TEXAS VIEW: Texas law that protects churches that report sex abuse needs clarity

THE POINT: The law extends liability protections to churches that disclose allegations.

Texas state lawmakers passed a law in 2019 intended to shield charities, including churches, from liability when sharing information about sexual abuse allegations against their employees and contractors. Officials with the Southern Baptist Convention, facing its own sex abuse scandal after a damning report in May, backed a resolution this year encouraging lawmakers across the country to pass legislation like what Texas approved.

We think the law could benefit from clearer language about how far the liability protection extends. Nevertheless, the legislation is a welcome measure to protect congregations from predators who for too long have moved from church to church with impunity.

The Texas law, known as House Bill 4345, was sponsored by state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and written with contributions from Bart Barber, a Farmersville pastor who was recently elected SBC president. It states that charitable organizations acting in good faith are protected from liability when they disclose to current or prospective employers “information reasonably believed to be true” about allegations of sexual offenses.

If the case involves child abuse, then the allegation must have been reported to authorities as required by state law for a church to be protected from liability in disclosing the information to an employer.

Based on our conversations with attorneys familiar with the Texas law, there are differing opinions about whether it shields churches in cases when a sexual abuse allegation hasn’t been reported to law enforcement. For example, think of an allegation involving an adult victim who hasn’t called police or a person who comes forward alleging abuse that happened years or decades before.

Victim advocates are concerned about whether the law goes far enough in accounting for allegations that surface after the statute of limitations on certain offenses has expired. There are also questions about due process that must be weighed. We hope the Texas Legislature will revisit the law to clarify the liability protections.

Still, it was wise for state lawmakers to move forward with House Bill 4345. We know from news reports and religious institutions’ own investigations that Catholic priests, Baptist pastors and others who were credibly accused of child abuse were often punted from one congregation to another to avoid a scandal. Barber told the Baptist Press about his own experience with a pastor who threatened a defamation lawsuit if Barber and others disclosed a sexual misconduct allegation. Barber said he and other pastors reported it anyway.

“I don’t think that it’s [up to] the law to solve every problem related to sexual abuse in churches,” Barber told us in a phone call. “There are other laws that need to be considered as well state by state. Southern Baptists have said that we would like to see states try to work towards some uniformity of the legal landscape … which would be very helpful for us and for a great many other churches.”

HB 4345 makes it easier for churches to do the right thing. Transparency and accountability must be an ongoing conversation across churches and statehouses all over.

The Dallas Morning News