Decades of Sexual-Abuse Coverups in the Southern Baptist Convention

Last year, pastors belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention, which has nearly fourteen million members and is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, decided that the problem of sexual abuse within its ranks had to be addressed. Following investigative reporting in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, which identified more than…

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Last year, pastors belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention, which has nearly fourteen million members and is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, decided that the problem of sexual abuse within its ranks had to be addressed. Following investigative reporting in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, which identified more than seven hundred victims during the past two decades, the S.B.C. contracted a third-party firm to investigate alleged misconduct. This month, the final report was released. It found widespread sexual abuse across the S.B.C., including an internal list of seven hundred and three alleged perpetrators, and a leadership more interested in shaming survivors and preventing legal liability than stopping the abuse. “The whole thing should be seen for what it is,” one high-ranking S.B.C. official, referring to victims’ allegations, wrote in an e-mail uncovered in the report. “[It is] a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” (On Tuesday, the S.B.C. said that it would release a list of accused pastors and others affiliated with the Church.)

I recently spoke by phone with Kate Shellnutt, a senior news editor at Christianity Today who has been covering the S.B.C. and the sexual-abuse crisis within it. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why S.B.C. leaders were so unwilling to act, how the organization’s structure exacerbated the crisis, and how the organization views survivors of sexual abuse.

What is your biggest takeaway from this report?

For people within the S.B.C., the takeaway isn’t going to be the same. If you’re a Southern Baptist, you’ve known about the abuse crisis and how the denomination has struggled with responding adequately to abuse for at least three to four years. This has been on your radar. A lot of the reasoning that had been given over the years for why the denomination was slow to respond, or wasn’t responding in a robust enough way, was because the S.B.C. is an independent association of churches. The new information here is that that explanation was really being used as an excuse more than anything. The idea was “Hey, the S.B.C. can’t impose oversight because of how it’s structured. It can’t make a database.” And yet it was doing that very thing. I think this is going to cause people at the annual meeting to think about their response differently and to be willing to no longer take the idea of autonomy and independence of churches as an excuse for not being quick to act.

What did people know within the S.B.C.? Was this an open secret?

I would say it’s less of an open secret and more that the things in the report have dribbled out incrementally. There were some things that were already revealed and known by Southern Baptists, and this [report] puts those all together in a way that shows a more systemic issue, but I think you could have drawn those lines together on your own if you were paying attention. Back in 2018, we saw a number of survivors come forward in the #ChurchToo movement that followed the #MeToo movement. And a number of the accounts of their experiences with leaders within the S.B.C. continue to come up in this new report. We’re now seeing behind the scenes of some individual cases that were playing out four years ago in the media, in the New York Times, and what people were saying about them behind closed doors. And then, of course, the real landmark would’ve been the following year, in 2019, when the Houston Chronicle investigation came out showing these hundreds of victims and hundreds of abusers.

Each year, the convention made moves to respond in some way, whether it was apologizing, reiterating, or strengthening its position against abuse, even if it was a weak mechanism. It’s not that everyone knew it was a problem and didn’t do anything but that they’ve been doing little steps over the past few years. Looking at this report all together, you see how inadequate the little steps were, and how much deeper and more wrenching the problem is.

And it’s not just that there was negligence or a lack of response but that there was an active resistance to the response and a demonization of the victims who were coming forward and trying to help. A lot of the victims that I’ve spoken with over this time are not people who have been knocking at the S.B.C. door because they want money from it or want to make their stories famous. They really don’t want the men who abused them to be in positions to continue to abuse children and other women. So they’re doing it out of this obligation and responsibility to protect against further harm. And, even with that approach, they’re being accused of trying to take down the S.B.C.

The Catholic Church, which faced its own abuse crisis, is incredibly centralized, and you see S.B.C. leaders saying throughout this report, essentially, that, because the S.B.C. isn’t structured, there’s really no way for them to act. Can you talk a little bit about the structure and how it both provided an excuse and did not allow for leaders to act?

The S.B.C. is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. And there are currently around forty-seven thousand churches that affiliate with it. The S.B.C. has a statement of faith that it believes in called the Baptist Faith and Message. So if a church wants to affiliate it’s expected to agree with that, and the statement would have the S.B.C.’s beliefs on theology and God, as well as things like the senior pastor, which is a role reserved for men. And then the church has to give to the S.B.C. through what it calls the Cooperative Program. A certain per cent of the church’s offerings gets paid to the Cooperative Program, which funds the Executive Committee [E.C.], the body that was being investigated. It does day-to-day work for the S.B.C. outside of its annual meeting.

If you do those two things, that’s enough to make you a Southern Baptist. You don’t have to call your church Southern Baptist, you don’t have to have a certain training—that’s it. And that’s what allows you to send what it calls messengers or delegates to the annual meeting, to the convention where decisions are made. That’s all you need to be able to participate.

That differs from other denominations that have a top-down structure, not just in the Catholic Church but also in other Protestant denominations that might have a regional or national body that oversees you and maybe deals with discipline issues. The Southern Baptists don’t have any of that. And so the S.B.C.’s excuse when it comes to abuse has been that because all of these churches operate independently—they ordain their own pastors, they select their own leadership, they name their own churches—it doesn’t have any authority to tell a church what to do on abuse. If a pastor was accused of being abusive, the S.B.C. can’t tell the church to fire him or put him on probation. Up until now, the S.B.C. said that the most it could say was, “You are no longer in friendly coöperation with the S.B.C.” That’s something it’s done for churches that take a different stance on homosexuality. So if you’re performing same-sex marriages within a church, or if you have gay pastors, which would be two things that violate its beliefs, the S.B.C. would say that you can’t call yourself Southern Baptist or participate in Southern Baptist life anymore. So now it has added abuse explicitly as a category in a committee to review churches that are suspected of being in violation.

What could and should have been done earlier?

The biggest thing is that if you’re keeping a list of pastors who have been credibly accused of abuse, especially ones with criminal charges, you need to make it public so that other churches can consult that list when doing background checks and know not to hire them. I think that’s the biggest thing that churches have wanted. But they also want to see quicker action for pastors who’ve been credibly accused of abuse to be barred from S.B.C. pulpits. A church has been expelled from the S.B.C. for abuse in just three instances. It’s such a small number.

How exclusively male is the leadership?

I would say heavily. All of the leaders who are being accused at the top here are men. All senior pastors at S.B.C. churches are men. There are women who are involved in leadership and some of the mission organizations and some of the seminaries. But, if you’re looking at the top, you are most likely to see men.

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