Sexual abuse scandal in Southern Baptist churches
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On February 10, 2019, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published an investigative report into widespread sexual abuse within member churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The report found since 1998, roughly 380 clergy, lay leaders and volunteers had faced allegations of sexual misconduct, leaving behind over 700 victims. The extent of misconduct is further complicated by work within the Southern Baptist Convention to move sex offenders to other communities and resist attempts to address the culture of abuse.
Allegations of sexual misconduct are not a new development within the Southern Baptist Convention.
One of the biggest bombshells of the investigative report was the complicity of Baptist leadership in covering up allegations and moving offenders to other communities, all while facing some of their own allegations of indecency. The report by the Chronicle and Express-News said that at least ten Southern Baptist churches welcomed pastors, ministers and volunteers who had been charged with sexual misconduct, many of whom were registered sex offenders. Pastors Leslie Mason, Michael Lee Jones and Joseph S. Ratliff all continued to work as religious figures after allegations of sexual misconduct. Darrell Gilyard, who received multiple allegations of sexual assault, served three years in prison for child molestation before returning to the pulpit at Christ Tabernacle Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.
Paul Pressler, former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was accused by Toby Twining and Brooks Schott of sexual misconduct in separate court affidavits. Both men said Pressler molested or solicited them for sex. The accusations were filed as part of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. claiming he was regularly raped by the Conservative leader. Rollins met Pressler in high school and was part of a Bible study Pressler led. Rollins claims he was raped two to three times a month while at Pressler's home. According to the Chronicle, Pressler agreed in 2004 to pay $450,000 to Rollins for physical assault.
In the 2018 Chronicle report, Toby Twining was a teenager in 1977 when Pressler grabbed his penis in a sauna at Houston's River Oaks Country Club. Pressler was a youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston but was ousted in 1978 after church officials received information about "an alleged incident." Attorney Brooks Schott also stated in an affidavit that he resigned his position at Pressler's former law firm after Pressler invited him to get into a hot tub with him naked. Brooks also accused Jared Woodfill, Pressler's longtime law partner who from 2002 to 2014 was chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, of failing to prevent Pressler's sexual advances toward him and others claiming his indiscretions were well-known at the firm.
Former SBC president Paige Patterson has also been accused on multiple occasions of covering up abuse. Patterson was accused of ignoring the claims of sexual assault from Pastor Darrell Gilyard, who was later jailed for multiple accounts of child sexual abuse. Patterson was named in the lawsuit against Paul Pressler for helping Pressler cover up the abuse. Patterson was removed from his position as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after wanting to meet with a rape survivor so he could "break her down".
Some survivors of sexual assault were asked to get abortions for children that were conceived during encounters with clergy, a policy that runs contrary to established Baptist dogma on the issue. Many were shunned from their communities.
Attempts at reform
Survivors of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention called on leadership to take a more proactive stance against sexual abuse in 2008, but their proposed reforms were rejected by leadership.
Wade Burleson, a prominent Southern Baptist leader in Oklahoma called for a database of sexual predators within the denomination multiple times. In 2007, Burleson recommended the creation of a database to track sexually abusive ministers. The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention eventually denied Burleson's motion, stating that it would be impossible to ensure that all convicted sexual predators who ever had a connection with a Baptist church would be included in such a database. Time magazine reported that the denial of Burleson's motion was one of "The 10 Most Under-Reported National Stories of 2008.[better source needed]
In 2018, Burleson again proposed at the annual Southern Baptist Convention that the Convention establish a predator database. In response to the motion, new SBC President J.D. Greear and the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee announced the formation of a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group. The working group will “consider how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernible action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse." It will also make recommendations for creating safe environments in churches and institutions.
As part of the Chronicle's report, investigative reporter Robert Downen interviewed Burleson about his database proposal being rejected by SBC leaders, quoting Burleson as saying, ""There's a known problem, but it's too messy to deal with. It's not that we can't do it as much as we don't want to do it. ... To me, that's a problem. You must want to do it, to do it."
One of the key internal issues that the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention point to in their inability to address allegations of sexual misconduct is the principle of local church autonomy. Unlike other Christian denominations, the SBC does not nationally ordain or license clergy; only individual congregations have that authority (which includes the authority to revoke such). As such, the national office has no authority to force churches to report or register sexual misconduct or to revoke licensure or ordination of a guilty party (the only action that the national office can take is to disfellowship a congregation). When Burleson lobbied for the creation of a sex-offender database within the denomination, the Executive Committee said Burleson's recommendation would violate the autonomy of Southern Baptist churches, stating the convention does not have any authority to require local churches to report instances of alleged sexual abuse to their local association, the state Baptist convention, or the national convention.
An additional issue revolves around local autonomy and clergy themselves. "Most pastors are ordained locally after they've convinced a small group of church elders that they've been called to service by God," which leads to a lack of oversight into the background of figures who are ordained.
On 12 June 2019, during their annual meeting, SBC delegates, who assembled that year in Birmingham, Alabama, approved a resolution condemning sex abuse and establishing a special committee to investigate sex abuse, which will make it easier for SBC churches to be expelled from the Convention. The Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., called the move a "defining moment." Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC's executive committee, echoed Greear's remarks, describing the vote as "a very, very significant moment in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen and John Tedesco began their work on this story in 2018, searching news archives, websites and Sex offender databases to compile an archival list of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations. The reporters confined their research focus to the ten years preceding the first call by victims for a registry in 2007 and the ten years after that call. After examining hundreds of court records and testimony from over 20 states, the results found 380 credibly accused figures within Southern Baptist-affiliated churches. Of these cases, about "220 had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals and sent letters to all of them soliciting their responses to summaries we compiled. We received written responses from more than 30 and interviewed three in Texas prisons. Of the 220, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders."
Leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention quickly responded to the report. J. D. Greear, current president of the Convention, described the abuses "pure evil" and called for "pervasive change" within the denomination, including cooperation with local authorities on investigations and support for survivors. Greear also admitted the church's failure in listening to victims and addressing their concerns. Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission within the church, called the allegations "alarming and scandalous", saying that "nothing is worse than the use of the name of Jesus to prey on the vulnerable, or to use the name of Jesus to cover up such crimes". Moore called out the policy of local church autonomy, saying in a blog post on his website that "church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability". Moore announced the Convention's "Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group, assigned with investigating all options and reviewing what other denominations and groups have done to keep track of abuses, while hearing from law enforcement, psychological and psychiatric experts, survivors, and many others".
Sexual abuse survivors and advocates responded quickly to the report. Rachael Denhollander, one of the whistleblowers on the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal tweeted expressing no shock at the allegations. "The worst part is that we have known for years... no one wanted to listen. It did not matter enough to investigate and act" she wrote. Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement, and actor Terry Crews publicized the findings on their Twitter accounts.
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