The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), with its 47,000 churches and nearly 14 million members across the country, is under investigation by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). The investigation comes in the wake of widespread reports of clergy sexual abuse and inactions by church leaders to solve the problem.
On Aug. 12, a statement concerning the federal investigation was released by a group of SBC leaders, including SBC Executive Committee members, seminary presidents and heads of mission organizations.
“Individually and collectively each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation,” the statement said.
The DOJ’s involvement comes after the Southern Baptist Convention released the results of its independent investigation three months ago. SBC church officials knew of the sexual abuse against adults and children for more than 20 years but kept the information hidden.
The earlier investigation, conducted by Guidepost Solutions, was released by the SBC on May 22. Not only did the investigation conclude that for over 20 years, sexual abuse victims attempted to report cases of abuse to church leaders only to be ignored, minimized and “even vilified,” but it also revealed that a former Church employee kept a secret list of more than 700 accused sex abusers but did not attempt to stop the crimes.
On May 26, four days after the findings of Guidepost’s investigation were released, the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee took it a step further and posted the secret list on the Church’s website.
The release of Guidepost Solutions’ findings was soon followed by the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim, California. While more than 8,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention gathered for the yearly get-together, the major discussion stayed on the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.
In Anaheim, along with electing Texas pastor Bart Barber, a vocal advocate for sex abuse reforms, as 2022 SBC president, the attendees also passed a recommendation to create a database to track pastors and other church workers credibly accused of sex abuse.
However, despite this summer’s efforts, the Southern Baptist Convention could not avoid the Federal spotlight. When church leaders announced the DOJ investigation while lamenting past mistakes, they quickly pointed out the recent efforts saying that church officials “… across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future.”
Inside the DOJ Investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention
As is often the case with DOJ investigations, little is known about the SBC case and what exactly is under investigators’ scrutiny. However, the Guidepost Solutions’ report appears to be a good road map on where the investigation will go.
In 2019 journalist Robert Downen of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express was the first to report on the SBC’s sexual abuse crisis and his work, a six-part series that included researching church employees, youth workers, pastors, volunteers and top clergy going back to 1998, was what prompted the SBC to commission the Guidepost Solutions investigation.
In an Aug. 24 interview for Slate, Downen discussed the Church and the DOJ investigation, confirming he has learned the DOJ subpoenaed the unredacted list of sex offenders obtained by Guidepost Solutions as well as supplemental materials from that firm. At the same time, he stressed that the DOJ would not release exactly what the investigation includes to the public because it involves confidential grand jury proceedings.
Downen also pointed out the investigation has challenges because of the number of churches within the Southern Baptist Convention. While they are all under the same SBC umbrella, they all act independently.
“I think the investigation is important, in that this is the highest and the most forceful accountability this group has ever faced,” Dawson said. “But at the same time, the polity of the SBC is going to make this a more difficult type of investigation than a lot of people realize.”
The SBC is not the only Christian denomination in the U.S. under federal scrutiny. In June, the FBI opened an inquiry into the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans. In that case, federal investigators are looking at clergy within the Archdiocese of New Orleans and whether or not children were taken across state lines and sexually abused. As part of that probe, investigators have interviewed about 12 alleged abuse victims and are exploring whether predator priests can be prosecuted under the Mann Act.