South­ern Bap­tists OK steps to ad­dress sex­ual abuse

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Front Page - FRANCISCA JONES

BIRM­ING­HAM, Ala. — South­ern Bap­tists headed into the first day of their an­nual busi­ness meet­ing Tues­day un­der the cloud of wide­spread sex­ual-abuse al­le­ga­tions within the de­nom­i­na­tion.

But by the end of the day’s meet­ing, each of their votes to ap­prove three amend­ments were fol­lowed by bursts of ap­plause.

The del­e­ga­tion voted to adopt two amend­ments rec­om­mended by the con­ven­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee that ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion of a co­op­er­at­ing church. One gives the con­ven­tion the right to ex­pel con­gre­ga­tions that are will­fully mis­han­dling abuse; the sec­ond gives the con­ven­tion the power to re­move those that

en­gage in dis­crim­i­na­tory behavior based on race, a prac­tice known in both in­stances as dis­fel­low­ship­ping.

A third approved amend­ment al­lowed for a cre­den­tials com­mit­tee, the group that will have the power to make the de­ci­sion on whether a South­ern Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tion is a co­op­er­at­ing church. This rep­re­sents a sweep­ing change in a de­nom­i­na­tion whose con­gre­ga­tions func­tion au­tonomously.

“I be­lieve this is a very, very sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in the his­tory of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion,” the Rev. Ron­nie Floyd said to ex­tended ap­plause. “I be­lieve that every one of us need to thank God for this mo­ment.”

Floyd, who serves as pres­i­dent and CEO of the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee and was pas­tor of North­west Arkansas’ Cross Church from 1986 un­til May, a month af­ter his elec­tion to the national con­ven­tion, said Tues­day was the third time the con­ven­tion has amended its con­sti­tu­tion this cen­tury and that those amend­ments ad­dressed crit­i­cal is­sues of the day.

“May this world know that the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion stands against all forms of sex­ual abuse,” Floyd said. “And may this world know that this con­ven­tion of churches … have given a clear sig­nal not only about what we be­lieve about sex­ual abuse, but we also stand against all eth­nic dis­crim­i­na­tion in the United States and around the world.”

J.D. Greear, the con­ven­tion’s pres­i­dent, com­mit­ted mul­ti­ple com­po­nents of this year’s con­ven­tion to ad­dress­ing sex­ual abuse in the church. Shortly af­ter be­ing elected in 2018 to lead this year’s con­ven­tion, Greear com­mis­sioned a group of out­side ex­perts and church lead­ers to study sex­ual abuse in the church. A report re­leased Satur­day de­tailed find­ings in­clud­ing the ac­knowl­edg­ment of a long his­tory of wide­spread abuse and the ways in which the church has failed the vic­tims.

There are now 14.8 mil­lion mem­bers of the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, the low­est num­ber of mem­bers in the past 30 years, and Greear noted on Mon­day that 1 in 10 people un­der 35 have left the de­nom­i­na­tion’s churches be­cause of sex­ual abuse-re­lated is­sues. Some Bap­tists wor­ried that con­cerns about los­ing more mem­bers have been at odds with a will­ing­ness to face the is­sue of sex­ual abuse, and some have ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that ac­tion won’t fol­low the talk that change needs to hap­pen.

The more than 8,100 del­e­gates at the meet­ing approved the amend­ments two days af­ter a report from The New York Times that de­tailed the mis­han­dling of sex­ual-abuse al­le­ga­tions in a South­ern Bap­tist megachurch in Texas.

Kathy Lit­ton, a di­rec­tor for the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion’s North Amer­i­can Mis­sion Board, was elected by a ra­zor-thin mar­gin — with 50.49% of the vote — to be its next reg­is­tra­tion sec­re­tary, a role that re­quires her in part to han­dle and re­view del­e­ga­tion cre­den­tials, but which has a new di­men­sion be­cause of the vote to create the stand­ing com­mit­tee. She is the first woman in sev­eral years to serve in the role.

“For the past sev­eral terms, [the role] has been oc­cu­pied by a brother who is a good, godly, faith­ful and qual­i­fied brother,” said the Rev. Jimmy Scrog­gins of Florida while nom­i­nat­ing Lit­ton. “But be­cause the is­sues fac­ing us right now are so sensitive, and be­cause this mo­ment is so pow­er­ful, I be­lieve it would be good to have a woman’s voice to speak from this seat.

“[The vote] seems like al­most a non­event, it seems like a vote of lit­tle con­se­quence — but this year it re­ally mat­ters.”

The votes fol­lowed on the heels of Greear’s an­nounce­ment Mon­day that the faith’s pub­lic-pol­icy arm, the Ethics & Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion, and LifeWay Chris­tian Re­sources have teamed up to create the Car­ing Well Ini­tia­tive — one that’s ded­i­cated to equip­ping churches to be a safe place and that cares for abuse sur­vivors.

The com­mis­sion is re­leas­ing for free to con­gre­ga­tion lead­ers the video-based cur­ricu­lum “Be­com­ing a Church that Cares Well on Abuse,” de­signed to train church lead­ers on re­lated is­sues, such as how to han­dle dis­clo­sure and care for sur­vivors.

“This is not a distractio­n from the mis­sion,” Greear said with re­gard to han­dling sex­ual abuse as a de­nom­i­na­tion. “This is the mis­sion.”

Rachael Den­hol­lan­der, the first per­son to pub­licly ac­cuse Olympic team doctor Larry Nas­sar of sex­ual abuse, said Mon­day dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion along­side Greear that words not fol­lowed by ac­tions are worse than say­ing noth­ing at all.

“Where the rub­ber is go­ing to meet the road is what the [con­ven­tion] does [Tues­day],” said Den­hol­lan­der, who spoke about the Fe­bru­ary report Greear re­leased, which states that 10 churches were in dan­ger of be­ing ex­pelled from the de­nom­i­na­tion for mis­han­dling abuse.

Within days, seven of the churches were cleared by the con­ven­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee as not need­ing any re­view, a de­ci­sion that Den­hol­lan­der said was ei­ther the re­sult of lead­ers be­ing “not qual­i­fied to make this de­ci­sion” or “an in­tent to un­der­mine what [Greear] had done.”

“There’s great skep­ti­cism in the survivor com­mu­nity about how the [con­ven­tion] is go­ing to have to turn [into ac­tion] these grand words that we are speak­ing,” Den­hol­lan­der said.

Su­san Codone, a Ge­or­gia col­lege pro­fes­sor and fel­low panel mem­ber, spoke for the first time pub­licly about sex­ual abuse she ex­pe­ri­enced from the age of 14 from a new youth pas­tor. Eigh­teen months into the abuse, Codone — afraid to tell her par­ents about what was hap­pen­ing to her — de­cided that she could trust the church’s lead pas­tor.

When Codone spoke with the pas­tor, she was blamed, pressed for details about the abuse, and later si­lenced un­der threat of death, she said. The youth pas­tor who abused her went on to serve churches in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., un­til his death in 2017, she said.

“When I look back on what’s hap­pened in our de­nom­i­na­tion over the 35 years since [the abuse] oc­curred, I don’t see a lot of change in how things are handled,” Codone said. “I don’t see a lot of change in how of­ten these things hap­pen.”

Panel mem­ber Beth Moore, au­thor and founder of Liv­ing Proof Min­istries in Hous­ton, likened the abuse she ex­pe­ri­enced from im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers to that oc­cur­ring in the fam­ily she con­sid­ers the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion to be.

“Not ev­ery­body in [my] fam­ily was an abuser and not ev­ery­body was abused,” Moore said. But be­cause there was abuse in the fam­ily and there was an abuser in the fam­ily, she said, their whole fam­ily was sick.

“And what I want to say to my own fam­ily of South­ern Bap­tists [is], our fam­ily is sick … and it’s got to change. Maybe you’re not the abuser or the abused, but you’re in a fam­ily where it’s hap­pen­ing ram­pantly. Our fam­ily is sick; how do we get well?”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/FRANCISCA JONES

Rachael Den­hol­lan­der (sec­ond from left) speaks out on sex­ual abuse in the South­ern Bap­tist Church dur­ing a fo­rum Mon­day in Birm­ing­ham, Ala. At left is Phillip Bethancour­t, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Ethics and Re­li­gious Com­mis­sion, the church’s faith pol­icy arm. South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion Pres­i­dent J.D. Greear (third from left) and Su­san Codone, a Birm­ing­ham na­tive who was abused as a teen by a pas­tor at her South­ern Bap­tist church, take part in the dis­cus­sion.

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