Jump directly to the Content

News&Reporting

Southern Baptists Refused to Act on Abuse, Despite Secret List of Pastors

Investigation: SBC Executive Committee staff saw advocates’ cries for help as a distraction from evangelism and a legal liability, stonewalling their reports and resisting calls for reform.
|
españolPortuguêsIndonesian
Southern Baptists Refused to Act on Abuse, Despite Secret List of Pastors
Image: Courtesy of Baptist Press / Edits by Mallory Rentsch
A third-party investigation looked into abuse responses by the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Armed with a secret list of more than 700 abusive pastors, Southern Baptist leaders chose to protect the denomination from lawsuits rather than protect the people in their churches from further abuse.

Survivors, advocates, and some Southern Baptists themselves spent more than 15 years calling for ways to keep sexual predators from moving quietly from one flock to another. The men who controlled the Executive Committee (EC)—which runs day-to-day operations of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—knew the scope of the problem. But, working closely with their lawyers, they maligned the people who wanted to do something about abuse and repeatedly rejected pleas for help and reform.

“Behind the curtain, the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits,” according to a massive third-party investigative report released Sunday.

The investigation centers responsibility on members of the EC staff and their attorneys and says the hundreds of elected EC trustees were largely kept in the dark. EC general counsel Augie Boto and longtime attorney Jim Guenther advised the past three EC presidents—Ronnie Floyd, Frank Page, and Morris Chapman—that taking action on abuse would pose a risk to SBC liability and polity, leading the presidents to challenge proposed abuse reforms.

As renewed calls for action emerged with the #ChurchToo and #SBCToo movements, Boto referred to advocacy for abuse survivors as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Survivors, in turn, described the soul-crushing effects of not only their abuse, but the stonewalling, insulting responses from leaders at the EC for 15-plus years.

Christa Brown, a longtime advocate who experienced sexual abuse by her pastor at 16, said her “countless encounters with Baptist leaders” who shunned and disbelieved her “left a legacy of hate” and communicated “you are a creature void of any value—you don’t matter.” As a result, she said, instead of her faith providing solace, her faith has become “neurologically networked with a nightmare.” She referred to it as “soul murder.”

Another victim, Debbie Vasquez, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an SBC pastor starting at the age of 14. When one assault led to her pregnancy, she was forced to apologize in front of the church but forbidden to mention the father. The pastor went on to serve at another Southern Baptist church, and when Vasquez reached out to the EC, her entreaties were ignored and evaded for years until a Houston Chronicle investigation three years ago.

Over the past 20 years, meanwhile, a string of SBC presidents failed to appropriately respond to abuse in their own churches and seminaries. In several instances, leaders sided with individuals and churches that had been credibly accused of abuse or cover-up. One former president—pastor Johnny Hunt—sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010, investigators found.

At the annual meeting in Anaheim, California, next month, one year after they voted to launch the investigation, thousands of Southern Baptists will decide if they are ready to make the dramatic and costly changes the report recommends for the sake of survivors and church safety.

“Amid my grief, anger, and disappointment over the grave sin and failures this report lays bare, I earnestly believe that Southern Baptists must resolve to change our culture and implement desperately needed reforms,” said SBC president Ed Litton in a statement to CT. “The time is now. We have so much to lament, but genuine grief requires a godly response.”

Guidepost Solutions, the third-party investigative firm, wants the 13.7-million-member denomination to create an online database of abusers, offer compensation for survivors, sharply limit non-disclosure agreements, and establish a new entity dedicated to responding to abuse. The directives in the 288-page report will sound familiar to survivors and advocates, who have been calling for those measures all along.

“How many kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only the Executive Committee had taken action back in 2006 when I first wrote to them, urging specific concrete steps? And how many survivors could have been spared the re-traumatizing hell of trying to report clergy sex abuse into a system that consistently turns its back?” asked Brown in a 2021 letter. “The SBC Executive Committee’s longstanding resistance to abuse reforms has now yielded a whole new crop of clergy sex abuse victims and of survivors re-traumatized in their efforts to report.”

As they anticipated the release of the report, current interim EC president Willie McLaurin and EC chairman Rolland Slade quoted Ecclesiastes: “God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (12:14, CSB).

The current leaders urged Southern Baptists to be receptive to the bad news.

“This is a time and season to search out our shortcomings, a time to embrace the findings of the report,” they wrote last week, “a time to rebuild the trust of Southern Baptists and a time to heal by meeting the challenges required with the necessary changes expected.”

Largest investigation in SBC history

The report represents a $2 million undertaking, involving 330 interviews and five terabytes of documents collected over eight months. The EC also committed another $2 million toward legal costs around the investigation—making it a total investment of $4 million, funded by churches and conventions giving to the Cooperative Program.

Advocate Rachael Denhollander, who advised the SBC task force that coordinated the investigation, tweeted that “the level of transparency is … unparalleled.” It’s the largest investigation in SBC history; it’s already changed the makeup of the EC and stands to determine the trajectory of the 177-year-old denomination.

The Guidepost inquiry included privileged legal communications on abuse over the past 20 years, a provision that led EC president Ronnie Floyd to resign in October and the law firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price to withdraw their services after 60 years.

According to the report, the law firm actively advised the EC against taking responsibility for abuse. Guenther worked alongside Boto, an attorney who was involved in the EC from the 1990s to 2019, serving as a trustee, vice president, general counsel, and interim president. He was an ally of Paige Patterson during the Conservative Resurgence. (Last year, Boto was barred from holding any positions with Southern Baptist entities as a result of a legal settlement involving financial moves after Patterson was fired from an SBC seminary over mishandling a rape allegation.)

Boto and Guenther turned every discussion of abuse to a discussion of protecting the EC from legal liability, making that the highest priority, the report said.

“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,” the report said. “Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches.”

The Southern Baptist Convention proudly says it’s a group of autonomous churches. They join together for mission work, fellowship, and training, but the convention has no hierarchy. It doesn’t ordain or appoint pastors, nor does it hold authority over the 47,000 churches that have chosen to affirm its faith statements and give to its Cooperative Program.

That lack of oversight means that when something goes wrong at an SBC church or entity, the EC can claim it’s not to blame; the churches are independent. The legal counsel argued that the more denominational leaders directed churches to deal with abuse, the more it would assume liability for mistakes and mishandling.

Back in 2000, the report said, Patterson saw abuse prevention training as a way to defend against lawsuits, telling a pastor that churches that could document “some effort to educate those who worked among children as to how to watch for and respond to dangers” wouldn’t have litigation against them move forward.

As president at Southeastern and Southwestern seminaries, Patterson discouraged two women who shared rape allegations from reporting them. He was fired from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 over his response and has been sued, along with the seminary, by the female student from Southwestern.

Patterson’s associate Paul Pressler, an attorney and leader during the Conservative Resurgence, also faces litigation over claims that he used his power to abuse young boys, and the SBC itself is named in the suit. (Neither Patterson nor Pressler, a former executive VP of the SBC and former EC member, agreed to be interviewed for the investigation, though Patterson’s lawyers submitted a two-page document.)

Patterson and fellow former SBC president Jerry Vines have come under scrutiny for their previous support of Darrell Gilyard, a pastor with a string of sexual misconduct allegations dating back to the ’90s. The report quotes an EC member who in an email said 44 women came to the two SBC leaders about Gilyard, “and in almost every instance, they were reportedly shamed for it and left feeling like they were not believed. From all published accounts, it seems Gilyard moved from church to church and left ruined lives in his wake.”

EC attorneys Guenther and Boto discussed the idea of a database of abusers as early as 2004, in response to Brown. The subject came up again in 2007, after a motion at the annual meeting. The EC staff did not move forward with the idea at the time. Guenther wrote in an email that he worried “about a duty to warn a court might think was owed by the SBC.”

And yet, with the help of spokesman and vice president Roger “Sing” Oldham and an unnamed EC staff member, they did keep a list. At Boto’s request, the report said, the staffer collected news clippings and tracked abusive pastors in a table with name, year, state, and denomination. The first version, in 2007, included 66 people arrested or sued over abuse. By 2022, the list grew to include 703, with 409 believed to belong to SBC-affiliated churches.

A watershed 2019 Houston Chronicle series, which spurred new attention around abuse response and prevention, uncovered 380 SBC-affiliated pastors accused of sexual abuse.

Even as the secret list of abusive ministers grew, however, the EC leaders focused their criticism on survivors and advocates. They complained the survivors didn’t understand the polity of the SBC and were out to get the denomination. Patterson called the advocacy group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” An EC member said Brown, who ran StopBaptistPredators.org, where she featured survivor stories and posted public reports on abusive ministers, was a “person of no integrity.”

Boto saw the Devil at work in their efforts. In an email obtained by Guidepost, he wrote:

This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play. Yes, Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander have succumbed to an availability heuristic because of their victimizations. They have gone to the SBC looking for sexual abuse, and of course, they found it. Their outcries have certainly caused an availability cascade. … But they are not to blame. This is the devil being temporarily successful.

According to an unnamed EC staff member, “in nearly every instance in the past when victims have come to those in power in the SBC, they have been shunned, shamed, and vilified. At the EC, we have inherited a culture of rejecting those who question power or who accuse leaders.”

Key Southern Baptist leaders didn’t just disbelieve and insult survivors, though. In some cases, they aligned themselves with convicted or confessed perpetrators and helped them personally.

The report includes several examples:

  • Mike Stone, the former chair of the EC and a candidate in the 2021 race for SBC president, helped craft an apology for a pastor friend of his after the pastor was found to have been exchanging explicit text messages with a member of his congregation in 2019. Stone stated that he has “never and would never knowingly support a church retaining a pastor in sexual misconduct” and that he hadn’t heard about the allegations against the pastor until asked about them during the Guidepost investigation.
  • Augie Boto testified as a character witness for Nashville gymnastics coach Marc Schiefelbein who had been convicted in 2003 of molesting a 10-year-old girl.
  • Jack Graham, SBC president from 2002 to 2004, didn’t report a music minister who was fired in 1989 after Prestonwood Baptist Church learned he molested a child. The minister went on to another church and was convicted for his crimes at Prestonwood more than 20 years later. The church “categorically denies the way the report characterizes the incident 33 years ago,” current executive pastor Mike Buster said in a statement. “Prestonwood has never protected or supported abusers, in 1989 or since.”
  • Steve Gaines, SBC president from 2016 to 2018, knew that a minister on staff at his church, Bellevue Baptist, had previously abused a child but didn’t disclose it until it came up on a blog.

The investigative report also found instances where EC leaders themselves crossed moral lines:

  • Frank Page, the president of the EC, resigned suddenly in March 2018. An official statement said the resignation was due to a “morally inappropriate relationship.” The EC did not investigate whether it was consensual, nor did they look into “if his conduct carried over into the workplace.”
  • Johnny Hunt, SBC president from 2008 to 2010, groped and kissed the wife of a younger pastor a month after his presidential term ended and told the couple to keep it secret.

Hunt’s sexual assault had not been previously reported. The woman and her husband, an SBC pastor, came forward during the investigation to share with Guidepost what happened. Hunt, former pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock in Georgia, had been a senior VP at the SBC’s North American Mission Board before resigning May 13. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has a chair position named in his honor.

By the couple’s account, they are 24 years younger than Hunt, who offered to assist them with their ministry. At one point he arranged a place for the woman to stay during a visit to Panama City Beach, where Hunt was spending his sabbatical. He then entered the condo unit where the woman was alone and sexually assaulted her, pulling down her clothes, pinning her on the couch, groping her, and kissing her.

After the July 2010 incident, the couple met with Hunt at his church. He warned that if they said anything it would “negatively impact the over 40,000 churches Dr. Hunt represented” and referred them to counselor Roy Blankenship of HopeQuest Ministry Group. Blankenship confirmed something happened between the wife and Hunt and told investigators Hunt should have been the one to stop it, but “it takes two to tango.”

In an interview with Guidepost, Hunt denied assaulting the woman and said he never even entered her condo. The Guidepost investigators found three additional witnesses to corroborate parts of the woman and her husband’s account. They did not find Hunt’s statements credible.

Hunt has previously been associated with apologist Ravi Zacharias and was a special guest at the 2009 grand opening of the spa where Zacharias abused massage therapists. Last year, Hunt decried Zacharias’s abuse, describing it as “sin … against so many innocent women.”

Messengers supported reforms

Following the #MeToo movement, SBC survivors drew major attention from the news media.

In 2018, Jules Woodson, who was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor, told The New York Times what it was like to see a church applaud him after he vaguely confessed to “a sexual incident.” That same year, Megan Lively told The Washington Post how Paige Patterson had told her not to report her rape to police. In 2019, the Chronicle investigation profiled more survivors.

As a result, Southern Baptists spoke out and took action. The messengers at the annual meetings adopted resolutions affirming women’s dignity and condemning abuse. They voted to amend their bylaws to explicitly name abuse as grounds for dismissal from the SBC. They tasked a committee with making recommendations if a church was in violation.

In 2018, they also elected a president who made responding to abuse a central part of his agenda. Under J. D. Greear, the SBC introduced training around preventing and responding to abuse, the Caring Well Initiative, and held conferences to hear from survivors, experts, and pastors.

But according to the Guidepost report, almost all of these efforts were met with criticism and resistance by certain EC leaders, who said that prioritizing the issue of abuse could lead to lawsuits.

Sometimes, the divide was clear from the outside: Greear as SBC president referenced abuse 81 times during his address at the annual meeting, while Floyd as EC president didn’t mention it as a priority in his Vision 2025 plan.

Behind the scenes, the Guidepost report shows, the EC legal counsel advised people to downplay the issue. They pressured the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) not to refer to sexual abuse in the SBC as a crisis and avoid “inflammatory language” like saying the denomination had failed survivors. EC members tried to censor criticism of the SBC’s handling of abuse and decried any efforts to allow survivors and abuse experts to speak at SBC events.

“Guys, this is really not good at all,” Floyd wrote in one email obtained by investigators. “We cannot have SBC entities placing people on platforms calling out the matters about how the SBC and some of its leaders and former leaders [sic]. All the work on unity is getting challenged.”

These intra-SBC clashes and threats became public a year ago in leaked letters and recordings capturing communication from former ERLC leaders Russell Moore (now a theologian in residence for CT) and Philip Bethancourt. The documents were a wakeup call to pastors, suggesting efforts by EC leaders to intimidate survivors and resist reform. They spurred demands for an investigation into the EC.

“We were shocked,” Grant Gaines, a Tennessee pastor who made the motion to investigate the EC, told CT last year. “We shouldn’t have been. These survivors, their stories are out there.”

One story that has played out in the public eye is Jennifer Lyell’s. She was abused by a seminary professor, but a March 2019 article in Baptist Press, which is run by the EC, characterized her abuse as an affair. At the time of publication, Lyell was a Lifeway executive and the highest-ranking woman in the SBC. The validity of her account was backed by Southern Seminary president Al Mohler.

Lyell ended up leaving her job and suffering physical and mental distress as a result of the backlash as well as the months-long saga to get the story corrected and seek restitution.

In a Twitter thread after the report release, Lyell described having to wait out the tensions between the EC, which controlled the correction to the article about her and was on alert at the time for how other SBC figures talked about abuse, and leaders at other entities, who stood by her story but could have faced retaliation for speaking up.

She received an apology from the EC in February 2022 and an undisclosed settlement. EC trustees, Guidepost said, weren’t aware that she had pursued defamation claims and had previously received a settlement in May 2020 as well.

Hannah Kate Williams also sued the EC for negligence in responding to abuse by her father, who was employed at SBC entities, as well as for alleged efforts to malign her as she went public with her case.

EC attorneys criticized Greear for repeating the names of 10 churches that were reported in the Houston Chronicle investigation for employing abusive pastors and asking an EC subcommittee to look into them. Guenther said they were going to be sued for libel and worked to clear the churches’ names. Boto called one to apologize.

Months later, Boto opposed the creation of the credentials committee, which would look at whether a church has violated criteria around abuse or other issues that would make it “no longer in friendly cooperation” with the SBC.

The credentials committee, which was reconfigured for this new purpose in 2019, frustrated survivors too because it was confusing and inefficient, Guidepost said. It had no written guidelines, no training, and no full-time staff for support.

Because of the limited scope it was authorized, based on SBC polity, it wasn’t able to address churches’ missteps in the past, nor could it do investigations to determine a pastor’s guilt or innocence, just the church’s response. As a result, it took an average of nine months to hear a decision—and some never heard back at all. Some submissions didn’t make it through the clumsy website the committee required for challenging a church’s membership.

In the past three years, the committee processed 30 submissions and disfellowshipped just 3 churches over abuse. In each case, the offense was obvious and egregious: The church had knowingly employed a sex offender. The committee didn’t make any public comment on the results of the other 27 submissions tallied by the recent report. The Guidepost investigators found that five churches voluntarily resigned and another dissolved during the credential committee’s review.

New entity and other recommendations

The task force that oversaw and released the EC investigation sees public lament as a first step in responding to the investigation. They’ve also asked that Southern Baptists vote to establish a new task force that can evaluate how to implement the recommended changes in accordance with Baptist polity.

The report offers 30 pages of recommendations for the EC and the credentials committee, including:

  • Creating a permanent entity to oversee sexual abuse response and prevention
  • Launching an “offender information system,” an online database churches can voluntarily participate in to report substantiated abuse or coverup
  • Publishing a list of disfellowshipped churches and individuals whose ordinations or degrees were revoked
  • Facilitating programs to assist survivors and provide compensation from SBC giving to cover medical and psychological help
  • Issuing an apology to survivors and erecting a memorial, adding a Survivor Sunday to the SBC calendar
  • Prohibiting nondisclosure agreements, except when requested by victims
  • Requiring a code of conduct for entity employment or attending a seminary
  • Hiring a chief compliance officer or ethics and compliance officer to EC staff

“We must resolve to give of our time and resources to not only care well for survivors of sexual abuse, but to provide a culture of accountability, transparency, and safety as we move forward,” the task force said in a statement released with the report.

“We acknowledge that any act of repentance requires ongoing, deliberate, dedicated obedience and sacrifice. This is the calling of our Savior to unite as a body in following after him.”

Christa Brown, the abuse survivor and advocate, said in her submission to Guidepost that she had not held out hope for meaningful change, but still prayed that the report “may bring forth a small measure of justice.”

“The Southern Baptist Convention has a moral obligation to protect the lives, bodies and humanity of kids and congregants in its affiliated churches, to provide care and validation for ALL who have been sexually abused by Southern Baptist clergy,” she wrote, “to ensure accountability for abusers and enablers, and to create systems that will ensure these inhumane and unconscionable travesties do not persist into future generations.”

This article has be updated with responses from people named in the report.

[ This article is also available in español Português, and Indonesian. ]

July/August
Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next

close