(AP) — Leaders at the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, have blocked and vilified survivors of clergyman sexual abuse for nearly two decades while trying to protect their own reputations, according to a damning 288-page investigative report that was released on Sunday.
These survivors and other affected Southern Baptists repeatedly raised allegations with the SBC’s Executive Committee, “only to be met time and time again with resistance, deadlock and even open hostility from some within the EC,” the report said.
The seven-month investigation was conducted by Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm contracted by the Executive Committee after delegates at last year’s national meeting pushed for an outsider investigation.
“Our investigation found that for many years, some senior EC executives, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse… and focused solely on avoiding liability for the SBC,” the report reads.
“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or faced with the constant refrain that the SBC’s policy on church autonomy means it cannot take action — even if it can.” meant convicted molesters continued their ministry no notification or warning to their current church or community,” the report added.
The report alleges that an Executive Committee staffer kept a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, but there is no indication that anyone “took action to ensure that the accused pastors were no longer in positions of power in the SBC churches were”.
The latest list includes the names of hundreds of abusers believed to be connected to the SBC at some point. Survivors and advocates have long called for a public database of perpetrators.
SBC President Ed Litton said in a statement Sunday he was “deeply saddened” for the victims and thanked God for their work in pushing the SBC forward to this moment. He called on Southern Baptists to lament and prepare to change the denomination’s culture and implement reforms.
“I pray that today Southern Baptists will begin to prepare to take conscious action to address these failures and chart a new course as we meet in Anaheim,” Litton said, referring to the California city that will host the national meeting of the SBC on June 14th and 15th .
Among the main recommendations of the report:
— Form an independent commission and later establish a permanent management unit to oversee broad long-term reforms related to sex abuse and related misconduct within the SBC.
— Create and maintain a criminal information system to alert the community to known criminals.
— Providing a comprehensive resource toolbox with protocols, training, education and practical information.
— Restrict the use of non-disclosure agreements and civil settlements that bind survivors to confidentiality about sexual abuse matters, unless the survivors request it.
Executive Committee interim chairs Willie McLaurin and Rolland Slade welcomed the recommendations and pledged a comprehensive effort to eliminate sexual abuse within the SBC.
“We know there are no shortcuts,” they said. “We all must meet this challenge through careful and prayerful application, and we must do so with Christlike compassion.
The Executive Committee will hold a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss the report.
The sex abuse scandal was brought into the spotlight in 2019 by a landmark report by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that documented hundreds of cases in Southern Baptist churches, including several in which alleged abusers remained on duty.
Last year, thousands of delegates at the SBC national convention made it clear that they did not want the executive committee to oversee an investigation into its own actions. Instead, they voted overwhelmingly to create the task force tasked with overseeing third-party verification. Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, appointed the panel.
The task force was given a week to review the report before it was released. The task force’s recommendations, based on Guidepost’s findings, will be presented at the SBC meeting in Anaheim.
The report provides shocking details about how Johnny Hunt, a Georgia-based pastor and former SBC president, sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife while on a beach vacation in 2010. In an interview with investigators, Hunt denied any physical contact with the woman but admitted he had interactions with her.
On May 13, Hunt, senior vice president of evangelism and leadership at the North American Mission Board, SBC’s domestic missionary agency, resigned from that post, said Kevin Ezell, the organization’s president and CEO. Ezell said he was aware of “no alleged wrongdoing” by Hunt prior to May 13.
The report describes a meeting that Hunt arranged between the woman, her husband, Hunt and a consulting pastor a few days after the alleged attack. Hunt admitted to inappropriately touching the victim, but said, “Thank God I didn’t consummate the relationship.”
Among those who reacted strongly to the Guidepost report was Russell Moore, who used to head the SBC’s public policy wing but left the denomination after accusing top executive committee leaders of slacking off efforts to address the sex abuse crisis to have stopped.
“Crisis is too small a word. It’s an apocalypse,” Moore wrote for Christianity Today after reading the report. “As bleak as I’ve seen the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation is uncovering a reality far more sinister and systemic than I imagined.”
According to the report, Guidepost investigators, who spoke to survivors of various ages, including children, said the survivors were equally traumatized by the way churches responded to their reports of sexual abuse.
Survivors “spoke of the trauma of the initial abuse, but also told us of the debilitating effects of the response from churches and institutions like the SBC, who didn’t believe them, ignored them, abused them and failed to help them,” said the report.
It cited the case of Dave Pittman, who made calls and sent letters and emails to the SBC and Georgia Baptist Convention Boards from 2006 to 2011, reporting that he was spoken to by Frankie Wiley, a youth pastor at Rehoboth Baptist Church, in the Age 12 had been abused until 15 years.
Pittman and several others have come out publicly to report that Wiley molested and raped them, and Wiley has admitted to abusing “numerous victims” at several Georgia Southern Baptist Churches.
According to the report, an official at the Georgia Baptist Convention told Pittman that the churches were autonomous and all he could do was pray.
The report also tells the story of Christa Brown, who says she was sexually abused as a teenager by her SBC church’s youth and education minister.
When she disclosed the abuse to the Secretary of Music after months of abuse, she was told not to speak up about it, according to the report, which said her abuser also served in Southern Baptist Churches in several states.
Brown, who was one of the most open survivors, told investigators that over the past 15 years she has received “a lot of hate mail, horrible blog comments and hateful phone calls.”
After reading the report, Brown told The Associated Press that he “fundamentally confirms what survivors of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist ministers have been saying for decades.”
“I see this investigative report as the beginning, not the end. Work continues,” Brown said. “But no one should ever forget the human cost of even getting the SBC to approach that starting line to deal with clergy sex abuse.”
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