Southern Baptists Apologize for Sex Abuse Coverups

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Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Birmingham vote on a resolution condemning sexual abuse in the church on Wednesday, June 12.
Delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Birmingham vote on a resolution condemning sexual abuse in the church on Wednesday, June 12.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM

Southern Baptist Convention leaders wrapped up their annual meeting in Birmingham this week with an apology for decades of sex abuse that was covered up in churches around the country and a thank you to victims and journalists for bringing the issue to light.

In February, the Houston Chronicle published a three-part series “Abuse of Faith”, which identified more than 200 alleged abusers including 22 Alabama ministers.  A recent report by the Southern Baptists’ own research arm found that about one-third of church members surveyed believe there will be more revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct by pastors and other church staff.  Some blame the SBC’s doctrine of local church autonomy, which they say allows offending pastors to move from church to church with no oversight. SBC President J.D. Greear has disputed that.

The socially conservative SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.  At the convention in Birmingham, women told their stories of abuse.

 

 

Thousands of delegates prayed and read a litany of repentance, and Greear rolled out his eight points for dealing with the “crisis.”

Greear says the church must continue to make cultural changes so that the vulnerable feel safe.

This is not something to check off on a list and say we dealt with that in 2019,” he says. “This is a milestone in something that will go on for the rest of our lives.”

The convention called for churches to support victims and to immediately report abuse to authorities. Church leaders are considering creating a database of abusers and supporting changes in the statute of limitations on sexual abuse. But some say these steps are not enough.

“This is talk, not substance,” says Ashley Easter, who was part of a group of women that protested Tuesday outside the convention.  That same day the convention delegates voted to amend the constitution to “disfellowship” churches that cover up sexual abuse. Disfellowship would remove an individual church from the convention. According to SBC polity, delegates have to vote and approve the constitutional amendment again at its 2020 convention before it can take effect.

“That means it will be at least two years before something happens. Survivors need protection now,” Easter says. In addition to a database of abusers, Easter wants the church to provide sex abuse prevention training for ministers and ministers-in-training.

In 2007, the SBC passed a resolution condemning sexual abuse of children and encouraging church leaders to timely report suspicions or allegations.  Still, a recent study shows the Southern Baptist Convention has lost members because of the way it has handled sexual abuse.

“One in 10 young adults under the age of 35 have left a church because they perceived it wasn’t being handled properly,” Greear says.

Greear maintains the drop in church membership is not a driving motivation behind his call for changes in the way the SBC addresses sexual abuse and misconduct.

“My concern is that we do the right and faithful thing,” he says. “We just focus on taking care of victims and equipping pastors and make their churches safe places.”

 

Reporter Sherrel Wheeler Stewart is a member of a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist and National Baptist conventions.