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Southern Baptist Leaders Mishandled Sex Abuse Crisis, Report Alleges

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Executives of the nation's largest Protestant denomination ignored victims, resisted reforms and were concerned with avoiding 'potential liability,' the third-party investigation says.

A session of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Nashville, in June 2021.Credit...Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

May 22, 2022

National leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention suppressed reports of sexual abuse and resisted proposals for reform over two decades, according to a third-party investigation published by the convention Sunday. The report also said that a former president of the denomination was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2010, a claim the report described as "credible."

Sexual abuse allegations, and the church's handling of them, have roiled the convention for years. After mounting pressure from survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist settings, delegates at the denomination's annual meeting last summer voted overwhelmingly to commission the report, and demanded that its 86-member executive committee hand over confidential documents in cooperation. The report covers abuse reports from women and children against male pastors, church employees and officials from the year 2000 to the present.

The release of the report represents an extraordinary moment for Southern Baptists, the country's largest Protestant denomination. As the group nears its annual gathering in June, its conservative membership, which has fallen to its lowest count in four decades, remains sharply divided by debates over race, gender and politics.

The denomination's president, Ed Litton, whose term expires in June and who is not running for re-election, said in an interview on Sunday night that what he read in the report was "far worse" than anything he had anticipated. "We knew it was coming," he said, but "it still is very challenging and surprising — shocking — to have to face these realities."

The denomination has long emphasized that its decentralized structure meant it had little ability to force churches to take any action, because legally each church stood alone and did not report to higher authorities. But the report alleged that a handful of powerful leaders had the ability to stonewall abuse reports and attempts at accountability and reform.

It also found a pattern of intimidating survivors of sexual assault and their advocates, and said they were "denigrated as 'opportunists.'"

In an internal email, August Boto, an influential executive committee leader, described advocates' efforts as a "satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism," referring to the work of Christa Brown, a survivor, and the advocate Rachael Denhollander, who has worked with the denomination, as "the devil being temporarily successful." Mr. Boto could not be reached immediately for comment.

The report, which was conducted by Guidepost Solutions, stated that over the past two decades, "many reform efforts were met with resistance, typically due to concerns over incurring legal liability." The Times did not independently verify the contents of the report.

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Christa Brown speaking during a rally in Birmingham, Ala., outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in 2019.Credit...Julie Bennett/Associated Press

A proposal in 2007 to keep track of accused sex offenders was rejected in 2008 on the grounds it interfered with individual church autonomy, the report said, even though an outside counsel had suggested it could be done in keeping with denominational structure.

The report also revealed that an executive committee staff member working for Mr. Boto had, for more than 10 years, maintained a detailed list of ministers accused of abuse. But no one "took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches," the report stated. The most recent list, it added, contained the names of hundreds of alleged abusers affiliated with the denomination at some time. Investigators reviewed the same list and reported that it appears nine people remain at least connected to work in a ministry setting, including two connected with a Southern Baptist church.

It said that leaders including Ronnie Floyd, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who resigned as the head of the executive committee in October, had resisted the creation of a task force to investigate the executive committee. Mr. Floyd did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The report described revelations in recent years that senior leaders had "protected or even supported abusers." The leaders included three former presidents of the denomination, Steve Gaines, Jack Graham and Paige Patterson, as well as a former vice president and Mr. Boto, a former executive committee interim president and general counsel. A spokesman for Prestonwood Baptist Church, where Mr. Graham is pastor, said the church "categorically denies" the way the report characterizes an incident under his leadership in which it alleged Mr. Graham quietly dismissed an accused abuser on his staff rather than contacting police. Mr. Gaines and Mr. Patterson could not be immediately reached for comment.

During the course of Guidepost's investigation, the report said, a pastor and his wife came forward to allege that Johnny Hunt, who was president of the denomination from 2008 to 2010, had sexually assaulted the wife shortly after his presidency ended. The report described the pastor and his wife as "credible," and said that parts of their account were corroborated by four other credible witnesses.

Mr. Hunt denied the accusations to Guidepost, but he resigned this month from the denomination's North American Mission Board. Mr. Hunt did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

When the denomination's public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, compiled a report on sexual abuse, leaders of the executive committee and outside counsel "suggested changes to the report to avoid potential liability, including removing the word 'crisis' when referring to sexual abuse," the report stated.

The report comes weeks before the convention's annual meeting and is likely to send shock waves through its nearly 14 million members.

"This report is horrifying. The number of lives decimated by those who claim to follow Jesus is almost beyond comprehension," said Boz Tchividjian, an attorney who specializes in representing survivors of abuse in faith settings. "Perhaps it's time for the SBC to be no more."

"People's lives have been absolutely decimated," said Ms. Brown, a longtime advocate for reform in the denomination who said she had spent Sunday afternoon reading and processing the report. "That part of it just breaks my heart."

Ms. Brown said she was sexually abused by a youth minister at her Southern Baptist church when she was 16. He later moved on to another church in the denomination. Ms. Brown began alerting leaders in the denomination to her treatment in 2004, but they took no action, she said. At a 2007 meeting of the executive committee observed by Ms. Brown, a member referred to her as a "a person of no integrity."

Ms. Brown said she was glad to see the publication of the report, which validates so many claims of survivors. But, she added, "All of this could have been prevented."

Leaders of the executive committee said in a statement that they would hold a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the report.

"To the members of the survivor community, we are grieved by the findings of this investigation," said Rolland Slade, the group's chairman, and Willie McLaurin, the group's interim president. "This is the beginning of a season of listening, lamenting, and learning how to address sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention."

The report recommended actions for future reforms. Those steps included the creation of an offender information system "to alert the community to known offenders" that could be made available to churches on "a voluntary basis," and the creation of an abuse-prevention program for churches and other Baptist entities, which would also be voluntary.

The report also recommended that the Southern Baptists eventually create a new administrative group that would oversee "comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct," and that church entities should restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements that demand confidentiality unless requested by the survivor. It also suggested that the committee that currently handles abuse allegations improve its procedures to become more transparent.

Luke Vander Ploeg contributed reporting.

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