The Washington Post
Southern Baptists’ reckoning
Real reform is required to address sexual abuse within the churches.
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.