What just happened?

On Sunday the Houston Chronicle published the first in a three-part series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches in the United States.

According to the investigation, at least 35 people who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at other churches. In some cases, church leaders failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct, and some registered sex offenders were even allowed to return to the pulpit.

What was the scope of the abuse?

Regional area: The report is based on data collected throughout the United States, though convictions for abuse were limited to 29 states.

Time frame: The investigative reporting looked at instances of abuse from 1997 to 2018.

Alleged perpetrators: Credible accusations were made against 380 people associated with Southern Baptist churches (i.e., pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, and volunteers).

Convicted abusers: Of the 380, more than 220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals. Of the 220, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders. (The Chronicle has created a searchable database of those who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes.)

Number of victims: Approximately 700 victims.

What abuses were uncovered in the investigation?

According to the Chronicle, many of the victims were “adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms.” The newspaper notes that a few of the victims were male and female adults who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.

How was the information on sexual abuse collected?

Reporters from the newspaper searched news archives, websites, and databases from 1997 to 2018 to compile an archive of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other serious misconduct involving Southern Baptist pastors, church officials, and volunteers.

The search concentrated on individuals who had a documented connection to a church listed in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC) directory published by a state or national association. Details were verified by examining federal and state court databases, prison records, official documents from more than 20 states, and by searching sex offender registries nationwide.

What is the Southern Baptist Convention?

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a network of autonomous churches voluntarily banded together at state, regional, and national levels to engage in missions and ministry activities designed to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). Each church in the SBC is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers that makes their own decisions on staffing, budget, programs, and so on.

The SBC consists of approximately 15 million members in 47,000 cooperating churches, making it the largest Protestant denomination in America.

What makes a church “Southern Baptist”?

According to the SBC Constitution, a cooperating Southern Baptist church is an autonomous Baptist congregation that (1) missionally and formally identifies itself as part of the Southern Baptist fellowship of churches; (2) cooperatively affirms its willing cooperation with the convention’s purpose, processes, missions, and ministries; (3) doctrinally embraces the biblical faith and practice by which Southern Baptists have historically identified themselves; and (4) doctrinally provides regular financial support for the convention’s work as part of the church’s adopted budget.

The SBC refers to such churches as “cooperating Southern Baptist churches.”

Does the SBC have authority over Southern Baptist churches?

No. Per the SBC Constitution, the SBC “does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.”

The most the SBC can do is to disassociate from abusive churches and consider them out of fellowship.

However, the SBC recently created a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group assigned with investigating all options and reviewing what other denominations and groups have done to keep track of abuses. In addition, the group will hear from law enforcement, psychological and psychiatric experts, survivors, and many others to determine how to address issues of sexual abuse. (See also: Southern Baptists Work to Address Sexual Abuse)

How have SBC leaders reacted to the report?

On Sunday, SBC President J. D. Greear responded on Twitter. “The abuses described in this @HoustonChron article are pure evil,” Greear said. In a series of tweets, he added:

There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists.

As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem. . . . It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care).

We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again. We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary.

The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse.

Greear also posted an article on how victims of sexual abuse can get help.

Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, responded,

We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. Many, whether in Hollywood or the finance industry or elsewhere, see such horrors as public relations problems to be managed. The church often thinks the same way. Nothing could be further from the way of Christ. Jesus does not cover up sin within the temple of his presence. He brings everything hidden to light. We should too. When we downplay or cover over what has happened in the name of Jesus to those he loves we are not “protecting” Jesus’s reputation. We are instead fighting Jesus himself. No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden. [Emphasis in original]