A landmark investigation into hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches opened with a collage of pictures of the offenders, row after row of headshots and mugshots of men who had been accused of abusing a total of 700 victims over the past 20 years.
In Sunday’s report, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News were able to do what victims say the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has failed to for years: provide a picture of the extent of the abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention and a database of those found guilty of their crimes.
With allegations against 380 church leaders in 20 states (a majority of whom were convicted or took plea deals), it’s believed to be the biggest report on sexual abuse among Southern Baptists in the movement’s history. The report confronts the longstanding defense that the organization can only do so much to monitor abuse since affiliated congregations operate autonomously.
Another set of pictures captures a sense of the impact of abusers in Southern Baptist congregations. In response to the investigation, Southern Baptist women and fellow Christians shared childhood photos on Twitter from the age when they first suffered abuse.
Over the past couple years, the #MeToo campaign has raised awareness about abuse within the SBC and galvanized official efforts to improve the denomination’s response. Last December, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram rounded up more than 400 allegations among independent Baptists, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) executive vice president Philip Bethancourt wrote, “it would not be surprising if journalists are working on a similar type of story focused on Southern Baptist churches as well.”
That day has come. TheHouston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed in the first of a three-part series that more than 200 Southern Baptist abusers were convicted or took plea deals for their crimes since 1998, including 90 who remain in prison and 100 who are registered as sex offenders.
Even worse, “at least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades,” the reporters found. “In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.”
In response, Southern Baptist leaders and pastors have spoken even more frankly about the problem of abuse and reiterated their commitment to more rigorous, research-driven efforts launched last year to address the issue. SBC president J. D. Greear called the voices in the article “a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent.”
“The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse,” he said in a statement to CT. “As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must.”
During the 2018 scandal involving Paige Patterson’s response to abuse claims, top leaders in the denomination had already begun to see the extent of the problem among their own. “When people said that evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible—even to me,” wrote Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, comparing the situation within the SBC to the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. “I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.”
Last year’s annual meeting of the SBC came in the wake of Patterson’s departure and hosted prominent discussions of women and abuse. As incoming president, Greear formed a study group in partnership with the ERLC to examine sexual abuse in the denomination and improve resources for its leaders.
“Our approach is seeking to encourage policies and practices that protect children and the vulnerable from sexual abuse in autonomous but cooperating churches, all the while promoting compliance with laws and providing compassionate care for those who have survived trauma,” ERLC president Russell Moore wrote.
“True, we have no bishops. But we have a priesthood of believers. And a key task of that priesthood is maintaining the witness of Christ in the holiness and safety of his church. That means training churches to recognize sexual predation and how to deal with charges or suspicions when they emerge, and equipping churches to stop the pattern, in their church or from their church to others.”
In all, the SBC numbers 47,000 congregations and 15 million members.
Still, “it would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600” cases of abuse, Augie Boto, interim president of the SBC’s executive committee, told the Houston Chronicle. “What we're talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.”
Individual churches and pastors have described the abuse within the SBC in stark terms and pledged to bring it to light.
“It is clear from the article that these weren’t isolated cases. Instead, it reveals a pattern of abuse and cover-up that extends to some of the highest levels of leadership inside the SBC,” wrote the Sojourn Collective, a church network based in Louisville. “Christians should be thankful for reporting like this that exposes systemic sin; it’s the only way it can be purged out of our institutions.”
Texas pastor Bart Barber, who previously proposed a resolution for the SBC to decry sexual misconduct and institutions that tolerate it, has lamented the instinct to cover up or downplay abuse to preserve the church’s reputation.
“Any church the @HoustonChron has identified as employing a pastor with a history of sexual misconduct, if still employing that pastor in June and haven’t already left the SBC by then, should be disfellowshipped at that meeting,” tweeted Barber, of First Baptist Church of Farmersville. “I’m willing to stand up and make that motion.”
The newspaper reported that the SBC executive committee had previously said it would be “justified” to cut ties with affiliated churches that employed known sex offenders. Greear told the Houston Chronicle that any congregation with a “pattern of sinful neglect—regarding abuse or any other matter” should be removed from the SBC.
Last year, the SBC’s International Mission Board also launched an independent investigation of how it handled a 2007 abuse allegation.
The Texas newspapers’ investigation comes less than a week after the Today show featured abuse allegations against New Tribes Mission. CT had previously reported on efforts to investigate misconduct among the missionary organization.