Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, stonewalled and denigrated survivors of clergy sex abuse over almost two decades while seeking to protect their own reputations, according to a scathing 288-page investigative report issued Sunday.
These survivors, and other concerned Southern Baptists, repeatedly shared allegations with the SBC’s Executive Committee, “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC,” said the report.
The seven-month investigation was conducted by Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm contracted by the Executive Committee after delegates to last year’s national meeting pressed for a probe by outsiders.
“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse … and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC,” the report said.
“In service of this goal, 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 polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” the report added.
The report asserts that an Executive Committee staffer maintained a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, but there is no indication anyone “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”
The latest list lists the names of hundreds more abusers who were thought to be associated with the SBC at one time or another. Advocates as well survivors have called for the creation of a publicly available database.
SBC President Ed Litton, in a statement Sunday, said he is “grieved to my core” for the victims and thanked God for their work propelling the SBC to this moment. He called on Southern Baptists to lament and prepare to change the denomination’s culture and implement reforms.
“I pray Southern Baptists will begin preparing today to take deliberate action to address these failures and chart a new course when we meet together in Anaheim,” Litton said, referring to the California city that will host the SBC’s national meeting on June 14-15.
Among the report’s key recommendations:
— Form an independent commission and later establish a permanent administrative entity to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct within the SBC.
—Create and maintain an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders.
— Provide a comprehensive Resource Toolbox including protocols, training, education, and practical information.
—Restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements which bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters, unless requested by the survivor.
Willie McLaurin (interim leader of the Executive Committee) and Rolland Slade (prospective leaders), welcomed the recommendations and committed to making every effort to end sex abuse at the SBC.
“We recognize there are no shortcuts,” they said. “We must all meet this challenge through prudent and prayerful application, and we must do so with Christ-like compassion.”
To discuss the report, Tuesday’s special meeting of Executive Committee will be held.
A landmark Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News report that documented hundreds of cases within Southern Baptist churches and many in which the alleged perpetrators were still in ministry, brought the sex abuse scandal to the forefront.
Last year, thousands of SBC delegate delegates expressed their disapproval that the Executive Committee should be responsible for investigating its own activities. They overwhelmingly voted to establish the task force responsible for overseeing third-party reviews. Litton is the pastor at Redemption Church, Saraland, Alabama. He appointed this panel.
Before the report was made public, it had been reviewed by the task force for a week. The task force’s recommendations based on Guidepost’s findings will be presented at the SBC’s meeting in Anaheim.
The report offers shocking details on how Johnny Hunt, a Georgia-based pastor and past SBC president, sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife during a beach vacation in 2010. Hunt, a Georgia-based pastor and past president of the SBC, denied having any contact with this woman but said he did have interactions.
On May 13, Hunt, who was the senior vice president of evangelism and leadership at the North American Mission Board, the SBC’s domestic missions agency, resigned from that post, said Kevin Ezell, the organization’s president and CEO. Ezell said, before May 13, he was “not aware of any alleged misconduct” on Hunt’s part.
According to the report, Hunt organized a meeting with the victim a few day after the incident. Hunt admitted to touching the victim inappropriately, but said “thank God I didn’t consummate the relationship.”
Among those reacting strongly to the Guidepost report was Russell Moore, who formerly headed the SBC’s public policy wing but left the denomination after accusing top Executive Committee leaders of stalling efforts to address the sex abuse crisis.
“Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse,” Moore wrote for Christianity Today after reading the report. ”As dark a view as I had of the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.”
According to the report, Guidepost’s investigators, who spoke with survivors of varying ages including children, said the survivors were equally traumatized by the way in which churches responded to their reports of sexual abuse.
Survivors “spoke of trauma from the initial abuse, but also told us of the debilitating effects that come from the response of the churches and institutions like the SBC that did not believe them, ignored them, mistreated them, and failed to help them,” the report said.
The case was Dave Pittman who, from 2006 to 2011, made calls to and sent emails to the SBC, Georgia Baptist Convention Board, reporting on his abuse by Frankie Wiley (a youth pastor at Rehoboth Baptist Church) when he was between 12 and 15.
Pittman and several others have come forward publicly to report that Wiley molested and raped them and Wiley has admitted to abusing “numerous victims” at several Georgia Southern Baptist churches.
According to this report, Pittman was told by a Georgia Baptist Convention official that churches could be left alone and that all he could do was pray.
Christa Brown is also featured in the report. She claims she was sexually abused by her SBC youth minister as a teenager.
According to the report, the victim was also told to keep it quiet after revealing the abuse to her music minister, months of which she suffered.
Brown, who has been one of the most outspoken survivors, told investigators that during the past 15 years she has received “volumes of hate mail, awful blog comments, and vitriolic phone calls.”
After reading through the report, Brown told The Associated Press that it “fundamentally confirms what Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors have been saying for decades.”
“I view this investigative report as a beginning, not an end. The work will continue,” Brown said. “But no one should ever forget the human cost of what it has taken to even get the SBC to approach this starting line of beginning to deal with clergy sex abuse.”
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