Scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention

Even though I’ve never been part of a Southern Baptist church, I have always loved the Southern Baptist Convention. I feel that this denomination is one of the leaders is spreading the gospel and teaching the Bible in America and through missions efforts across the world. 

On Sunday, a 288 page report was released related to the handling of sexual misconduct within the denomination. 

The fact that there were issues was not a new revelation. In 2019, I wrote about a Houston Chronicle expose which talked about sexual predators within the SBC. 

But the issue isn’t simply that the denomination failed to be proactive. That would be bad enough. What’s worse is that they intentionally avoided mechanisms to hold abusers accountable and steps which could have been taken to prevent abuses. 

From the report: 

“Rather than focusing on these accused ministers, some EC (executive committee) leaders turned against the very people trying to shine a light on sexual abuse. The survivors – those persons who actually suffered at the hands of SBC clergy or SBC church staff or volunteers – who spoke out the most, and 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.” 

The report notes several high profile SBC figures who were either involved in scandals of their own or who failed to hold abusers accountable. 

Leadership failures

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 of “heartfelt concern and compassion for th[e] minister,” while acknowledging that he should have “brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately;”

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 his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could “break her down;” told a student not to report a rape in 2003 and, in 2015, emailed 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; and

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. During his testimony at a post-conviction evidentiary hearing in September 2008, Mr. Boto identified himself as general trial counsel for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In 2007, a database was proposed to list offenders who had served in SBC churches. 

The Washington Post reports: 

“In an April 2007 email, the convention’s attorney sent Boto a memo explaining how a SBC database could be implemented consistent with SBC polity, saying “it would fit our polity and present ministries to help churches in this area of child abuse and sexual misconduct.” The report states that he recommended “immediate action to signal the Convention’s desire that the [executive committee] and the entities begin a more aggressive effort in this area.” That same year, after a Southern Baptist pastor made a motion for a database, Boto rejected the idea.”

The database is another important finding from the report. A database of known and accused offenders had long been suggested within the SBC. It’s a denomination with thousands of churches. Some predators would leave one church and go to another. Leaders continually stonewalled the idea of a database and said it would be impossible to manage. According to the report, the database existed. 

It’s my understanding that it’s not definitively known which leaders had access but the database existed. People in leadership lied and withheld a useful tool from their churches. Unconscionable. 

And this all scratches the surface. 

The New Testament repeatedly gives warnings about those infiltrating the church who mean to do harm. 

Matthew 7:15-16: 

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits.

In John 10, Jesus famously says that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (his people). At the same time, Jesus is warning of shepherds who will fail to protect the flock  and teh wolves that will prey upon the flock: 

John 10:10-13:

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

These are verses that I’ve always taken seriously. There are those who will cause harm within the church. Sadly, far too many SBC “leaders” failed to do their part in helping to protect the churches in their denomination and sadder still, their failures to act (or outright participation in cover ups) helped foster a culture where people could commit acts of abuse. 

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 2:29-30).

All of this just scratches the surface. But it’s unconscionable. It is beyond me how these leaders could justify the things they’ve done. 

There has been a massive sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. There have been scandals from several universities: Penn State with assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and Ohio State with former athletic department physician Richard Strauss. There was the USA Gymnastics scandal with Larry Nasser. There was the #metoo movement. Jeffrey Epstein. 

Large institutions are vulnerable to predators and the SBC was unable to read the room and take any steps at avoiding abuse? 

One of the findings of the report was that these evasive steps from the SBC were done in an effort to avoid legal liability. But at what cost? In avoiding liability, the leadership of the denomination failed to help protect people within their congregations. That’s the worst of it. 

And ironically, in their effort to protect the denomination, they have done damage that will linger in the SBC until Christ returns. Churches will leave the SBC, members will leave churches within the SBC, the reputation of the SBC will take irreversible damage. And Christ’s Church takes another strike against it because people failed to live up to what the Church is supposed to be. 

Thanks for reading. If you liked this post, please share and subscribe.