Report: US Southern Baptist Convention Ignored Decades' Worth of Sexual Abuse, Pleas for Action

CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr / Gerry Dincher / First Baptist - Sylva
First Baptist - Sylva - Sputnik International, 1920, 23.05.2022
The Southern Baptist Convention, located in Nashville, Tennessee, has about 47,000 cooperating churches and 13.6 million members, with a 26% increase in baptizings in 2021, making it one of the most powerful in American Christianity.
US Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) officials perpetuated a cycle of abuse for two decades by disregarding accusations of sexual abuse and dismissing reform recommendations, independent investigators revealed in their findings released on Sunday.
Investigative firm Guidepost Solutions' 288-page report described shocking details about how the nation's largest Protestant denomination dealt with a growing sexual abuse within its ranks and effectively created a culture that retraumatized survivors.
"Rather than focusing on these accused ministers, some Executive Committee leaders turned against the very people trying to shine a light on sexual abuse," the report said when describing the convention's response to the accusers.
The significance of this report is underscored by the fact that it details for the first time what it described as credible allegations of sexual assault against former SBC President Johnny Hunt a month after his term ended in 2010, as well as how high-ranking staff kept a list of hundreds of names of ministers accused of sexual misconduct but did nothing about it.
Hunt is accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a beachfront condo in Florida a month after completing his second and final term as SBC president, according to the report. Hunt allegedly pulled down the woman's shorts, made sexual comments to her, then pushed her to a couch before groping her and violently kissing her.
According to the report, he later informed the woman in a separate discussion that "he would like to have sex with her three times a day."
At the same time, behind their backs, officials disparaged purported abuse survivors and downplayed the severity of the situation. According to the findings, the SBC's law firm regularly urged leaders not to intervene when they were approached with concerns about abuse or reform.
"Almost always the internal focus was on protecting the SBC from legal liability and not on caring for survivors or creating any plan to prevent sexual abuse within SBC churches," the investigators found out.
In total, the report makes 17 recommendations, including requesting the SBC to create an offender database, publically apologize to survivors, and define church and clergy standards.
"The SBC should consider whether phrases relating to SBC Beliefs regarding sexual abuse are thoroughly defined in SBC governing documents," one of the recommendations said. "Consideration may be given to creating a definition of sexual abuse, how churches should work to prevent sexual abuse, and how churches should respond to sexual abuse in a Christ-like manner."
Survivor-focused solutions include a compensation fund scheme, survivor support program, written apologies to survivors, and a public memorial in front of the SBC office in Nashville, are also among the recommendations.

The 'Temptation to Look Away'

For the previous seven months, Guidepost's work was overseen by an independent task force of SBC leaders, set by the delegates of the 2021 convention, which was entrusted with helping to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations.
The task force team released the full report with an accompanying letter, in which it noted that the current crisis is one of the convention's biggest, and the SBC officials "can be tempted to want to minimize what has happened or to look only at the most obvious wrong actors."

"We must resist the temptation to minimize, to look away, to find the easy 'scapegoats' for what was uncovered in this report, and instead ask 'what could we have done better?' and 'what should we do now?'" the task force's statement reads. "As a Convention, we did not hold our own leaders accountable, and we did not listen to the warnings. Leaders had access to expertise but chose not to seek assistance, and in some cases, rejected any assistance that was offered."

In the course of time between January 2000 and June 2021, the Guidepost team interviewed 330 people and analyzed five terabytes of data to evaluate the SBC Executive Committee's handling of abuse reports, victim care, and resistance to reform.
The executive committee, which administers denominational business when the SBC is not meeting, is led by thirty workers and an 86-member board of elected officials. The annual gathering in Anaheim is three weeks away, and Guidepost's report will be front and center, according to the Tennessian's report. Thousands of delegates, known as messengers, are expected to vote on measures relating to Guidepost's findings and suggestions.
More to that, members of the executive committee will reportedly gather for a special session on Tuesday.

Deliberate Inaction

A Houston Chronicle investigation in 2019 initiated a chain of events that led to Southern Baptists demanding a third-party probe after decades of survivors raising the alarm.
Last October, members of the executive committee reportedly deliberated for weeks whether to waive attorney-client privilege and give investigators access to private documents. The members ultimately decided to waive privilege, which Guidepost described as "integral" to its inquiry in its report.
Investigators looked into emails between executive committee staff and members, as well as attorneys from Guenther, Jordan & Price, a Nashville-based law firm that has represented the SBC and the executive committee for 56 years.
"The lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits," investigators noted, citing a fear of legal liability.
Moreover, according to the report, investigators indicated throughout the report that a small group of mostly executive committee workers, in cooperation with attorneys from Guenther, Jordan & Price, did not escalate accusations of abuse and explored ways to stop or slow down policy improvements.
According to the findings, those officials and lawyers "were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations."
"In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with constant refrain," the report said.
Investigators discovered that the executive committee's top officials strongly opposed the creation of abusers' database, but they reportedly kept a list of accused ministers from 2008 to 2018, but "never took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches."
Officials found that the most recent edition of the list contained 703 names, nine of which are still engaged in ministry. Guidepost said it will discuss the list with the credentials committee, which assesses church collaboration.
Guenther, Jordan & Price attorneys were frequently implicated in decisions to dismiss or discourage survivors, opt out of reform plans, and encourage Baptist Press to sanitize its coverage of the Caring Well Conference, an event to raise awareness about sexual abuse, according to investigators.
“They had no problem providing creative ideas on ways to reduce legal liability,” they concluded. “Overall, the legal advice focused on liability created a chilling effect on the ability of the EC to be compassionate towards survivors of abuse.”
As these leaders sought to avoid these costs, however, it's clear in the report they incurred a debt that future leaders will be paying off years to come.
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