Nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have been implicated in a church-wide sexual abuse scandal and cover-up spanning two decades. A joint investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News released Sunday included devastating accounts from victims who suffered at the hands of trusted religious figures, many of whom returned to their positions even after being registered as sex offenders.
From the report:
“In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.”
Many offenders took plea deals and returned to their former posts — congregants were given no warning. The vast group of abusers included ministers, youth pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons and church volunteers.
As Southern Baptist leaders reject reforms, sexual abuse continues to spread. Read part 1 of "Abuse of Faith," our exclusive investigative series launching Sunday, Feb. 10: https://t.co/HFYQzO33qY pic.twitter.com/uWsMPRPRKM
— Houston Chronicle (@HoustonChron) February 8, 2019
The report notes that around 220 offenders were either convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are still pending. Accusations of abuse range from exposure to pornographic material, to rape and impregnation.
“They left behind more than 700 victims,” it reads, “many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.”
The victims range from children as young as 3, to “women and men who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.”
The two newspapers’ six-month investigation, which included “reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews,” culminated in the creation of an extensive database of Southern Baptist leaders convicted of sex crimes.
The report also explains why the extent of the abuse is likely far greater than what could be documented:
“Victims of sexual assault come forward at a low rate; many cases in churches are handled internally; and many Southern Baptist churches are in rural communities where media coverage is sparse.”
It notes also that Southern Baptist Convention leaders “have long been aware of the problem” but chose not to act.
A disturbing pattern of cover-up
In 2007, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, one of the largest SBC state organizations, published a list of eight sex offenders who had served in Southern Baptist churches in Texas. Following the report, Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and former lawyer for the Catholic Church, reached out to SBC leaders, urging them to take action.
The Chronicle and Express-News note that in the 1980s, Rev. Doyle was one of the earliest to call attention to the problem of child sexual abuse within the Church. Catholic leaders “lied about it … covered it up and ignored the victims,” Doyle told the newspapers.
In his retirement, Doyle became an activist for victims, leaning on his experience within his own religious institution. It was then that he became aware of a familiar pattern of abuse within the Southern Baptist churches.
“I saw the same type of behavior going on with the Southern Baptists,” Doyle said.
But when he presented the problem to SBC leaders, the responses were disappointing. At one point, Frank Page, who was SBC president at the time, wrote that they were “taking this issue seriously,” while noting that local church autonomy presented “serious limitations.” And so the institutional abuse was virtually dismissed as a local issue.
Last March, Page resigned from his post as president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee due to “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”
What are church leaders saying?
Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, decried the latest revelations as “a scandal and a crisis.”
“There should be no tolerance for, or covering up of, sexual abuse of the vulnerable ever, especially within the church of Jesus Christ,” he tweeted Sunday.
This is nothing short of a scandal and a crisis. There should be no tolerance for, or covering up of, sexual abuse of the vulnerable ever, especially within the church of Jesus Christ. https://t.co/h5GuEn7vXZ
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) February 10, 2019
Current SBC President J.D. Greear also voiced his support for efforts to expose offenders and purge the church of predators.
“The Bible calls for pastors to be people of integrity, known for their self-control and kindness,” Greear told the Chronicle. “A convicted sex offender would certainly not meet those qualifications. Churches that ignore that are out of line with both Scripture and Baptist principles of cooperation.”
At the request of former Oklahoma SBC President Wade Burleson and other concerned leaders, Greear has launched a team that is examining sexual abuse.
“Change has to begin at the ground level with churches and organizations,” he added. “Our churches must start standing together with a commitment to take this issue much more seriously than ever before.”
To read the first installment of the three-part investigation, click here.