Lack of Central Authority Poses Challenges for Southern Baptists Amid Abuse Scandal
Texas newspapers published a three-part investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, uncovering at least 700 cases.
HOUSTON — In the wake of months of sexual-abuse reports and allegations within the Catholic Church, and just before a Vatican summit on the problem, two Texas newspapers published a three-part investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, uncovering at least 700 cases of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and volunteers.
The joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed that, since 1998, around 380 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders and volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct — some resulting in lawsuits and convictions and others in personal confessions and resignations.
“They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions,” the Houston Chronicle reported. “About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.”
In many ways, the scandal resembles that of the Catholic Church abuse scandals: children robbed of innocence, pastors abusing their positions of trust and authority, negligence and lack of appropriate, timely action on the part of some leadership once they were informed of abuse, and the shuffling of accused pastors from church to church.
But one thing makes the SBC scandal even more difficult to track, report and handle than that of the Catholic Church: the lack of centralized leadership within the convention, making the enforcement of reforms nearly impossible.
“It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and, bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister,” said Christa Brown, an activist who wrote about her own experience being molested by a SBC pastor.
“Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church,” she told the Houston Chronicle.
“It’s a porous sieve of a denomination,” she added.
Linda Kay Klein is an author who researches and critiques so-called purity culture in evangelical ecclesical communities, like the one in which she grew up. She also blamed the SBC’s lack of centralized authority as part of the problem of controlling abuses within the denomination.
“Sexual abuse was never just a Catholic problem. But unlike the Catholic structure, evangelical churches like the one I grew up in and have spent the past 13 years researching are largely self-governing. This means we’ve mostly lacked the kind of bureaucratic record that might prove systemic abuse the way it’s been documented in Catholic dioceses,” she wrote in an essay for NBC News.
Furthermore, she said, “purity culture” can force victims of sexual abuse into silence, out of shame: “Meanwhile, when women and girls come forward as survivors, purity culture — which focuses largely on them — can be used against them,” she wrote.
“Many of my interviewees and I were taught that men are weak when faced with the temptation of the female flesh, and it was therefore our responsibility to protect men from the threat that our bodies posed to them. We had to walk, talk and dress just right to ensure the alleged purity of our entire community, safeguarding against all sexual expression outside of marriage: the implication being that anything that did happen, even sexual violence, was our fault.”
In a post on his ministry website following the reports, J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that while the numbers of abuse victims are “grievously large ... they cannot be the whole story.”
“If you have been victimized by a church leader, we are profoundly sorry. We, the church, have failed you,” he said.
“There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable,” he added in a blog post on the site. The post also included six steps for getting help in the case of sexual abuse, including an affirmation that abuse is not the victim’s fault, and links to abuse hotlines and Christian counseling websites.
Yet the SBC has rejected proposals for a sex-offender registry that churches can reference before hiring leaders or volunteers, because, as church leaders told the Texas newspapers, enforcement would be impossible due to local church autonomy.
In an essay about the abuse scandal published on his website, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, proposed that SBC congregations undergo independent, third-party investigations.
“In light of this report and the nature of sexual abuse, an independent, third-party investigation is the only credible avenue for any organizations that face the kind of sinful patterns unearthed in this article by the Houston Chronicle,” he wrote. “No Christian body, church or denomination can investigate itself on these terms because such an investigation requires a high level of thoroughness and trustworthiness. Only a third-party investigator can provide that kind of objective analysis.”
Mohler lamented that “the SBC ecclesial structure directly contrasts with the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church,” making reforms difficult to enforce. SBC churches are united only by “friendly cooperation with and contributing to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he noted.
“This report from the Houston Chronicle, however, magnifies the need for a mechanism that identifies convicted and documented sexual abusers who may be considered for positions of leadership within the churches,” he wrote.
Mohler recalled that, in the past, the SBC has made reforms and “excised” churches that did not conform to those parameters and were thus no longer in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC. For example, he noted, churches that affirm homosexuality are now no longer considered in cooperation with the SBC, nor are churches with demonstrated racism.
In addition to using the civil safeguards already in place, such as reporting abuse accusations and referencing sex-offender registries, Mohler suggested the SBC similarly “excise” those churches that tolerate and harbor abusers.
“Now, it might be that this crisis will foster a new criterion of vital importance for the churches of the SBC — a church that would willingly and knowingly harbor sexual abuse and sexual abusers should not be considered in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. This would not compromise church autonomy, he said, but would still allow the SBC to determine which churches are in cooperation with it.
Mohler also condemned the “lackadaisical ordination” of ministers by local churches and urged all churches to take responsibility for the men they make ministers.
“The trauma of this story bears tremendous anguish and heartbreak. The SBC and all who love this denomination must pray for faithfulness on this vital issue — our usefulness for the kingdom of Christ hinges on our response to this horrifying reality,” he added.
“To be sure, there must be heartbreak and concern — that is a place to start, but work must be done. A long road lies ahead. For the church, for the gospel, for the glory of God, we must meet this challenge with fullness of conviction and fidelity to Jesus Christ.”