Briefing

How widespread is the sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention?

Why America's largest Protestant denomination is in turmoil

Members of the Southern Baptist Convention are reeling after the denomination this week released a long-awaited report detailing a clergy sex abuse crisis within the denomination. The shock waves "are coursing through every level of Southern Baptist society," Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias report in the New York Times. Among the disclosures are "claims that top church leaders suppressed and mishandled abuse claims, resisted reforms and belittled victims and their families."

The report "has thrust the nation's largest Protestant denomination into turmoil at a particularly fraught moment," torn over theological fights — about the role of women in the church and political battles sparked by Donald Trump's presidency — that reverberate beyond the church itself. Why is the 14 million-member Southern Baptist Convention in such turmoil?

Why did Southern Baptists commission this report?

"The sex abuse scandal was thrust into the spotlight in 2019 by a landmark report from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News documenting hundreds of cases in Southern Baptist churches, including several in which alleged perpetrators remained in ministry," Holly Meyer writes for The Associated Press. In the wake of those allegations, the denomination commissioned Guidepost Solutions to do a third-party investigation in June 2021 examining charges that Southern Baptist leaders "mishandled abuse cases, resisted reforms and intimidated victims and advocates."

What does the report actually say?

A lot. (You can read it here.) "The investigation finds that for almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention's administrative arm to report alleged child molesters and other accused abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff members," Sarah Pulliam Bailey says in the Washington Post. Survivors' tried communicating their stories, "'only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility' by leaders who were concerned more with protecting the institution from liability than from protecting Southern Baptists from further abuse." That stonewalling effort went all the way to the top of the denomination: "The report also names several senior SBC leaders who protected and even supported alleged abusers, including three past presidents of the convention, a former vice president and the former head of the SBC's administrative arm."

One notable detail: The report "revealed that high-ranking staff maintained a list with hundreds of names of ministers accused of sexual misconduct for 10 years, but did nothing with that list," Liam Adams reports in the Nashville Tennessean. "At one point, the list had 703 names." But even as SBC leaders built their secret database of such incidents, they resisted calls from sex abuse survivors to … create a database to help prevent the abuse from continuing and spreading. Why? Leaders told the survivors such a "database violated the convention's governance structure." 

And at least one big church name has emerged in the report. The investigation "found 'credible' allegations that prominent Georgia evangelical leader the Rev. Johnny Hunt, a former president of the SBC, sexually assaulted another pastor's wife in 2010," Shelia Poole writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constition. (Hunt denied the allegation on Twitter: "I have never abused anybody."

How are Southern Baptists responding?

"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 is an apocalypse." Moore has a unique perspective — he was president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC's public-policy arm, before he left the denomination last year in a high-profile dispute about the SBC's handling of the sex abuse crisis and racial issues. "I can't imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse," he writes, and wonders "how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could." He concludes: "It's even more than just a crime. It's blasphemy."

Beth Moore is another prominent Southern Baptist who left the denomination last year over the sex abuse scandal and the church's treatment of women in leadership roles. (She is not related to Russell Moore.) She pushed back against skeptics who have seen the allegations of sex abuse as an attempt to unfairly discredit the church. "If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you're not just deceived. You are part of the deception," she wrote on Twitter. She added: "You have betrayed your women. It's too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them."

"I remember when the Catholic abuse scandals started lighting up the media," David French, a conservative Christian, adds at The Atlantic. "Those reports were similarly hard to read, and while I'm not a Catholic, I had a hard time believing that the evangelical Church was any different." Because Protestant churches are relatively decentralized, it might be more difficult to get a handle on the dimensions of the latest scandal. "But this much we know — abuse is occurring across the length and breadth of the evangelical Church."

Baptist Press rounded up responses from key SBC leaders named in the report. 

What's next?

The authors of the report offer a number of recommendations, including the formal creation of a denomination-wide database of abuse incidents, the use of background checks to strengthen hiring practices at SBC churches, and restrictions on the use of non-disclosure agreements that require survivors to remain silent about their abuse. They also write that the Southern Baptist Convention should "acknowledge those who have been affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, through both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritize the provision of compassionate care to survivors through providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund."

SBC leaders are promising to do better. "There are not adequate words to express my sorrow at the things revealed in this report," said outgoing SBC President Ed Litton. "I am grieved to my core for those who have suffered sexual abuse in Southern Baptist contexts, both for those named in this report and the many who are not." The first steps may come soon: The SBC holds its annual denominational meeting next month in Anaheim, California.

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