Members of the Southern Baptist Convention are in shock after the denomination released a long-awaited report this week detailing a clergy sex abuse crisis within the denomination. Shockwaves “run through all levels of Southern Baptist society,” Report by Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias in the New York Times. Among the revelations are “allegations that top church leaders suppressed and mishandled complaints of abuse, resisted reform, and belittled victims and their families.”
The report “threw the nation’s largest Protestant denomination into turmoil at a particularly difficult time,” riven by theological battles – over the role of women in the church and the political battles sparked by Donald Trump’s presidency – which reverberate beyond the church itself. Why is the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 14 million members, in such turmoil?
Why did Southern Baptists commission this report?
“The sexual abuse scandal was brought into the spotlight in 2019 by a historical report of Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News documenting hundreds of cases in Southern Baptist churches, including several in which the alleged perpetrators remained in ministry,” Holly Meyer writes for The Associated Press. Following these allegations, the denomination commissioned Guidepost Solutions to conduct an independent investigation in June 2021 to examine accusations that Southern Baptist leaders “mishandled cases of abuse, resisted reform, and intimidated victims and the defenders”.
What does the report actually say?
A lot. (You can read it here.) “The investigation reveals that for nearly two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have contacted the administrative arm of the Southern Baptist Convention to report suspected child molesters and other accused abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff,” Sarah Pulliam Bailey says in the Washington Post. Survivors tried to tell their stories, “”only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, obstruction and even outright hostility” from leaders who cared more about protecting the institution of any responsibility but to protect Southern Baptists from further abuse.” This obstructionist effort went all the way to the top of the denomination: “The report also names several senior SBC leaders who have protected and even supported the alleged abusers, including three former convention presidents, a former vice president and the former head of the SBC. administrative branch. »
One notable detail: the report “revealed that senior officials maintained a list of hundreds of names of ministers accused of sexual misconduct for 10 years, but did nothing with the list.” Liam Adams reports in the Nashville Tennessee. “At one point, the list had 703 names.” But even as SBC leaders built their secret database of such incidents, they resisted calls from survivors of sexual abuse to…create a database to help prevent the abuse from continuing and spreading. . Why? Leaders told survivors that such a “database violated the governance structure of the convention.”
And at least one big church name emerged in the report. The investigation “found ‘credible’ allegations that prominent Georgian evangelical leader Reverend Johnny Hunt, former president of the SBC, sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010.” Shelia Poole writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Hunt denied the allegation on Twitter: “I have never abused anyone.”
How are Southern Baptists reacting?
“I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention a crisis,” Russell Moore says in Christianity today. “Crisis is too small a word. It’s an apocalypse.” Moore has a unique perspective — he was chairman of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the SBC, before leaving the denomination last year in a highly publicized dispute on the SBC’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis and racial issues. “I can’t imagine the rage being felt right now by those who survived church sex abuse,” he wrote, and wondered “how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many cries were silenced, as we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus as we could.” He concludes: “It is even more than a crime. It is blasphemy.”
Beth Moore is another prominent Southern Baptist who left the denomination last year on the sex abuse scandal and the church’s treatment of women in leadership positions. (She is not related to Russell Moore.) She pushed back on skeptics who saw the sexual abuse allegations as an attempt to unfairly discredit the church. “If you still refuse to believe the facts piled high in the Himalayas before your eyes and insist that the independent group hired to investigate is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack , you are not just deceived. You are part of the deception,” she wrote on Twitter. She added, “You betrayed your wives. It’s too late to work things out with me. It’s not too late to work things out with them.”
“I remember when the Catholic abuse scandals started lighting up the media,” David French, a conservative Christian, adds to Atlantic. “These reports were also difficult to read, and even though I am not a Catholic, I found it hard to believe that the Evangelical Church was any different.” Because Protestant churches are relatively decentralized, it might be harder to grasp the scale of the latest scandal. “But what we do know is that abuse is happening throughout the Evangelical Church.”
Baptist Press rounded answers key SBC executives named in the report.
The authors of the report propose a number of recommendations, including the formal creation of a denomination-wide database of incidents of abuse, the use of background checks to enforce hiring practices at SBC churches, and restrictions on the use non-disclosure agreements that require survivors to remain silent about their abuses. They also write that the Southern Baptist Convention should “recognize those affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, both through a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritize the provision of compassionate care to survivors by providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.”
SBC leaders promise to do better. “There are no adequate words to express my sadness at the things revealed in this report,” said outgoing SBC President Ed Litton. “I am deeply saddened for those who have experienced sexual abuse in Southern Baptist settings, both those named in this report and those who are not.” The first steps could arrive soon: The SBC holds its annual denominational assembly next month in Anaheim, California.