The Washington Post

Southern Baptists’ reckoning

Real reform is required to address sexual abuse within the churches.

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ADECADE ago, Southern Baptists who had been sexually abused, often as children, by pastors or others in their churches pressed denominati­onal leaders to create a registry of abusers. They were rebuffed. Heedless of the callous, indifferen­t response to similar stories by the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention — the nation’s largest Protestant denominati­on, with 15 million members and more than 47,000 churches — insisted its hands were tied because individual congregati­ons were autonomous.

That was a dodge. In fact, the SBC, even while lacking a formal hierarchy, had expelled churches that tolerated homosexual­ity or ordained female pastors. Yet when it came to sexual misconduct that victimized the most vulnerable, denominati­onal authoritie­s pleaded impotence in the face of evil.

The convention’s passivity yielded a crop of fresh victims. An investigat­ion by two Texas newspapers, published this year, found evidence of more than 700 cases of abuse allegedly perpetrate­d by some 380 church leaders and volunteers since 1998. Now, as the denominati­on’s annual meeting begins in Birmingham, Ala., its president, J.D. Greear, says addressing the allegation­s is the “pressing need of the hour.”

Mr. Greear’s diagnosis is correct; the test is whether the SBC — which lost members at a rate of more than 9,000 monthly from 2005 to 2018 — can devise an effective strategy to ensure that churchgoer­s are safe from abuse.

The accounts in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News of rape, molestatio­n and other misconduct were stunning in scope and detail; so was the insistent indifferen­ce of Southern Baptist officials, who routinely turned a blind eye toward victims, sometimes enabling their abuse by allowing abusers to move to new churches and prey on new targets. The newspapers identified about three dozen individual­s who continued working in church communitie­s, often with access to children, even after they been accused of sexual misconduct.

The overwhelmi­ng evidence of the convention’s tolerance for predators prompted calls for sweeping reforms, including mandatory background checks and more systematic education programs for pastors and other church officials. The SBC’s executive committee has endorsed changes to the convention’s constituti­on that would more explicitly allow for the expulsion of churches that displayed “indifferen­ce” to instances of sexual abuse.

It remains unclear, however, whether an individual church that refused to participat­e in the compilatio­n of a database of abusers would be guilty of such “indifferen­ce.” To date, the only such database of SBC abusers has been compiled not by the convention

but by the Chronicle and the News-Express, which have published it online. It contains 260-plus names of church officials and volunteers who have been convicted or credibly accused of abuse; nearly all are men.

It is also unclear whether the SBC will press to make funds available for survivors of abuse, who may be dealing with physical or psychologi­cal scars. It should do that and more — for example, by favoring changes in state statutes of limitation­s that may bar victims from bringing lawsuits against churches and abusers if the alleged incidents of abuse occurred many years earlier.

The Catholic Church, having minimized, dismissed and denied allegation­s of abuse until the evidence became overwhelmi­ng, offers a cautionary tale. Given those missteps, and the possibilit­y of more revelation­s about abuse in Southern Baptist congregati­ons, the denominati­on would be wise to be proactive about making amends and enacting tough reforms, lest its moral authority be tarnished as the Vatican’s has been.

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