Bombshell article reveals sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Convention

The Houston Chronicle released the first of a three part series on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s a heartbreaking read to consider the damage that has been done to the lives of so many. It’s heartbreaking to consider the many other victims who never came forward or who were ignored.

I highly recommend the article, which I think should be a contender for the Pulitzer Prize.

Within the article, there were several noteworthy findings.

  • Since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. The article says: “That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.”
  • There were over 700 victims who made accusations against church leaders.
  • Roughly 220 of these leaders have been convicted or faced plea deals.
  • More than 90 of the convicted offenders are currently in prison.
  • At least 35 people who exhibited predatory behaviors have found jobs in Southern Baptist Churches in the last 35 years.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a massive denomination with over 47,000 churches in America.

SBC churches have a high degree of autonomy. This can make uniform standards for safety measures and handling of accusations a challenge. The article suggests that this autonomy helps foster an ecosystem where this predatory behavior is possible.

I’m certainly not suggesting that most SBC churches or members tolerate this behavior. But the article does also point to examples of the churches resisting measures that could help with these failures. One measure was a database of offenders within the denomination, which would list those who had pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes.

The article says:

In 2007, victims of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors requested creation of a registry containing the names of current and former leaders of Southern Baptist churches who had been convicted of sex crimes or who had been credibly accused. That didn’t happen; the last time any such list was made public was by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It contained the names of eight sex criminals.

The Houston Chronicle put together such a database in their reporting of this story.
There are excuses that people can lean to: it’s not as bad as the scandals within the Catholic Church, it’s an issue an lots of institutions, it’s still a relatively small percentage of the churches.
The issue is that there is more that could having been done. It’s an issue that the church struggles with, when the church should be at the forefront of leading in this area. The church must take these issues seriously. But it’s an uncomfortable topic that gets at the depths of sin and human depravity. It’s a difficult issue to talk about. It’s an easy issue to overlook and think is a problem somewhere else. In any church, in any community, there  is the potential for predators who are lurking.
I hope that this article will be a wake up call for the SBC. I hope that this will be a catalyst for change and for some difficult conversations. Because hundreds of victims is unacceptable. Predators using the church as a place to prey upon people is unacceptable. Denial is unacceptable.
One of the more disheartening findings within the article is that there have been instances when previous presidents of the SBC have dropped the ball. The president of the SBC is elected by churches, and they’re usually men who are also pastors. One president of the SBC waited six months to fire a pastor from his staff who had admitted to molesting a child. Two other past president allegedly ignored multiple claims of abuse about a rising star within the SBC who was later convicted of molesting two girls at a Florida church (though there were dozens of allegations).
The Houston Chronicles article outlines other allegations at the top. These are catastrophic failures of leadership.
Current SBC president J.D. Greear addressed the Houston Chronicle reporting in a series of Tweets. Greear says: “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.” He concludes his statement by saying “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.”
The SBC has an opportunity to become a leader for all of American Protestantism in transparency and fighting sexual abuse. They’re the largest Protestant denomination in the country and have the millions of members.

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Josh Benner  has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.

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