When I was in my final year of law school a two-lawyer partnership in a small Virginia county seat community made an earnest attempt to encourage me to join them in their practice. I had done some legal research for one of the attorneys on a fascinating and unusual case and had made a good impression. They told me they could not guarantee me a salary, but they could get me appointed as the attorney to various boards and councils in the county and community which would provide a stable financial base while I built a practice. I was told it would in effect be easy money because all I would have to do is advise the boards and councils not to do anything thereby avoiding everything.
I ended up being offered a clerkship with an appellate court judge in Indiana, so I declined their offer and returned to Indiana.
I was reflecting on this after a couple of contacts with persons regarding the relationship between churches and pastors of my denomination and the Boy Scouts of America in light of the latter’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy made tragically necessary by claims of sexual abuse of minors dating back several decades.
Advice from denominational officials is eerily similar to what the Virginia attorneys said a young, hungry attorney ought to do – tell ’em not to do anything thereby avoiding everything. Churches are encouraged to consult with their attorney – counsel is not being provided them nor sufficient funds to cover the cost of sound advice – and here I will let you in on a professional secret. Attorneys will, in an excess of caution born perhaps of a fear of malpractice, spend much more time advising on what could possibly happen and be very careful to the point of evasive on what will probably happen.
A lawyer or litigant who can put the right words on paper in the right order and has enough money to pay the filing fee can file a lawsuit whether meritorious or not. So it is possible that a church could be sued for abuse that happened years ago connected with a Scouting unit it chartered. What is not probable is that the lawsuit would succeed. The overwhelming majority of claims in the bankruptcy proceeding predate 1987. Under Indiana law, the statute of limitations has run and, therefore, bars such claims. People who know me know I am not a fan of our one-party state legislature, but given its track record and the makeup of the majority I would be gob-smacked if Indiana reopened that legal window.
Throughout Scripture, God’s angelic messengers and Christ himself are quoted again and again and again to fear not. God who created humanity knew and continues to know how prone to fear we mere mortals can be when we face the new, the different and the unknown. That is sage and timely advice for churches and pastors today regarding Scouting. Don’t be afraid to continue Scouting as an integral part of your ministry to children, youth and their parents in your community. If you have a nursery, a preschool, Sunday School, youth group, your risk at chartering a Cub Scout Pack, a Scouts BSA Troop or a Venture Crew is no greater. Ministry and mission have risks. Risks can be reduced and insured against.
Pastors, if you’ve treated Scouting units chartered by your church as if they are your tenant in the building and you are the landlord (this is precisely the relationship the “don’t do anything” advice to enter into “facilities use agreements” is promoting), quite frankly you’ve been doing it wrong.
But you have the chance now to take corrective action. You have the right and responsibility to approve the adult leadership of the units you charter. Meet them. Ask them about their faith and their religious practice. If they’ll be camping over a Sunday morning, you can insist they hold simple “Scouts Own” chapel times. Offer to provide resources and guidance to your troop’s Chaplain’s Aide. That is an official leadership position for youth in Scouts BSA. Make sure your church’s Charter Representative on the Scouting unit committee is an active member of your church who believes in the mission. Then make that person a regular participant in your church’s governing circles and tables.
The attorneys in the bankruptcy are very good and will continue to make news. The attorneys for the denomination are also very good and will advise from an excess of caution. That’s how our legal system works.
But fear not. Continue the mission.