SBC Recalls ‘Year of Waking Up’ Since Abuse Investigation
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has experienced unprecedented attention and pressure over its response to sexual abuse in the year following the debut of the Houston Chronicle’s “Abuse of Faith” series, which last February reported hundreds of sexual abuse cases within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
“It has been a year of waking up,” SBC president J. D. Greear told Christianity Today. “Advocates and journalists have faithfully filled the role of helping us to see things we can’t unsee.”
Greear said there is a “growing awareness within our denomination that the evangelical church has many areas for growth in how we prevent and care for abuse.”
SBC leaders and victims’ advocates agree there’s a lot more waking up to do. People inside and outside the denomination are waiting to see if measures enacted at last year’s annual meeting—including a newly reconstituted committee to review reports of churches that have mishandled abuse—will be effective. The new credentials committee is slated to meet and share from its findings later this month.
The SBC had addressed sexual abuse previously. The convention’s website had featured a page with “resources for sexual abuse prevention,” and the denominational publication SBC LIFE produced a special report in 2008 on protecting children from sexual abuse. As president, Greear launched a Sexual Abuse Advisory Study in 2018 in conjunction with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and that same year SBC Executive Committee chairman Mike Stone said combating abuse would be an emphasis of his.
But the Chronicle’s reporting spurred a heightened response.
Beginning February 10, 2019, the Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News released a six-part series that uncovered approximately 380 Southern Baptist church leaders who have been convicted of sexual abuse, credibly accused and successfully sued, or confessed and resigned over abuse during the past 20 years. Those abusers left behind more than 700 victims. The Chronicle continued publishing articles on sexual abuse in the SBC, releasing more than 20 to date in addition to the original series.
ERLC president Russell Moore said Southern Baptists “should thank God for the Houston Chronicle’s reporting because it cast a light on a truth that needed to be revealed.” Stone called the series “a catalyst in moving the conversation forward.”
Yet some victim advocates wonder whether the SBC can sustain its campaign against abuse long enough to make a difference among its nearly 50,000 cooperating churches.
“It takes years to change a culture, usually at least ten years,” said Susan Codone, who was abused by Southern Baptist ministers as a teen. “And the measure of success will be a significant reduction in the cases of sexual abuse in churches along with a much higher number of churches actively enacting policies and caring for the abused.”
Combating abuse was a central focus when the SBC convened last summer in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to adopting a resolution titled “On The Evil Of Sexual Abuse,” the convention amended its governing documents to strengthen its stand against abuse. SBC messengers in Birmingham also gave the first of two required approvals to amend the SBC constitution to state explicitly that mishandling sexual abuse is grounds for a church to be disfellowshipped from the convention. (The convention already has the power to disfellowship a church for any reason.)
An amendment to the SBC bylaws repurposed the credentials committee to make recommendations when a church’s “friendly cooperation” with the convention is in question. Abuse claims fall within the committee’s assignment. At the time, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler called it “the most important business to be undertaken by #SBC19.”
And now, the SBC’s focus is turning toward the new credentials committee’s February 18 report to the Executive Committee—the group tasked with acting on behalf of the denomination between annual meetings.
If the credentials committee has considered abuse claims related to any Southern Baptist churches, that information could surface in its upcoming report. Should the credentials committee find a church not in friendly cooperation and recommend that it be disfellowshipped, the Executive Committee could act on behalf of the convention to exclude the church, or it could forward the recommendation to the full SBC, which meets June 9–10 in Orlando, Florida.
These recommendations will be closely followed by advocates who have remained cautious or skeptical of pledges to address the issue and want to see the denomination act in response.
Greear noted that the repurposed credentials committee “gives Southern Baptists something we haven’t had before, a standing committee to consider questions of friendly cooperation among our churches.” Last year, Greear publicly named ten churches he believed may have mishandled abuse; a work group of the Executive Committee said only three claims warranted further inquiry.
At least one of those churches, Cathedral of Faith in Houston, voluntarily withdrew after the Chroniclereported its pastor pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a teenage girl more than two decades ago. No church has ever been disfellowshipped from the SBC over sexual abuse.
Credentials committee chairman Stacy Bramlett said “the establishment of our committee is part of [the SBC’s] work of increasing awareness, encouraging staff and volunteer training in churches, taking accountability seriously, and rebuilding trust through transparency.”
“At the upcoming Executive Committee meeting, the credentials committee will report further about its purpose, processes, and progress,” she said.
Reports of suspected churches can be submitted through an online portal. The committee does not have the authority to investigate churches, and its review process is confidential unless they recommend a church be disfellowshipped from the SBC.
There was enough pushback from victims’ advocates when the credentials committee released more about its process in December that Codone and fellow SBC victim-turned-advocate Megan Lively wrote for SBC Voices acknowledging the limitations of refusing anonymous submissions but ultimately encouraged people to have patience as the committee figures out its new role.
It could be a major undertaking: A 2019 study by the SBC’s LifeWay Research organization found 44 percent of Protestant churchgoers say they have been victims of sexual misconduct, and 10 percent of that group says the misconduct happened at church.
Codone, who has assisted Greear and the ERLC in the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study, said small and large churches alike have been resistant to adopting the SBC-wide Caring Well Challenge to prevent abuse and care for victims. As of last August, less than 2 percent of SBC churches had begun the challenge.
“Many large churches don’t think they need it because they have policies in place already, and many small churches aren’t fully aware of it or don’t have the people or expertise to implement it,” she said.
Additionally, critics long have chided the SBC for citing local church autonomy as a reason for not doing more to combat sexual abuse. Stone, a member of the credentials committee, said “local church autonomy is fundamentally a theological issue” for Baptists, and there are “different ideas about the best way to handle the unique challenges of sexual abuse in the context of our polity.”
Still, “the national convention has, and has always had, the freedom to determine the parameters for cooperation,” said Stone, himself an abuse survivor.
All six SBC seminaries are implementing abuse prevention and response training into their curricula, Greear said. State conventions and local Baptist associations are offering similar training in conjunction with the Caring Well Challenge.
In the past several years, at least three SBC entities have drawn scrutiny related to sexual abuse. Former SBC President Paige Patterson has been accused of mishandling abuse reports during his presidencies of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The International Mission Board (IMB) said it strengthened its policies related to abuse last year days before the Chronicle published a report highlighting abuse cases involving former IMB missionaries.
The SBC is not alone in facing these obstacles. Greear’s office said a handful of other denominations have called the SBC seeking advice on how they too can strengthen their stands against abuse.
Among other denominations that value local church autonomy, the Mennonite Church USA adopted a 2015 statement confessing failures related to abuse and noting that 21 percent of women and 5.6 percent of men in the denomination reported experiencing sexual abuse. The action was spurred in part by renewed discussion of sexual abuse committed by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly adopted a list of commitments for congregations and church institutions to combat abuse.
Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC), a network of congregations that has faced scrutiny over sexual abuse charges, said it offers every church a safety training program related to abuse, provides free background checks for churches, and requires every pastor to report suspected abuse to law enforcement.
“Additionally, our ordination process requires a criminal background check for men who are ordained as elders in Sovereign Grace Churches, and if an elder’s ordination is terminated for any reason, that information is kept in a central database that our churches have access to,” said SGC executive director Mark Prater. (Last year, amid growing scrutiny, SGC said an outside investigation of its churches would be “inappropriate, impractical, unjust” and “impossible.”)
Codone said she can’t think of any denomination that is managing sexual abuse cases well. Nonetheless, she sees hope for the SBC because “from what I can tell, everyone seems to believe there is a significant abuse problem and that we need to try to fix it.”
The SBC’s sexual abuse study group said it would evaluate the possibility of further responses, such as creating a database of known predators, requiring background checks for SBC appointees, and adding survey questions on abuse incidents to the Annual Church Profile.
“My prayer is that God would give us vigilance moving forward,” Moore said, “that the work done so far would be seen merely as a beginning on the way to caring well for those who have experienced this horror and guarding against wicked predators.”
David Roach is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee.