By Joe Sutton, Keith Allen and Emma Tucker, CNN
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) mishandled allegations of sexual abuse, intimidated victims and their advocates, and resisted attempts at reform over the course of two decades, according to an explosive report released Sunday by a third-party firm.
“Survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action,” the report found, “even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
According to the report on the investigation conducted by Guidepost Solutions, survivors of abuse and other persons within the Southern Baptist community contacted the SBC Executive Committee (EC) to make them aware of child molestation and other forms of abuse committed by people employed by the church as well as those who were at the pulpit, but were met with inaction.
“This is huge. There were many who told us we were wrong to say that sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention is a crisis, said Russell Moore, a theologian and columnist for Christianity Today, in an interview with CNN’s Tom Foreman on Monday. “This report reveals that crisis is too small of a word. This is an apocalypse, an unveiling, a meltdown.”
In a statement, the SBC said in part: “To the members of the survivor community, we are grieved by the findings of this investigation. We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks.”
The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with an estimated 14 million members across more than 47,000 churches. Last year, its members voted during the organization’s convention in Nashville to approve a task force to supervise an independent investigation following accusations and stories of abuse that had been featured in the media.
The investigative firm combed through documents and interviewed current and former EC staff, trustees, witnesses and sexual abuse survivors. In total, approximately 330 people were interviewed, the report noted. The investigation targeted the period between January 1, 2000, and June 14, 2021. Here’s what it found.
Report: Top priority was avoiding liability
The report lays out a timeline of the SBC Executive Committee’s response to sexual abuse issues from 2000 to 2021.
The EC is governed by 86 trustees who serve limited terms. During the SBC’s own internal investigation, decisions regarding sexual abuse were “largely left to the discretion” of the executive committee president and chief executive officer as well as his closest advisors on staff, with “high-level issues” brought to the SBC president, according to the report. It said the trustees were not informed nor involved in the decision-making process.
As a result, the report says, the SBC’s response to sexual abuse allegations over the course of two decades was largely driven “by a small cadre of staff” as well as its outside lawyers.
“Abuse allegations were often mishandled in a manner that involved the mistreatment of survivors,” the report said, adding that the primary concern of the staff and SBC’s law firm “was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.”
The report highlighted that a list started as early as 2007 was maintained by an EC staff member who had been documenting reports of abuse for more than a decade; however, there was no indication that EC staff “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”
The most recent list that was prepared by the staff member “contained the names of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time,” according to the report. As part of its review, the Guidepost Solutions investigative team found nine people accused of abuse remain in active ministry or connected to active ministry, two of whom appear to be associated with an SBC church.
Numerous accounts included in the timeline indicate some within the EC leadership tried to minimize or ignore the allegations to protect SBC’s reputation and “avoid the risk of legal liability for sexual abuse” at its churches.
The victims who sought to shed light on the issues were considered “opportunistic,” or having a “hidden agenda of lawsuits,” or “acting as a ‘professional victim,'” the report went on to say.
The organization’s communications arm, Baptist Press, also aided in shunning accusers to make them appear in an “unflattering light and mischaracterize allegations of abuse,” the report said.
“We now know that the very people who were saying that there could be no database — legally or in terms of Baptist policy — knew that there could be and were keeping a kind of shadow database themselves, not to protect victims but to protect themselves,” said Moore, the Christianity Today columnist.
One of the senior leaders named in the investigation was former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who was reported by a SBC pastor and his wife to have sexually assaulted her on July 25, 2010, according to the report.
Hunt responded to the report’s claim on Twitter by saying in part, “To put it bluntly: I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report. I have never abused anybody.”
The report said investigators found the sexual assault allegation credible, in part because it was corroborated by witnesses. CNN has reached out to Hunt for further comment.
The timeline of events shows, the report says, how “the derogatory attitude to survivors by some EC members continued into 2021.”
Changes will require ‘significant amount of work’
Guidepost Solutions proposed recommendations to improve how the SBC responds to sexual abuse and misconduct allegations.
“Some recommendations will require a significant amount of work, while other elements recognize the need for education and cultural change. A comprehensive implementation of these recommendations should help to create safe spaces for children and all members of the Convention,” the report said.
The recommendations include:
- Creating and maintaining an “Offender Information System” database to alert communities to known offenders.
- Establishing an independent commission and, later, a permanent administrative entity to oversee comprehensive reforms.
- Providing a “Resource Toolbox” that includes protocols, training, education and practical information.
- Restricting the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements that require confidentiality.
- Acknowledging those affected through a sincere apology and tangible gesture, accompanied by dedicated survivor advocacy support and a compensation fund.
“Frankly, there has to be more than just structural reform, there’s a cultural problem here that has to be addressed,” Moore said. “I’m talking about a culture that could allow this kind of intimidation and harassment and retaliation against innocent people. The sort of callous inhumanity that we could see in these reports. That will require not just bad people to be held accountable, although that’s true, but for good people to not look away.”
The SBC’s EC will hold a meeting Tuesday to address the report.
“We have requested the members and staff of the SBC Executive Committee to closely examine the findings and recommendations of this report and begin formulating how they might be incorporated into Southern Baptist Convention polity and structure,” the SBC statement said.
The 2022 SBC Annual Meeting will be held next month in Anaheim, California.
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