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Southern Baptists Committed to Abuse Reform. What Happened?

With the female-pastor debate getting the most attention, the slow work to address abuse plods on.
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Southern Baptists Committed to Abuse Reform. What Happened?
Image: Sonys Singh / Baptist Press
SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force

The issue that once dominated Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meetings—sexual abuse in churches—almost receded into the background at this year’s gathering, which was overrun by debates around women serving as pastors.

Only a year after they voted to move forward with initial steps to address abuse in the wake of a major investigation, the SBC’s reforms have been slow, complicated, and not without controversy.

A task force overseeing its abuse response—including a new website to track known abusers—asked for more time to complete their task, and the convention overwhelmingly approved the extension. They’re still waiting for permanent funding and permanent staffing to oversee the process. Ahead of the meeting, some Southern Baptists spoke up with critiques over cost and legal ramifications.

“They’ve acknowledged it and kind of want to move on,” said Jules Woodson, who came forward with her story of abuse by her youth pastor in 2019. “I want them to know I’m still fighting … I’m not walking away.”

Sexual abuse survivors including Woodson had rallied around the annual meetings, holding posters and press conferences in 2019, wearing T-shirts in 2021, passing out teal sexual-abuse-survivor ribbons in 2022. Last year, the topic of abuse came up in prayers, sermons, and resolutions, with leaders going as far as thanking survivors by name and applauding them from the stage.

In New Orleans this week, Woodson and a few other SBC abuse survivors met in a room in the convention center set aside for them to decompress. They quietly celebrated the progress the denomination had made, shedding tears together as the shell of the Ministry Check website went live on Tuesday afternoon at sbcabuseprevention.com. In the weeks ahead, it will host a database of pastors who have confessed, been convicted, or agreed to civil settlement in abuse cases.

But among the rows of messengers in the convention, they didn’t sense the change of heart that leaders called for after the Southern Baptist “reckoning” or “Kairos moment” that came last year. The topic that came up most often, and garnered the most enthusiastic arguments, was the disfellowshipping of Saddleback Church and the desire to restate a commitment to male eldership.

Colorado pastor Bob Bender asked from the floor what many onlookers wondered about the denomination’s priorities: “What does it say when we’re slow on the take on sexual abuse of women but quick on the draw to disqualify them from non-lead pastor roles?”

Georgia pastor Griffin Gulledge recalled last year’s “great moments and tears and chill bumps” but said that the initial recognition of abuse was not enough without a commitment to keep going.

“To fail to see the [task force] through, and let them continue their work, would be the greatest failure of moral responsibility of this convention in half a century,” he said. “There is no replacement plan. This task force is our abuse response. Will we quit now?”

Abuse remained the key issue for the members of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, which met every other week to since September to discuss the issue and celebrated the chance to continue their work.

“I know there are plenty of survivors who are saying this should have happened faster, and I don’t disagree,” said task force chair and South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock. “We have learned a lot.”

“This whole thing will break your heart. You can’t be the same after hearing some of the things that happened [to survivors],” he said. “You come to God and say, ‘Help us make it right.’ It’s a holy challenge.”

As they took on the challenge of launching the website, task force members and Southern Baptists at large raised concerns about contracting with a division of Guidepost Solutions for the project, since the company celebrates the LGBT community. Last month, the task force announced they pivoted to partner with multiple providers to develop and manage the site instead.

They also faced scrutiny from some Southern Baptists who disagreed with the decision to allocate funds (the SBC’s Send Relief pledged $4 million to abuse reform) and who challenged the scope of the project.

Critics focused on the category of pastors who could be listed on the Ministry Check website for being “credibly accused” of abuse through an independent investigation. In the end, the task force opted to have Christian legal advisors continue to develop standards for vetting that criterion before including it on the site.

Even without the same level of urgency and attention from messengers at large, the work around SBC abuse remains a massive undertaking. A sexual abuse hotline, monitored by Guidepost, has fielded 600 phone calls, half of which involve open cases of abuse in SBC churches, according Jarrett Stephens, a Houston pastor and abuse survivor who serves on the task force.

“There is a lot of work to do, and we are just beginning,” he said at the Baptist21 lunch on Tuesday.

A “trauma-informed” team takes those calls, maintaining survivor confidentiality while referring cases of credibly accused pastors to the database system for vetting and sending reports of churches that failed to uphold the SBC’s abuse response standards to the credentials committee for their review, said Rachael Denhollander, an advocate and legal consultant.

And week after week, more accounts of abuse by pastors arise. Earlier this month, a Southern Baptist youth pastor was arrested in South Carolina for filming girls in the church bathroom.

“Every time I see one of those stories, it’s heartbreaking … they grieve us,” said David Sons, outgoing SBC Executive Committee chair. “But churches now know the steps to take. That wasn’t always the case.”

Southern Baptists want to see abuse prevented, but if it does take place, it’s better to have perpetrators uncovered and prosecuted for their crimes than for abuse to persist or be covered up.

Tiffany Thigpen, another survivor at the meeting, agreed; she celebrated a recent report of an abuser in Texas who turned himself in rather than be caught in an investigation. “This is why we do what we do,” she tweeted. “Put these #abusers on notice that they can no longer count on the cover of churches who may be willing to let them walk to prevent scandal.”

Thigpen and Woodson, who runs the nonprofit Help; Hear; Heal, see themselves as “standing in the gap” for survivors who can’t be at the meeting or have given up hope for meaningful change.

“This whole sex abuse reform thing in the SBC is a collective commitment,” said Heather Evans, a licensed social worker with an expertise in clergy abuse. “That’s what survivors are looking for in their pursuit of justice: those around them and how they respond.”

Evans, an advisor to the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, spoke Tuesday during an after-hours session hosted by the website SBC Voices on the topic of grooming and abuse by pastors toward adult victims, cases that can be misunderstood or labeled as affairs in some church contexts. About 50 pastors, survivors, and advocates attended, including Chellee Taylor, who shared the story of her abuse by her “boss, campus pastor, and counselor” at an SBC church in Florida.

“This is something that happens to real people, and it happens in your churches,” her husband, Peter Taylor, told the breakout session, lamenting the spiritual toll it took on both of them.

The task force has also worked with state conventions and associations to improve resources and training and shared a toolkit of materials now available online.

The four task force members who spoke before the convention Wednesday morning took a somber tone, recounting how the extent of abuse is churches often remains hidden, as with a case made public just days ago in Louisiana that has spurred investigations across three states.

“As hard and difficult as this past year has been for us, it pales in comparison to what it’s been like for survivors and their families for well over the past year,” said task force member and Oklahoma pastor Mike Keahbone, who choked up on the stage.

“I’m thankful, Lord, for another step toward healing,” he prayed. “We know it’s tiny, but it’s a step.”

January/February
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