The question of whether an indictment should be brought for an offense committed in the distant past, is, and should be, a matter of judgment and discretion for the original court — regardless of whether the offense was personal or general, private or public (BCO 29). Granted, the court might decide that commencing process for an alleged offense in the distant past would be unfair to the accused (for various reasons) or even too challenging for effective prosecution.
This article provides seven brief reasons why the 48th General Assembly’s recommendation is wise, and why Presbyteries should vote to approve the proposed revision to BCO 32-20.
At the July 2021 PCA GA in St. Louis, the Overtures Committee voted 95-22 to recommend the GA approve a revision to BCO 32-20 (below). The Assembly, which may have been divided on many other votes, overwhelmingly approved this recommendation on a simple, hands-raised vote.
Proposed New BCO 32-20. The accused or a member of the court may object to the consideration of a charge, for example, if he thinks the passage of time since the alleged offense makes fair adjudication unachievable. The court should consider factors such as the gravity of the alleged offense as well as what degradations of evidence and memory may have occurred in the intervening period.
Before giving reasons why the proposed revision should be adopted, we note a September 7 article in The Aquila Report misquoted the above text of the GA’s proposed revision. It quoted the original Overture instead of the amended text adopted by the GA. The misquote included a different and additional first sentence, which was deleted by the GA.
Below are a some of the many reasons to approve the revision, a few of which were included in the original Overture.
Expeditious judicial process is important, especially in a case of public scandal. Nothing in the proposed revision would hinder or delay process. In fact, it could expedite it.
The current version of BCO 32-20 prohibits judicial process against a scandalous offender if process doesn’t commence within a year of the alleged offence. While that might encourage expeditious process, it has a huge downside. If the cause of Christ is jeopardized by the Church’s neglect of timely discipline, how would disallowing prosecution on day 366 repair the matter? The scandal would continue, unabated. And one might even argue, from our current BCO 32-20, that a higher court could not institute process in a case of scandal after a year has passed if the original, lower court declined to do so within that year.
The current wording of BCO 32-20 might even be used to shield a child abuser. For example, if a person alleges a church officer abused them two years ago, the accused might claim BCO 32-20 shields him from prosecution, contending that because the alleged offense occurred two years ago, and was not publicly known (not a case of scandal), and has not “recently become flagrant,” the current BCO 32-20 disallows prosecution in the PCA.
The two SJC Decisions cited in the September 7 article did not involve cases of scandal. Each involved ministers seeking to get convictions dismissed, partly on the grounds that the alleged offenses occurred more than one year in the past. In other words, they essentially argued for a hard one-year statute of limitations for all offenses. Surely that’s not the biblical view, and if that’s the way BCO 32-20 is being interpreted, then it warrants revision. It was probably an overstatement for the September 7 article to contend: “The Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) found the present wording in BCO 32-20 useful in deciding a number of recent cases.” Sometimes, the SJC is compelled to rule a certain way based on a poorly written BCO paragraph. Neither of the cited SJC Decisions should automatically be interpreted as the SJC regarding BCO 32-20 as being well-written or “useful.”
Three items from the September 7 article warrant brief comment. First, it implied the 2021 Assembly approved the revision hastily, late into the night. But Overture 22 was filed and published online in March 2019, so St. Louis GA Commissioners had over two years to consider and discuss it. In fact, the overturing Presbytery revised it after such discussions in 2019 and 2020. Second, the article contends the GA’s recommended revision, “leaves the question of what constitutes a timely matter to uncertain whims of individual church courts resulting in differing actions based on undefined variables.” Such a statement mistakenly suggests that the bodies assigned by our Lord to the enormous task of judging guilt or innocence are somehow incapable of just judgment in such a lesser consideration. Finally, the September 7 article contends presbyteries should “vote down the proposed amendment and seek an amendment that better addresses the valid concerns raised in the original overture.” But the current, 140-year-old antiquated language in BCO 32-20 is so liable to misuse that it should be revised as soon as possible. If further refinements are needed, there’s ample opportunity to perfect the language with future overtures.
The question of whether an indictment should be brought for an offense committed in the distant past, is, and should be, a matter of judgment and discretion for the original court — regardless of whether the offense was personal or general, private or public (BCO 29). Granted, the court might decide that commencing process for an alleged offense in the distant past would be unfair to the accused (for various reasons) or even too challenging for effective prosecution. And the accused could raise that objection.
Finally, the St. Louis Overtures Committee had many ministers and elders experienced in matters related to BCO 32-20, including 10 members of the PCA’s Standing Judicial Commission (i.e., 40% of the entire SJC, including all four of its Officers). If there had been procedural concerns with this revision, the SJC members certainly would have brought it to the attention of the OC, which they did not. The Overtures Committee approved the revision by an 81% majority.
It would be wise and prudent for Presbyteries to vote in favor of this proposed revision of BCO 32-20.
Howie Donahoe is a Ruling Elder in Boise Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho.