The Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination, with over 14 million members, and a powerhouse in conservative politics and culture. It is famed for its self-conception as an assembly of believers committed to righteous living according to a strict ethos based on biblical inerrancy. But in 2019, Southern Baptists were roiled by an elaborate investigative report from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News documenting 700 cases of sexual abuse by clergy and other employees of SBC churches:
The newspapers spent nearly a year building a database of church leaders and volunteers who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes in the past 20 years. Most are now in prison or are registered sex offenders. More are from Texas than from any other state …
Victims of sexual abuse had pleaded for the SBC to act, saying it was allowing predators to move from church to church. But the SBC in 2008 rejected all proposals to produce such a registry, saying the organization could not tell its 47,000 member churches whom to hire or ordain.
As voices within and beyond the denomination blasted the SBC for its apparent refusal to deal with a sexual-abuse crisis, the 2021 annual meeting of the SBC authorized a third-party investigation into the allegations. The designated investigator, Guidepost Solutions, has now issued a scathing 400-page report making it clear not only that the allegations were accurate but that the SBC’s powerful executive committee had itself tracked abuse cases for years and deliberately covered them up. Here’s the core finding of the “bombshell report,” according to the Houston Chronicle:
For 20 years, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention — including a former president now accused of sexual assault — routinely silenced and disparaged sexual abuse survivors, ignored calls for policies to stop predators, and dismissed reforms that they privately said could protect children but might cost the SBC money if abuse victims later sued.
The SBC professed helplessness in dealing with sexual abuse, though it had managed to militantly stamp out any sign of “liberalism” in its churches following the “conservative resurgence” that took over the once proudly decentralized denomination in the 1980s and 1990s. The Chronicle reported:
Anyone who contacted the national office to report a suspected case of sexual abuse at a Southern Baptist church was either met with silence or told that the SBC had no power to take action against congregations that concealed abuses.
The SBC’s governing documents allowed for the removal of churches that ordained women or “endorse” homosexuality, but leaders said they had no such oversight when it came to churches led by convicted sex offenders. “Behind the curtain, the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits,” Guidepost found.
While the sexual-abuse cover-up did not follow strict factional lines, the same people who demanded an investigation of the sexual-abuse cover-up were calling for greater SBC accountability on racism and were warning of the denomination’s political alliance with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The most prominent dissenter, former denominational spokesman Russell Moore, who cut ties with the SBC last year over its stonewalling of various concerns, told Christianity Today the new report showed the sexual-abuse scandal was far worse than he had realized:
For years, leaders in the Executive Committee said a database — to prevent sexual predators from quietly moving from one church to another, to a new set of victims — had been thoroughly investigated and found to be legally impossible, given Baptist church autonomy. My mouth fell open when I read documented proof in the report that these very people not only knew how to have a database, they already had one.
Allegations of sexual violence and assault were placed, the report concludes, in a secret file in the SBC Nashville headquarters. It held over 700 cases. Not only was nothing done to stop these predators from continuing their hellish crimes, staff members were reportedly told not to even engage those asking about how to stop their child from being sexually violated by a minister. Rather than a database to protect sexual abuse victims, the report reveals that these leaders had a database to protect themselves.
The SBC Executive Committee issued a statement saying “they were grieved by the report and committed to ‘doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse’ in churches,” the Chronicle reports.
The timing of the Guidepost Solution report is important: Next month, the SBC is holding its annual meeting in Anaheim, California, and the fresh allegations could take some of the wind out of the sails of militant conservatives who want the SBC to double down on political engagement by doing more to fight “critical race theory” and any hint of tolerance for feminism or LGBTQ+ rights. The designated ultraconservative candidate for the SBC presidency is Florida pastor Tom Ascol, who, according to Baptist News, is focused on the alleged threat of liberalism rather than conservative hypocrisy: “One of the major wedge issues between current SBC leadership — which is conservative by any external standard — and the groups supporting Ascol … is fear that the SBC is sliding into ‘liberalism’ and its leaders are being too influenced by a ‘woke’ agenda that is feminizing men and challenging male authority.”
It looks as though Southern Baptists, who have been losing members just like the less conservative Protestant denominations they have long accused of a lack of moral rigor, are facing a fork in the road: more actual righteousness or more self-righteousness?