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Southern Baptists respond to devastating sex abuse report

An investigative report released last weekend found that many Southern Baptist leaders have worked to stop lawsuits against potentially abusive pastors.

The news comes as the denomination as a whole responds to the explosive report that uncovered nefarious actions by leadership..

The report from Guideposts Solutions said the men who controlled the Executive Committee, which runs day-to-day operations of the Southern Baptist Convention, knew there were problems with some pastors but did nothing.

“For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff,” the report said. “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. Behind the curtain, the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits.

READ: Southern Baptist Executive Committee defied members on vote

The report has stunned the denomination including pastors and members of churches across the nation. Some may not have been prepared for the gravity of it. It is just one instance of revelations about churches and ministries that have shocked supporters. In the Midwest, a sex abuse scandal threatens to bring down Kanakuk Kamps after hundreds of instances of abuse of children has been alleged with the perpetrator admitting to some of them.

Virginia Michael Howard, ended a family vacation early to return home to address his congregation. “It makes you ill,” Howard said. “I know as the word gets out, the people in our church will be asking: What is our response?”

A Kentucky pastor reworked the worship service to reflect the revelations, hoping to acknowledge the victims and the fault of the denomination. Philip Meade, devoted a portion of last Sunday’s service to “a lament for the mishandling of sexual abuse claims and for the survivors who have suffered so much,” he said.

Across the country, some expressed frustration about the length of investigations that began after the 2019 Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News articles found 400 Southern Baptist leaders, from youth pastors to lead pastors, had pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998. The fury is over why it took so long to speak as one voice from the denomination.

But those close to the denomination’s leadership said the weight of allegations needed ample time to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Russell Moore, former policy head for the Southern Baptists, said the report is an “apocalypse” that reveals “a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.”

The denomination’s current president, Ed Litton, says the report is “far worse” than he had anticipated.

The SBC Credentials Committee continues to review the full report and issued a statement addressing it:

“We receive this report with open minds and heavy hearts,” the statement said. “We grieve for those impacted by abuse, and we are prepared to repent for anything the Credentials Committee inadvertently failed to do to alleviate the suffering of survivors. We are committed to listening and learning from this extensive report and its recommendations. We look forward to implementing recommendations and strengthening the Credentials Committee’s work.”

The SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force already has asked that another task force be created to recommend reforms.

“As we are brought face to face with the sin that has been done, especially in the name of Christ and in our own community, we can be tempted to want to minimize what has happened or to look only at the most obvious wrong actors,” the task force said in a statement. “We must resist the temptation to minimize, to look away, to find the easy ‘scapegoats’ or what was uncovered in this report, and instead ask ‘what could we have done better?’ and ‘what should we do now?”

President Litton will be replaced at the denomination’s annual meeting in June.  The successor will determine the convention’s direction and ultimate response to the report.

Texas pastor Bart Barber is thought to be in the lead to replace Litton. He was unequivocal in saying the leadership needs to “breaks decisively” from the inaction described in the report. “Discovery is no substitute for action,” h told the New York Times.

Another candidate for the presidency is Tom Ascol who says the report should convict Southern Baptists to “uphold God’s standards of holiness and purity in all things, especially in caring for those who are most vulnerable among us.”

For now, the denomination is readying for the next ground-shaking announcement as leadership prepares to release a list of accused pastors and staff.

The Gospel Coalition released a guide on how Christians should respond.

Here are four recommendations for how Southern Baptists, and all Christians, can respond to this report:

1. Don’t look away.

In moments like these, we’re all tempted to say, “This doesn’t pertain to me.” We’re tempted to ask, “Is that my problem?” It’s an echo of the excuse spoken east of Eden: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The answer to that question was always yes. So much mistreatment and abuse has happened because Baptists refused to look, refused to learn, and refused to listen. Undoubtedly, this is painful. But as light pours into a dark place, don’t shut your eyes or refuse to see. Educate yourself on the plight of the abused. Read the report. Learn to help.

2. Don’t downplay.

Some will be tempted to say, “This is just a few bad apples,” or, “Most of that was in the past.” Humility requires us to honestly admit, “We have no clue how much of this continues now.” This report, limited in scope, is the first word on abuse in our convention, not the last. More will come out.

A similar scandal destroyed the witness and reputation of the Roman Catholic Church. Page 58 of the report documents how Fr. Thomas Doyle wrote to SBC leaders in March 2007. He expressed his concerns that SBC leaders could be falling into some of the same patterns as Catholic leaders in not dealing with clergy sex abuse, and he urged that Southern Baptists should learn from Catholic mistakes by taking action early on to implement structural reforms. Sadly, his warning was dismissed by SBC leaders. The priest responded that such reactions are “standard for people in church leadership positions, who tend to place the needs of the institution before their Christian obligations.”

We cannot continue to dismiss warnings. We must learn humility and stop pretending this is overblown.

3. Don’t be silent.

We must listen and learn. We must also speak up. A source of clear pain throughout the report is how often abuse victims stood alone as they fought for reforms. If we read this report and cannot find our voice, how are we any different from those in James 2:16 who say, “Be warmed and filled!” and then refuse to give food and clothing?

4. Don’t walk away.

This last point is directed to my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters rather than Christians at large. Many of you are likely ready to walk away at this point. But who are you walking away from? We now know that our leaders, our money, and our institutions hurt people. Can we say with a clear conscience, “I’m done”? At this moment when justice cries out, dare we walk away? This is the hour to speak up, to refuse to yield, to fight for the justice and mercy God requires of us. To walk away from the SBC now is to walk away from victims. To walk away now is to walk away from our responsibility.

–Alan Goforth & Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice