Religion Unplugged

‘An apocalypse’: Probe into Southern Baptist sex abuse turns up ‘bombshell’ findings

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“It is an apocalypse,” declares Russell Moore, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

It is “far worse” than anything Ed Litton, the 13.7 million-member denomination’s president, had anticipated, report the New York Times’ Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias.

It is a “bombshell” (per the Houston Chronicle’s Robert Downen and John Tedesco). It is “historic” (The Tennessean’s Liam Adams). It is a “blockbuster report” (Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana).

Sunday brought the long-awaited release of an independent investigation into sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, and damning might be too feeble a word to characterize the findings.

The bottom line, according to Guidepost Solutions’ 288-page report:

An unprecedented investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s top governing body found that an influential group of Baptist leaders systematically ignored, belittled and intimidated survivors of sexual abuse for the past two decades while protecting the legal interests of churches accused of harboring abusers.

The claims are “expected to send shock waves throughout a conservative Christian community that has had intense internal battles over how to handle sex abuse” (Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey).

Guidepost led the “$2 million undertaking, involving 330 interviews and five terabytes of documents collected over eight months” (Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt).

The SBC’s Executive Committee, Shellnutt adds, “also committed another $2 million toward legal costs around the investigation — making it a total investment of $4 million, funded by churches and conventions giving to the Cooperative Program.”

“The Baptists should offer ‘both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture’ including a ‘survivor compensation fund,’ the report … said” (Washington Times’ Mark A. Kellner).

Associated Press religion reporters Deepa Bharath, Holly Meyer and David Crary cite these specific accusations:

“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse … and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC,” the report said.

“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” the report added.

The report asserts that an Executive Committee staffer maintained a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, but there is no indication anyone “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”

The Houston Chronicle’s Downen and Tedesco note:

The report is by far the SBC’s most consequential response yet to widespread abuses detailed in Abuse of Faith, a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that found hundreds of SBC church leaders and volunteers have been criminally charged with sex crimes since 2000. The series also detailed numerous incidents in which denominational leaders mishandled, ignored or concealed warnings that SBC churches were being targeted by predators.

Even before the Texas newspapers’ powerful reporting (which Downen discussed in a 2020 Weekend Plug-in interview), sex abuse in the SBC had become a subject of intense national news coverage.

Ironically, Christianity Today’s Shellnutt recalls that today marks the four-year anniversary of a 13-hour, closed-door meeting in which trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, dismissed the seminary’s longtime president, Paige Patterson.

Patterson’s May 23, 2018, demotion (which later became a firing) came “amid an evangelical #MeToo moment: a massive backlash from women upset over comments he made in the past that are newly perceived as sexist and demeaning,” as Bailey, Michelle Boorstein and I reported for the Washington Post. (I’ll never forget that meeting. I showed up expecting it to last a few hours. It ended up taking all night.)

As for the latest news, it’s sure to make for an explosive SBC annual meeting in just a few weeks.

Southern Baptists plan to gather in Anaheim, California, from June 12-15.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

Featured photo via Shutterstock

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