Sexual abuse survivors and advocates are hoping for concrete action from the Southern Baptist Convention in response to a news story documenting hundreds of cases of sexual abuse allegations targeting people tied to the denomination.
The SBC, America’s second-largest faith group, needs to fundamentally shift its culture and make protecting survivors a priority, advocates said.
“I would like the SBC to place this issue at the front of their efforts,” Mary DeMuth, an abuse survivor and Southern Baptist from Texas, told HuffPost. “We must warn others of current predators. We must train leaders about assault and the nature of predatory people. We must apologize for covering up, and move forward in a position of humbleness, with a learner’s posture. We must listen to the voices of survivors.”
The report, published Sunday by The San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle, disclosed that about 380 Southern Baptist pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons and church volunteers have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct since 1998. The alleged abuse affected more than 700 victims, the report found, many of whom claimed they were maligned by church officials as they pressed their claims of mistreatment.
According to the story, 220 people who worked or volunteered in SBC churches were convicted of or pleaded guilty to sex crimes.
Some registered sex offenders affiliated with the conservative evangelical denomination have returned to the pulpit, according to the report. At least 35 SBC pastors, employees or volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior went on to find jobs at other churches.
For many victims, the allegations in the report did not come as a surprise. Survivors of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist circles have been speaking up about this issue for years.
Rachael Denhollander, an evangelical Christian and the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, wrote on Twitter that some survivors have spent years trying to shine light on abuse within the SBC.
Beth Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist evangelist and child sexual abuse survivor, shared on Twitter a photo of herself as a young girl, telling those who were shocked by the report, “We understand how you feel. We didn’t want to know about sexual abuse either.”
The tweet inspired other sexual abuse survivors to post photos of themselves as children.
In the past, the SBC has refused to create a denomination-wide database of sexual predators ― claiming that doing so would violate the autonomy of local churches. The SBC views itself as a network of over 47,000 Baptist churches, each of which is independent and self-governing. This doctrine of local church autonomy is a key characteristic of the denomination.
However, Southern Baptist congregations do take some actions together ― funding missionary work or seminaries, for example, and issuing resolutions summing up the denomination’s positions on certain issues.
And over the past 10 years, the SBC has kicked out at least four churches for affirming or endorsing LGBTQ relationships, The San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle reported.
“The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches,” the report stated.
Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor who has spoken up in the past about how SBC leaders handle sexual abuse allegations, told HuffPost she believes the doctrine of autonomy makes it difficult for the denomination to create and enforce policies that address the problem. The doctrine also makes it hard for some leaders to imagine ways to maintain both autonomy and accountability, she said.
“The sex abuse crisis in the SBC represents a moral failure and an imaginative failure,” Prior told HuffPost. “The fact is that SBC churches can be disaffiliated for the things the SBC deems important. The question before us now is whether or not protecting the vulnerable from predators is that important. I hope and pray it is.”
In a Twitter thread, SBC president J.D. Greear said that it was a “heinous error” to use the doctrine of church autonomy as a “religious cover for passivity towards abuse.” Greear pledged to use the “vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources” of the denomination to stop predators.
“Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to ‘do better’ and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem,” Greear tweeted on Sunday.
In July, Greear announced that the SBC would put together a study group on sexual abuse, with the goal of developing recommendations for ministering to victims and protecting people from predators within their church communities. The group received funding in November and is supposed to present its findings by February 2020, according to SBC Life, an official SBC publication.
DeMuth, the abuse survivor from Texas, told HuffPost that SBC leaders contacted her for her feedback about the study group. She said she’s not sure who will ultimately be part of it, but hopes survivors will be able to share their opinions.
“Including those voices would reassure me that this effort is not merely a knee-jerk reaction to bad press, but a genuine desire to learn and do better,” DeMuth said.
Greear, elected president of the denomination last year, is seen by many to represent a new chapter in the group’s history. Prior pointed out that some of the most egregious cases of sexual abuse documented in The Express-News and Chronicle report occurred under “old guard leadership.”
“I believe the new generation of leaders wants change, is seeking change, and will succeed in some measure,” Prior said. “Ultimately, however, change will require support from individual SBC churches and messengers.”
“It is a very Baptist thing for the change to come because the people in the pews demand it. We as Baptists must speak up,” she said.
Boz Tchividjian is the director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), a nonprofit that trains churches in abuse prevention and performs independent investigations of church institutions dealing with abuse allegations. Tchividjian told HuffPost that while SBC leaders’ response to the report has been encouraging so far, he believes there needs to be a deeper “cultural paradigm shift” within the denomination.
Too often, Tchividjian said, SBC’s culture places too much value on its male leaders ― only men can be pastors ― and not enough value on women, children and others who are not in leadership positions. In practice, that means that when a sexual abuse allegation emerges, leaders tend to question the veracity of the accusation or try to take care of the matter quietly to preserve the institution’s reputation.
“The immediate challenge, in my opinion, is for Southern Baptist leaders and pastors all over to really, honestly examine how they have contributed directly or indirectly to fostering a culture of systematic abuse and one that all too often ignores, marginalizes, and demonizes those who step forward to disclose it,” Tchividjian said.
Tchividjian said SBC leaders should “stop studying” how to respond to sexual abuse allegations and “start implementing” practical changes. For example, he said, the denomination could require member churches to devise preventative policies and procedures.
“That would be a start,” Tchividjian said. “It’s saying that this issue is so important, if you don’t do these things, you can’t be part of this fellowship.”
Importantly, the church needs to pay attention to the voices of survivors, Tchividjian said.
“This is not an issue to be taken care of by the good old boys’ club,” he said. “The good old boys’ club needs to start listening and learning from those who have been hurt.”