effort to raise awareness about engaging abuse issues with compassion and care. Other state conventions, national convention entities and seminaries also endorsed the statement. Following Hollifield’s endorsement, BSCNC staff produced resources and conducted several training events aimed at assisting churches in their response to abuse-related issues.
In 2019, state convention officials also worked to amend the state convention bylaws and develop a corresponding policy that outlined procedures by which convention officials could be removed from their positions in cases of serious misconduct. Messengers at the 2019 N.C. Baptist annual meeting approved the bylaw changes, and the state convention board of directors endorsed the corresponding conduct policy during its meeting in January 2020.