What just happened?
On Sunday, a 288-page report commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention was released that finds allegations of sexual abuse were ignored or covered up for nearly 20 years by senior members of the denomination’s Executive Committee.
“For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (‘SBC’) Executive Committee (‘EC’) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff,” notes the report, which was issued by Guidepost Solutions. “They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press . . . only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC.”
What is the SBC and its Executive Committee?
The name Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) refers to both the annual two-day convention (hereafter, the “Convention”) and the decentralized organization of autonomous local churches that voluntarily band 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, etc.
The representatives of local churches that cooperate with the SBC at the Convention (known as “messengers”) elect an SBC president, who typically serves two one-year terms, and other officers, as well as Trustees to oversee various SBC entities and committees. Because the messengers are so numerous and meet only once per year, the day-to-day functioning of the SBC is managed by an Executive Committee, governed by a board of 86 EC Trustees.
The Executive Committee (EC) is the entity within the SBC that carries out the work of the organization ad interim, or between sessions. The work of the EC is primarily fiscal and advisory, including handling administrative duty for the SBC when the Convention is not in session; receiving and distributing funds given for the various missions, evangelism, educational, and ministry enterprises for the SBC; planning and managing the annual meeting; handling legal matters; and providing staff assistance to the elected officials of the Convention. The Committee also handles any matters that have not been otherwise assigned specifically to any entity arising between Convention sessions.
In total, there are currently 26 EC staff members.
What was the impetus for the investigation?
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a three-part series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches in the United States. Soon after, reports of sexual abuse cover-ups by the Executive Committee (EC) began to circulate within the denomination.
A motion was proposed at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville that called for a task force to be appointed to oversee a third-party investigation into accusations of mishandled sexual abuse allegations by the EC. The motion directed a task force to investigate, for the time period between January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021: (1) allegations of abuse by EC members, (2) mishandling of abuse allegations by EC members, (3) allegations of mistreatment of sexual abuse victims by EC members, (4) patterns of intimidation of sexual abuse victims or advocates, and (5) resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.
What were the findings of the investigation?
The report outlines the results in the five areas the task force was asked to investigate.
Allegations of Abuse by EC Staff and Members: The investigation found credible evidence that former SBC President Johnny Hunt (2008–2010) had sexually assaulted the wife of an SBC pastor.
Mishandling of Abuse Allegations and Mistreatment of Victims: The report finds that abuse allegations were often mishandled in a manner that involved the mistreatment of survivors, and that the main concern of the EC was “avoiding any potential legal liability for the SBC.”
Those who reported abuse were often ignored or told that the SBC had no power to take action. The legal counsel specifically advised that EC staff should not undertake to elicit further information or details about reports of abuse, to avoid the EC assuming a legal duty to take further action.
The EC also collected reports of abuse for more than 10 years but didn’t notify the EC Trustees (the board that oversees the EC) or anyone else. They took no action to ensure the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches. The most recent list prepared by the EC staff contained the names of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be affiliated with the SBC at some point in time.
(The investigators found nine people on that list remain in active ministry or connected to ministry. Two appear to be associated with an SBC church, while the remaining seven appear to be associated with churches that are not SBC-affiliated.)
Pattern of Intimidation of Victims or Advocates: Those who suffered at the hands of SBC clergy or SBC church staff or volunteers and who spoke out the most, or who criticized the SBC’s inaction, were “denigrated as ‘opportunistic,’ having a ‘hidden agenda of lawsuits,’ wanting to ‘burn things to the ground,’ and acting as a ‘professional victim.’ In an internal email, Mr. Boto [EC general counsel and later interim EC president] even equated the focus on sexual abuse with the work of the devil.”
The investigation finds that several former senior SBC leaders had protected or even supported abusers:
- Former SBC President Steve Gaines admitted that, as senior pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church, he had delayed reporting a staff minister’s prior sexual abuse of a child.
- Former SBC President Jack Graham, when he was pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, allegedly allowed an accused abuser of young boys to be dismissed quietly in 1989 without reporting the abuse to police. The accused abuser, John Langworthy, later was charged with abusing young boys in Mississippi in 2011.
- Former SBC President Paige Patterson was terminated from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 after it was revealed that he told a student not to report a rape in 2003 and, in 2015, emailed his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could “break her down.”
- Former SBC Vice President Judge Paul Pressler is the defendant in a civil sexual abuse lawsuit alleging that he repeatedly sexually abused the plaintiff beginning when the plaintiff was 14 years old. Two other men submitted separate affidavits in the case also accusing Judge Pressler of sexual misconduct.
- Former EC Interim President and General Counsel Augie Boto testified as a character witness for Mark Schiefelbein, a gymnastics coach convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault against a minor.
Resistance to Sexual Abuse Reform Initiatives: The report notes that various reform proposals have been brought to the EC but were repeatedly opposed or rejected, “typically due to concerns over incurring legal liability.”
The report concluded,
The prevailing attitude of some EC leaders was that the SBC had no responsibility for addressing the sexual abuse crisis within member churches because, under SBC polity, those churches were autonomous, in charge of their own hiring, and not under the control of the SBC. When abuse allegations were brought to the EC, including allegations that convicted sex offenders were still in ministry, EC leaders generally did not discuss this information outside of their inner circle, often did not respond to the survivor, and took no action to address these allegations so as to prevent ongoing abuse or such abuse in the future.
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 disassociate from abusive churches and consider them out of fellowship. It also has no authority to remove a pastor’s ordination. As the report notes,
Because the SBC is not a church, it has no role in ordaining pastors. Both initial ordination and recognition of previous ordination are addressed on a local church level. Every cooperating church decides individually whether or not to ordain an individual, or whether to require ordination of its pastor or ministry staff.
What are the recommendations to prevent further cover-up of abuse within the SBC?
The key recommendations include the following:
- Forming an Independent Commission and later establishing a permanent Administrative Entity to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct within the SBC.
- Creating and maintaining an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders. Make the OIS available to churches on a voluntary basis.
- Providing a comprehensive Resource Toolbox including protocols, training, education, and practical information.
- Creating a voluntary self-certification program for churches, local associations, state conventions, and entities based on the implementation of “best practices” to bring awareness to, and enhance prevention of, sexual abuse.
- Improving governance controls, including the use of enhanced background checks, Letters of Good Standing, and Codes of Conduct to voluntarily strengthen hiring standards and improve governance.
- Restricting the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements which bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters, unless requested by the survivor.
- Adopting a “Declaration of Principles” that sets out fundamental standards regarding how sexual abuse allegations will be handled at every level of the SBC, and how those who report will be treated going forward. These Principles may provide a model for SBC entities, state conventions, local associations, and local churches to adopt and follow.
- Acknowledging those who have been affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, through both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritizing the provision of compassionate care to survivors through providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.