Southern Baptists face sexual abuse

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An epidemic of violence and shattered lives. Leaders fail or refuse to respond. And the most vulnerable bear the price of inaction.

While this story describes the wave of mass shootings we have witnessed recently, it also sums up another tragedy, described in an investigative report published, coincidentally, days before the Uvalde massacre. In this case, the violence was perpetrated by ministers, the victims were members of their flock, and the leaders were senior officials from the second largest Christian denomination in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Released on May 22, the report details the findings of an independent investigation into the SBC’s handling of sexual abuse within its ranks over the past two decades. Although the report focuses on one religious group, there are lessons here for all of us, Baptists and non-Baptists, religious and non-religious.

It is a damning report. Investigators found that between 2000 and 2021, those who reported sexual abuse by clergy or staff members encountered “resistance, blockages and even outright hostility” from high-level leaders of the SBC who “by their words and actions, seemed more concerned with protecting the aggressors than with protecting”. victims. »

Although the report indicates a widespread systemic failure to address the sexual abuse crisis, it largely focuses on the SBC’s 86-member executive committee, which manages the day-to-day running of the denomination.

Investigators found that a few senior executives and executive committee lawyers were closely monitoring information about reported abuses and seemed more concerned with avoiding legal liability than correcting the problem or helping survivors. They told survivors that the executive committee had no authority to take action against abusers or their congregations because of the SBC doctrine of congregational autonomy, whereby local churches govern themselves. At times, senior leaders have shown outright hostility towards survivors and defenders, accusing them of wanting to “burn things down”. As recently as 2019, SBC attorney August “Augie” Boto called growing concerns about sexual abuse “a satanic plan to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Furthermore, even as SBC leaders rejected calls from survivors and advocates for the creation of a database of accused sex offenders, executive committee attorneys Boto and James Guenther – who have since retired or resigned – maintained a secret list of over 700 accused abusers. . According to Guidepost’s report, they did not share this information with the wider SBC and did not take steps to determine whether these alleged abusers were still in cabinet positions. (After the report was made public, the SBC released a redacted version of that list, available here. Guenther and a few other list officials defended their actions.)

Pressure has been building on the SBC for years to deal with its sexual abuse problem. Calls for reform from sexual abuse survivors and advocates have been amplified by reports of widespread sexual abuse in the denomination. In 2018, survivors and advocates demonstrated outside the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting in Dallas. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a six-part investigative series, “Abuse of Faith”. After years of denial or silence, some prominent SBC leaders, including then-president JD Greear, publicly acknowledged the problem. Then, last year, delegates to the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville voted overwhelmingly to authorize an independent investigation.

Conducted by independent company Guidepost Solutions, the survey interviewed more than 300 people, including SBC survivors, advocates, leaders and staff. The report detailing the results is over 400 pages.

The survivor stories told in this report should sadden and exasperate any half-compassionate reader. Take the case of Debbie Vasquez. From age 14, her Southern Baptist pastor abused her. When she became pregnant with him, Vasquez had to come before her congregation to ask for forgiveness, but she was forbidden to name the father because it would “harm the church”. Her attacker later served at another SBC church.

In 2007, Vasquez reported his abuse to the executive committee. His emails initially went unanswered; she then received a response from Boto, who assured her that the committee was looking into the matter but asked her not to share her communications with others. While Vasquez persisted in pushing for reform, she was met with hostility from leaders. In a 2008 email to Vasquez, former SBC president Paige Patterson, who helped lead the conservative takeover of the SBC and was later removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for her stewardship cases of sexual abuse. the criminals.”

The report concludes with a series of recommendations on how the SBC can better address its sexual abuse problem, including mandatory training, requiring full background checks, implementing a system of information on offenders and the allocation of resources to support survivors, including a compensation fund for survivors.

Leaders behind the scenes were “defamating, undermining, mocking” victims of sexual abuse.

Christa Brown, a survivor of SBC clergy abuse and longtime reform activist, whose story is discussed in the report, calls it “vindication.” It “confirms the stark reality of what many clergy survivors of sexual abuse, myself included, have tried to bring to light over the past two decades,” she told the Observer. “But that vindication goes hand in hand with grief.”

Author and attorney Mary DeMuth expressed her gratitude for the investigation and the thoroughness of the report, but also said she was also broken and distressed that while survivors and attorneys were working tirelessly on the issue of sexual abuse, the leaders behind the scenes “defamed, undermined, mocked them.

As I wrote in 2018, the SBC sex abuse scandal raises “difficult questions about the denomination’s treatment of women, and in particular its teaching about their ‘biblical’ roles.” While in other Protestant denominations women began to hold leadership positions in the church in the 1970s and 1980s, Southern Baptists still hold that only men can serve as pastors (although women can work in other departments). Throughout the period covered by this investigation, all of the main actors in the SBC response to sexual abuse were men. Did the lack of women in positions of leadership and authority lead to a situation in which women were repeatedly victimized by men?

More broadly, the findings highlight the dangers of valuing an institution or tradition over people. Top SBC leaders have myopically focused on preserving the church’s tradition of self-reliance and on evangelism and mission outwards while neglecting the care of the vulnerable on the inside the SCB.

Clearly the Guidepost report has rocked the denomination, and its leaders are dealing with the fallout and an unwelcome wave of national publicity. As the Houston Chronicle reported earlier this week, senior SBC officials are considering scrapping pension benefits for former executives named in the report. The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina is cutting ties with a former SBC president whom the report accuses of sexually abusing a pastor’s wife. An SBC mission committee retained Guidepost to review its sexual abuse policies.

But it remains to be seen whether this investigation will lead to a profound and substantial change in the SBC. “I’m hopeful,” DeMuth said. She sees the report as a fork in the road for the denomination. “It will either be the most amazing reconstruction of how they see themselves, and a road of repentance, or it will be a doubling down,” a return to the status quo.

Survivor advocate Ashley Easter, vice president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is more pessimistic, in part because she says the SBC does not fully respect women. “Women don’t have equality in this movement,” she says. Brown, for his part, fears that the SBC will fail to implement “truly transformational reforms” and will “instead try to get by by tweaking things a bit and then doing a bunch of public relations work from image management.

Brown and Easter told the Observer that while the Guidepost survey is an important first step, it focuses too narrowly on the denomination’s relatively small executive committee. “It’s the tiniest tip of the iceberg,” Brown said. “The [sexual abuse problem] is much, much bigger. Rot is deeply rooted in this institution. Easter and Brown want to see an investigation of the SBC as a whole, including seminaries and the 47,000 affiliated churches. DeMuth pointed to the need for a similar investigation into the Southern Baptist Mission Board, which allegedly covered up sexual misconduct or crimes committed by missionaries.

Whichever path the denomination ultimately takes, this report is first and foremost a tribute to survivors and advocates. As Brown said, “No one should ever forget the human cost of what it took to bring the Southern Baptist Convention to this place.” Frequently ignored and sometimes vilified, they continued to push the SBC to action, often at great expense, as in the case of survivor Jennifer Lyell, who lost her job with an SBC-affiliated organization.
As Texans struggle against the senseless gun policies that led to the latest massacre of innocents – and against the politicians who ignore or disparage us, or try to distract us with extraneous matters – we can learn a lot from the brave perseverance of these survivors and defenders who just wouldn’t settle for more of the same.

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