A reckoning many people consider a long-time-coming is underway within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Results of an investigation released last month revealed that for over 20 years, sexual abuse victims attempting to report crimes to leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention were often ignored and, in some cases, bullied or vilified. At the same time, the church leaders focused on keeping the claims away from the public eye instead of protecting the victims and halting the rampant abuse.
The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination of Christianity in the United States, with 47,000 churches. The incidents of sexual abuse were reported at Baptist churches, schools and youth camps across the country.
Uncovering Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse
Although rumors of abuse circulated throughout the SBC for years, the issue leaped to the forefront in 2019 when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News began publishing articles on specific cases. Then, in June of 2021, at the annual meeting in Nashville, Southern Baptist Convention delegates voted to hire a third-party investigation firm to look into the accusations and instructed the SBC’s executive committee to turn over information concerning all abuse cases.
On May 22, the third-party firm Guidepost Solutions revealed its findings, showing how deeply marred the Southern Baptist Convention has been in handling sexual abuse. Guidepost confirmed that abusers had been free to move through the church’s social and business circles, even after victims reported the crimes. Perhaps most surprisingly, Guidepost revealed that a staff member who worked with the church’s executive committee kept a secret database listing known abusers and the allegations against them. Since the allegations were never made public, abusers could continue holding positions within the church while victims received no protection.
On May 26, just four days after Guidepost’s findings were revealed, the SBC executive committee decided to post the aforementioned secret list on the church’s website.
At the top of the post, Willie McLaurin, the SBC’s executive committee’s interim president and chief executive, and Rolland Slade, the chairman of the executive committee, issued a joint statement that said in part that sharing information from the database would help shine a spotlight “… on truth and transparency.”
“Southern Baptists have made it clear that transparency in the area of sex abuse should be the norm,” their statement said.
Included were the names of hundreds of ministers and church workers. However, church attorneys did redact several entries as well as the names and identifying information of survivors and others unrelated to the accused.
The list includes entries with the name of the abuser, the year of the offense, the state where it took place, and a description of the accusations with links to news articles concerning the particular crime.
Among the entries is a former Baptist school principal in Texas who was arrested after trying to cross state lines “with an attempt to have sex with an 11-year-old girl;” a volunteer Baptist youth worker in Kentucky who was charged with rape of an 18-year-old mentally challenged female and was previously sentenced to five years in prison for first-degree sexual abuse; and a female youth leader in Tennessee who admitted and was charged with “aggravated statutory rape and soliciting sexual exploitation of a minor.”
How Does the Southern Baptist Convention Move Forward?
When Guidepost Solutions concluded its work, it gave the Southern Baptist Convention recommendations on how to combat sexual abuse and protect current and future church members. The firm urged the church to create an “offender information system” that would provide churches training and resources to administer “best practices” in responding to allegations of abuse and improve background check procedures and codes of conduct.
It also encouraged SBC to reconsider its use of nondisclosure agreements since the agreements created in the past often benefited the institution while not protecting the victim from abuse or retaliation when reporting the crime.
Guidepost also pointed out the dire need for church leaders to “…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.”
In the wake of the report’s release, a hotline was set up for survivors, or someone on their behalf, to report abuse allegations. Guidepost is maintaining the hotline and will keep any information received confidential. Callers will be provided with care options and connected with an advocate. The number is (202) 864-5578 or SBChotline@guidepostsolutions.com.
The fallout from the investigation, along with Guidepost’s’ recommendations for the church, is expected to be discussed in full when thousands of voting delegates gather again for the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting on June 14 and 15 in Anaheim, California.