On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle and San-Antonio Express News released the first of a three-part investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention’s vast, systemic history of sexual abuse. In a ferociously reported article, a team of journalists uncovered a trail that not only includes about 380 church workers and volunteers who were credibly accused of sexual assault and the more than 700 victims they’ve left behind, but also a chilling pattern of church authorities scrambling to discredit the accusers, protect the attackers, rebuff attempts to involve local law enforcement and, in several cases, continue to employ known abusers.
The victims came from all walks of life and were of all ages. Some were assaulted on church grounds, in Sunday School classrooms or the pastor’s office. Some were groomed over long periods of time. Some went to church leadership right away, where their accusations were met with skepticism and outright disbelief. Some took much longer to come forward, fearing repercussions or not entirely understanding what had happened. Some were urged to forgive their abusers and “move on.” Some were encouraged to get abortions. Many still criticize church leadership for mishandling or concealing their claims.
The report describes how one victim, Debbie Vasquez, went to the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008 to beg leaders to agree to a series of substantive reforms that would allow the SBC to track abuse cases among its 47,000 churches and take punitive action against churches that harbored abusers. The SBC ultimately declined nearly all of those reforms.
Throughout the piece, church leaders blame church autonomy — the SBC’s practice of allowing the individual churches within its network nearly total freedom — as the reason they haven’t been able to take action against the abuse crisis. The piece quotes SBC Executive Committee interim president August “Augie” Boto as saying the denomination “realized that lifting up a model that could not be enforced was an exercise in futility.”
“It would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600” cases, Boto told reporters. “Sorrow. What we’re talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.”
But the accusation from many victims and even some legal experts is that the SBC has been resigned to the allegations, refusing to take the issue seriously. The report points out that for all the SBC’s insistence that they are hindered by their commitment to church autonomy, it has ended affiliations with churches for things like affirming homosexual behavior. According to the piece, “the SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.”
That, to many people the Chronicle spoke with, suggests the SBC has been unwilling to address the severity of the crisis in the denomination. “I understand the fear, because it’s going to make the leadership look bad,” said Reverend Thomas Doyle, a priest and former lawyer. “Well, they are bad, and they should look bad. Because they have ignored this issue. They have demonized the victims.”
In response to the article, recently inducted SBC president J.D. Greear tweeted a lengthy thread in which he expressed remorse and promised to address the rampant issue.
I am broken over what was revealed today. The abuses described in this @HoustonChron article are pure evil. I join with countless others who are currently “weeping with those who weep.” 1/9https://t.co/yYECD45TuD
— J.D. Greear (@jdgreear) February 10, 2019
“We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again,” Greear continued. “There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists. The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse.”
In addition to the first part of the report, the two newspapers unveiled a new database of SBC church leaders and volunteers who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes. The SBC itself had refused to make such a database as a resource for concerned church members, so the journalists made their own searchable site in which you can search by state, name or even church position. The hope is that this will make it harder for convicted abusers to gain access to positions of church leadership, and easier for hiring churches to check the records of applicants.
The next two parts of the report will release soon. You can, and should, read the first part here.