Sexual Abuse in the SBC is No Surprise, But Still a Shock

Southern Baptist Church in South Carolina

Sexual abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) should come as no surprise, given the history of abuse in other organizations. Still, when the Southern Baptist Convention released a report in May 2022 of the SBC’s horrible response to decades of sexual abuse allegations, it hit like a bombshell.

Sexual predators gravitate to where they can find victims and where institutions will protect them. Those conditions exist in many organizations anxious to believe the best about their leaders and volunteers, eager to protect their own reputation, and unwilling to believe bad news about people inside their circle. That is why there is such a sad history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, private schools like Catlin Gabel here in Portland, and other denominations like the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA), the Church of Jesus Christ of the Later-Day Saints (LDS), Assemblies of God, and others. It’s no surprise to find the same history of sexual abuse in the SBC.

The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the USA, with about 16 million members. Rumors of sexual abuse, assault, and exploitation within the SBC have swirled for years. Leaders at the highest levels denied them.

Until now.

Report on Sexual Abuse in the SBC

The independent report is titled The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s Response to Sexual Abuse Allegations and an Audit of the Procedures and Actions of the Credentials Committee. You can read the whole SBC report here. The opening paragraph sets the condemning tone:

For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) Executive Committee (“EC”) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff. They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press…only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC. [ellipses in original]

How did this report come about? It started in June 2021, at the SBC’s annual convention. (Confusingly, the name of the denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention and the SBC holds an annual convention.) Multiple accounts of SBC leadership mishandling reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by pastors or other church leaders concerned the delegates at the 2021 convention. They voted overwhelmingly to hire outsiders to review how the SBC Executive Committee handled reports of sexual abuse and misconduct.  The EC hired a company called Guidepost to investigate and write the report.

The report is devastating for the SBC. The report only covers allegations of sexual abuse in the SBC going back about 20 years. But it shows a historical pattern of unacceptable behavior by Southern Baptist leadership.

Three Takeaways from the SBC Report

  1. There is a history of sexual abuse in the SBC.

Pastors, church staff, and church volunteers took advantage of their positions in the church. They used their positions to groom and then sexually abuse or assault vulnerable people in their congregations. The victims were children and emotionally vulnerable adults, taken advantage of by men in positions of power and authority in the SBC church.

  1. SBC leadership responded to reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by protecting the church, not the victims.

Just like other institutions faced with allegations of sexual abuse like the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church, the SBC thought first of how to protect itself. The report found that a small group within the Executive Committee “largely controlled” how the church responded to allegations of molestation or other sexual misconduct. This controlling group was “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations” the report concluded.

“Avoiding liability” is another way to say “avoiding responsibility.” Any time an organization is focused on “avoiding liability,” that organization will do all it can to hide the truth so it will not have to explain its conduct or be held accountable for its own actions.

  1. The SBC ignored and further harmed survivors.

According to the report, 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 policy regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

It is not easy for the victim of child sexual abuse or adult sexual assault to come forward. Talking about abuse and assault can be difficult. Talking to the people in charge of the organization that allowed the abuse to happen can be awful. If those leaders ignore the victims, or even worse, don’t believe them, such a response can be as traumatizing as the abuse itself.

It is also demeaning for a victim to hear that the church will not respond because of a “policy” about an abstract and overly legal idea like “church autonomy.” Church members trust the SBC as an organization and follow the rules and policies handed down from the Executive Committee. When the SBC then uses those policies against victims, those victims feel betrayed by the same organization they had trusted. When SBC leaders told victims that church policy protected their abusers and did nothing to help them, the SBC told victims they are worth less than a child molester or sexual predator.

How Did the SBC Respond to Sexual Abuse Allegations?

The SBC Executive Committee did not completely ignore reports of sexual abuse that came its way. Senior leaders at the SBC told victims that the church could take no action. But the Executive Committee was busy compiling a list of “accused ministers” in Baptist churches.

SBC leaders kept this list secret. The Guidepost report concludes that SBC leadership did not share this list “or [take] any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”  All in all, the SBC added the names of 703 Baptist pastors, church staff, and volunteers to this list of accused abusers. SBC included accused abusers from any Baptist denomination, not only the Southern Baptist Convention. Of the 703 on the list, 409 were “believed to be SBC affiliated at some point in time.”

You can find the entire list of SBC ministers accused of sexual abuse and other misconduct here.

Most of the names on the list are men accused of sexually abusing or assaulting people in Baptist churches in the US South and Southeast. This makes sense, given that the Southern Baptist church is, as its name suggests, a historically southern denomination. SBC was founded in Georgia and has its national administrative offices in Nashville, Tennessee.

There are over 50 names on the list of men accused of sexual abuse or assault in connection with Baptist churches in Western states, including Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, and Colorado. Check back for additional blog posts with details about those alleged perpetrators and the accusations against them.

Option for Survivors of Sexual Abuse in the SBC or Other Baptist Church

If you were sexually abused, assaulted, or exploited in the SBC or any Baptist church, either as a child or an adult, you have options now. What options are available to you depend on the laws of the state where the sexual misconduct happened.

Check back for another blog post discussing these different options.

In the meantime, if you or someone you know has questions about what to do about being sexually mistreated in a Baptist church, contact us. You can reach us through our confidential contact page or call us at 503-616-5007.

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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