‘World watching’ as Southern Baptists meet
Church leaders have vowed to confront the sex abuse crisis. Will they take action this week?
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For months, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have said they must respond more aggressively to protect victims of sexual abuse within their 47,000 member churches. This week in Alabama — and with “the world watching,” as one official said — they’ll put forward multiple reforms aimed at a burgeoning crisis.
Among the actions that may be taken at the SBC’s annual meeting in Birmingham are expanding a current SBC committee and empowering it to field complaints about local churches’ handling of sexual abuse. The SBC also is expected to address statute of limitations laws in abuse cases, though the details were unclear Monday evening as delegates continued to arrive.
In February, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed that some 380 Southern Baptist church leaders or volunteers had abused at least 700 people — mostly children — in the last two decades.
The investigation, “Abuse of Faith,” prompted SBC President J.D. Greear to call for inquiries into 10 churches, though most have since been cleared by an SBC committee. The investigation also spurred a new law in Texas, apologies from a leading Southern Baptist figure for his support of a church accused of concealing abuses, and the dismissal of multiple churches that were pastored by convicted sex offenders. » To read our investigation and see our online database, go to: houstonchronicle.com/AbuseofFaith
In subsequent reporting, the Chronicle found dozens of additional cases and victims, including those who say their abuses by Southern Baptist missionaries were mishandled or ignored by leaders at the International Mission Board.
In Birmingham, delegates from SBC churches – known as “messengers” – will vote on an amendment to the SBC’s constitution that would explicitly state that any church employing a sex offender or having shown a disregard for sexual abuses is not eligible for cooperation with the broader convention of 47,000 churches.
That proposal would need to pass with two-thirds of a vote for two consecutive years, which is why SBC officials are also pursuing a more immediate fix: expanding the powers of its “credentials” committee, which determines if churches have met the basic criteria for sending delegates to the annual meeting. Typically, it focuses on whether churches have donated to the SBC’s national giving program, or have endorsed homosexuality or the ordination of women, both of which are against the SBC bylaws.
The Credentials Committee would be staffed year-round to “make inquiries” into churches’ handling of sexual abuse. Leaders say the proposal would foster transparency and accountability, though some members of the SBC’s Executive Committee said Monday that they were concerned that the reforms would increase the SBC’s liability in sex abuse lawsuits.
One official also proposed an amendment to stress that churches must conduct background checks of employees to qualify for SBC membership. That amendment floundered, to the dismay of activists and others who have called for more comprehensive reforms.
Some of those activists also fear that the proposed Credentials Committee does not go far enough in preventing conflicts of interest between churches and the SBC’s Executive Committee, which would review the Credential Committee’s findings and make final decisions on pushing a church out of the SBC.
Similar concerns were voiced in February, when an Executive Committee subgroup ended most of the 10 church inquiries requested by Greear only a week before. A pastor of one of those churches later said that he had received support and apologies from Augie Boto, who was at the time interim president of the Executive Committee. The chairman of the subgroup that ended the inquiries later resigned in part because of what he called “unfair” critiques of the decision.
Activists and survivors have said the SBC must reconcile its past failures and downplaying that the denomination faces a crisis. They also have again requested the creation of a database to track church leaders who have been credibly accused of sex abuse, though SBC leaders have said that such a proposal is unlikely to get serious consideration in Birmingham.
On Tuesday, survivors and activists will also conduct a rally outside the SBC meeting. The group coordinating it, For Such a Time As This, have asked to be officially involved with the SBC’s meeting but have been denied access because of what SBC officials have said were logistical issues.
The rally organizers said that they had asked for months to be a part of the meeting and that their exclusion raises questions about the SBC’s sincerity on dealing with sexual abuse.
“Despite their statements of purported ‘caring,’ SBC representatives refused access to this large public area forcing the rally to make plans to meet on smaller sidewalks,” the group said in a statement.
Reconciling the past
On Monday, attorneys with a Virginia law firm added the SBC, the Baptist General Association of Virginia and a regional Baptist group called the Petersburg Baptist Association to a civil lawsuit that seeks $82 million in damages on behalf of eight alleged victims of former youth leader Jeffrey Dale Clark.
Clark is currently in Virginia prison after pleading guilty in 2016 to at least seven counts of aggravated sexual battery, Virginia court records show. According to the criminal and civil files, at least 10 people have claimed to be his victims, all former members of his youth group.
The lawsuit, which cites findings from the newspapers’ investigation about how other Southern Baptist churches knowingly employed leaders accused of sexual abuse, alleges Clark went to molest multiple victims after church officials who supervised Clark failed to investigate a child’s complaint first made against the youth leader in 2009.
The SBC’s 2018 meeting was similarly dominated by discussions of sexual abuse, including scandals involving two of its most prominent figures: Paige Patterson, who was ousted as a seminary president over allegations that he mishandled a student’s abuse claim, and Paul Pressler, the former Texas state judge who in court records has been accused of sex abuse or misconduct by multiple men.
SBC leaders subsequently launched a sexual abuse advisory group that has offered churches guidance, as well as new training tools for local churches. Unlike in other religious groups, SBC leaders cannot interfere in most of the affairs of local churches, and any wide-ranging reform would first face a vote from church delegates.
Those delegates are also able to make motions at the SBC’s meeting Tuesday, including requests that churches face inquiries for their handling of sexual abuse.
David Platt speaks at the Pastors’ Conference on the eve of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Ala.
Phillip Bethancourt, from left, Brad Hambrick, Mary DeMuth, Samantha Kilpatrick and Nathan Lino discuss the abuse crisis.
People look for books at tables set up by LifeWay Christian Resources at the BirminghamJefferson Convention Complex on Monday, the eve of the Southern Baptist Convention’s meeting.
SBC leaders J.D. Greear, from left, Ronnie Floyd and Mike Stone pray during an Executive Committee meeting on Monday.