Protecting children from sexual abuse demands vigilance

Our editorial board was pleased to see Gov. Greg Abbott sign into law a bill making it easier for church representatives to warn other houses of worship about predatory pastors.

On Monday, Abbott signed House Bill 4345 into law. The measure states churches or other charities can’t be held liable for telling a person’s potential or current employer about the church’s sincere belief that the person engaged in sexual misconduct, including abuse, harassment or assault.

In other words, churches will no longer need to worry about a lawsuit if they tell another church that the person they are considering for a ministerial role is accused of one of these crimes.

The law had the support of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention, which along with other Southern Baptist entities has faced criticism over the national Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse by church staff or volunteers.

An investigation this year by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News found hundreds of Southern Baptist pastors and volunteers who had been credibly accused of sex crimes, including crimes against children.

The newspapers also found “dozens of instances in which church leaders apparently failed to disclose concerns about former employees who applied for jobs at other congregations,” according to a Houston Chronicle report about HB4345.

In some of those instances, the newspaper reported, churches may have stayed silent about accusations out of fear that the accused might sue them if they disclosed the accusation.

By the way, that fear isn’t limited to churches. Worries about defamation lawsuits are also why many businesses no longer provide information beyond employment start and end dates when asked for a recommendation.

But under new law, churches no longer face the risk of legal retaliation if they tell another charity that someone might have committed a sex crime. As Gary Ledbetter, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention, told the Chronicle, “this bill would encourage churches to tell the truth as best as they know.”

This law is a needed weapon in the fight against child sexual abuse and we applaud those whose efforts led to its passage. It shields churches that disclose allegations even if a criminal arrest hasn’t taken place.

And now that Texas law affords churches this protection, we call on churches to use it.

When someone is credibly accused of predatory sexual behavior, it’s a church’s moral obligation not only to remove that person from contact with parishioners but also to alert other churches about the accusation if that person tries to reenter a ministry role elsewhere.

Protecting people, especially children, from sexual abuse or assault demands this vigilance.

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