Will Southern Baptists’ plan to track accused abusers be enough to protect victims and stem the fallout from a growing scandal?
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At 16, Kenny Stubblefield aspired to be a pastor. He took every opportunity to spend time with the men whose ranks he hoped to join. So when the associate youth pastor invited him to his house for a sleepover, he begged his dad to let him go. When his dad had reservations, he told him other guys from the youth group at the now-dissolved Immanuel Baptist Church in Germantown, Tenn., would be there. But when Stubblefield arrived, he was the only teen present.
He says the associate youth pastor, Chris Carwile, flipped through the TV channels until he landed on pornography. He acted shocked but left it playing long enough for Stubblefield to take it in. Stubblefield says Carwile made up an excuse about why he needed to sleep with him in his waterbed and not on the living room couch or floor. Then, he says, Carwile molested him in the middle of the night.
A year later, Stubblefield and his best friend, Brooks Hansen, sat talking on the Hansens’ manicured front lawn. The conversation turned to Carwile, and the boys told each other they had experienced the same abuse. As it turned out, Brooks’ older brother Michael said he had, too, along with several other young men who were a part of that youth group in the late 1990s.
Stubblefield and Brooks Hansen say they told their story to two pastors at Immanuel Baptist who said they would handle the situation. The pastors never reported the alleged abuse to the police. Immanuel’s youth pastor at the time said he confronted Carwile about the boys’ claims, and he verbally confessed. The church fired Carwile, but not long after that, he started working at another local Baptist church.
TWENTY-THREE YEARS LATER in June 2022, popular Christian music blared from large speakers as nearly 10,000 Southern Baptists filtered into a large convention hall in Anaheim, Calif., for the denomination’s annual meeting. A large banner proclaiming “Jesus, the center of it all” hung over the convention center’s main entryway.
Inside the hall, a swath of church delegates, called “messengers,” waved yellow ballot cards to approve a recommendation creating the denomination’s first national database to identify and track pastors and ministry workers “credibly accused” or convicted of abuse.
Messengers also approved a new nine-member task force, appointed by SBC President-elect Bart Barber, to implement the database and other abuse prevention measures in the coming years.
In an impassioned speech before the vote, North Carolina Pastor Bruce Frank called the actions the “bare minimum” of what the SBC needed to do to chart a new course amid the public reckoning that has rattled the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Last year, Frank chaired the denominational task force that oversaw an independent investigation by the firm Guidepost Solutions. The result: a scathing 288-page report released three weeks before this year’s annual meeting that detailed how the SBC Executive Committee mishandled sexual abuse cases and mistreated survivors over a 20-year period.
The measures approved at this year’s convention are an attempt to right those wrongs and protect future victims. But before the database has even launched, it already faces an avalanche of criticism. Victim advocates say it doesn’t go far enough, while detractors say it could subvert due process and ruin the lives of innocent men. Meanwhile, the threat of legal action—both criminal and civil—looms over the project, leaving some to speculate that it might be too little, too late to save the denomination from financial disaster.
MARSHALL BLALOCK PASTORS First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C., and chairs the new implementation task force. He says the online database, dubbed Ministry Check, should be up and running in six months. The database is “intended to be a public resource, designed for churches to use when vetting employees or volunteers,” he said. According to its terms, the site will track “pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees, and volunteers who have at any time been credibly accused of sexual abuse” and have been associated with a Baptist church or entity. An outside company will create and maintain the database, and Blalock said the task force’s first job is to hire such a firm. Until then, Guidepost Solutions is collecting abuse claims through a hotline set up by the Executive Committee in May after the report was released.
The new database hinges on two words: credibly accused.
The SBC defines that as someone who has been convicted in a court of law, had a civil judgment rendered against him, or confessed in a setting not privileged by the First Amendment right to privacy. Local churches or the relevant Baptist body will be the first to evaluate those accusations. They must hire a qualified, independent firm to determine “by preponderance of the evidence” whether to add the accused to the database. The task force plans to set up a process for churches to apply for grants to fund those independent inquiries, if finances are an issue.
All claims of abuse should be reported to law enforcement, but as in Kenny Stubblefield’s case, that doesn’t always happen. In fact, most perpetrators never face a criminal conviction, Blalock said. The median age for child sexual abuse victims to disclose their abuse is 52, a 2020 Child USA report found. By then, the statutes of limitations have typically expired.
Stubblefield and brothers Brooks and Michael Hansen were in their 30s when they came forward publicly in 2016, telling their story to a local Memphis news outlet and on social media. Stubblefield had tracked his alleged abuser on and off for years, and he’d just learned the man had moved from local Baptist churches to a public library after-school program for kids. That’s when the three friends filed a police report even though they knew the state’s statute of limitations had expired.
For Stubblefield, coming forward was pivotal.
“It was like stepping into the sun again,” he said. “It’s like taking your voice back. It is stepping out of the shadows and taking my own humanity back.”
Eight other men privately disclosed that Carwile had also abused them at two SBC churches, including Immanuel Baptist. None of those men wanted to come forward publicly or press charges, or their cases exceeded the state’s statute of limitations, Stubblefield said. But the city of Memphis fired Carwile from his job at the Benjamin L. Hooks library shortly after Stubblefield and the Hansens went public.
Carwile did not respond to messages at the phone number listed for his home address.
Stubblefield has lost track of Carwile in recent years, but he still believes he could be a threat. Sexual predators have an 80 percent recidivism rate, according to the Department of Justice. Stubblefield wants to see Carwile put on the new SBC list as a further warning to others.
BUT STUBBLEFIELD’S alleged abuser is already on a different SBC list, one that until recently, no one knew existed.
Stubblefield was standing in line at a Chick-fil-A on May 26 when he got a link to a list of alleged abusers kept secretly by some SBC Executive Committee staffers for 15 years. He started scrolling and scrolling. The list stretched to 205 pages. Hundreds of names, mostly men, all of them accused or convicted sexual predators, more than half with past ties to Baptist churches or entities. Stubblefield scanned the pages for abusers from Memphis, but minutes in, he had to close the document, overcome by a rush of anger as he realized how many accused abusers some denominational leaders had known about.
Several days later, Stubblefield’s mom texted him a screenshot from the list. It was an alleged abuser from Tennessee, listed alphabetically. The name and other identifying details were blacked out. But the text left legible matched perfectly the abuse Stubblefield reported to pastors all those years ago. The list he was looking at didn’t emerge until after Guidepost revealed its existence on May 22, 2022. The SBC Executive Committee released the list four days later.
Executive Committee staff members began quietly compiling the internal list in 2007, according to Guidepost. The list eventually included about 700 alleged abusers, including more than 400 with SBC affiliations. Before releasing it, the Executive Committee said its legal counsel redacted entries where preliminary research could not confirm a guilty plea, conviction, judgment, sentence, or inclusion on the sex offender registry.
Stubblefield is certain the redacted text he saw refers to Carwile. Seeing his alleged abuser on the secret list raised questions: When was his name entered? What conversations took place? Who else saw the list? “They knew enough to put him on a list, to put us on a list, yet no one ever reached out,” he said.
News about the secret list infuriated Stubblefield—and many others—because sexual abuse survivors and advocates had begun pressing Baptist leaders to create a denomination-wide list before 2007. Denominational leaders studied the idea and rejected it, saying it would violate the autonomy of SBC churches, a doctrine Baptists believe is based on the Biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church.
Abuse survivors said the Guidepost report, a $2.1 million undertaking commissioned by messengers at the 2021 annual meeting, confirmed what they have stated for years: Baptist leaders were “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC” over transparency and caring for survivors.
That strategy may have backfired in a big way. The Department of Justice has initiated an investigation into multiple SBC entities, including the Executive Committee, related to how the denomination handled sexual abuse complaints. Details about the investigation, believed to be triggered by the Guidepost report, are still unknown. But multiple law firms are running ads online soliciting SBC abuse survivors for consultations.
CHRISTA BROWN STARTED CALLING for a denomination-wide database in 2006, the same year she went public with a substantiated claim of sexual abuse committed by a Southern Baptist minister.
Brown argues Ministry Check is not the database she fought for, primarily because it is not “survivor-centric.” She said it puts survivors in a position of relying on the local church for an adequate investigation.
After decades of complacency and cover-ups by SBC churches, Brown said, survivors should not be expected to trust those that have repeatedly betrayed them.
“If survivors do not trust this process, then the database itself becomes illusory and dysfunctional because it won’t acquire the data,” Brown said.
During this year’s annual meeting, Southern Baptists formally apologized to Brown and nine other survivors named in the Guidepost report for “not heeding their collective warnings and taking swift action to address clergy abuse sooner.” The “lament and repentance” resolution also apologized to survivors “for our institutional responses which have prioritized [our] reputations over protection and justice for survivors.”
Rachael Denhollander, a well-known child sex abuse survivor and attorney, served as a legal adviser to the sexual abuse task force that drafted the terms of the Ministry Check database last year. Denhollander said the terms provide built-in protections for survivors, including allowing them to report an allegation directly to a database administrator. A “survivor advocate” will act as a go-between with the survivor and the relevant local church, she said.
If a church fails to respond appropriately to an abuse accusation, including by commissioning a third-party inquiry, it could be referred to the SBC’s Credentials Committee, the group that makes recommendations to cut ties with churches that do not act in accordance with Biblical standards and doctrine.
“It’s going to take a significant commitment of time and resources and expertise to make sure that those protections are followed through and carried out appropriately,” Denhollander said.
BUT WOULD THESE LAYERS of protection prevent false accusations from landing someone on the SBC list? Denhollander and task force chairman Blalock acknowledged false accusations as a legitimate concern but said the site’s terms should prevent them from ending up in the database. An SBC pamphlet about Ministry Check and other abuse prevention initiatives also acknowledges the possibility of false accusations but says the site’s higher standard of proof and independent inquiry “meet the standard of Biblical justice.”
Matthew Tonne supports the new database but worries it will include his name. Between 2007 and 2018, Tonne, 38, served as an associate children’s minister at The Village Church, a prominent SBC megachurch in Flower Mound, Texas. In February 2018, a 17-year-old girl whose family attended the church told her parents, Matt and Christi Bragg, that someone had abused her six years prior at a church summer camp. She said a man crept into her cabin in the middle of the night and touched her private parts under her undergarments.
Months later, the girl’s parents say, she identified Tonne as the perpetrator. Both the Braggs and the church reported the alleged abuse to the Cedar Hill Police Department and cooperated with its investigation. In November 2018, Tonne was indicted on sexual assault charges. He was arrested two months later.
Tonne has maintained his innocence. He said that before he knew he had been named as the perpetrator, he sought inpatient care for alcohol abuse. The church placed him on leave and disqualified him from ministry three weeks before firing him on June 5, 2018, for alcohol addiction, a church spokesperson told me in an email. It was during that three-week window that the Braggs formally disclosed to the police investigator and to church staff that Tonne was the alleged perpetrator.
The church had received no reports of sexual misconduct against Tonne during his tenure. The church said no other disclosures or allegations related to Tonne acting indecently toward a minor surfaced before, during, or after local authorities investigated the case.
In 2020, the Dallas County District Attorney’s office concluded that the girl had actually not positively identified Tonne as the perpetrator. The D.A. dismissed criminal charges against Tonne, and his record was fully expunged last year.
Still, on Aug. 1, The Village Church settled a civil suit brought by the alleged victim. The Bragg family claimed the church mishandled the situation, including Tonne’s firing, and sought $1 million. The church said in its statement that it committed no wrong and noted Tonne’s cleared record.
The Bragg family insists the church was “not fully truthful, transparent, or caring.” They said the church continues to use language that “invalidates and dismisses the merits of the victim’s claims.”
In an unrelated case in August, the church’s elder board put lead pastor Matt Chandler on leave after he disclosed an inappropriate, but not romantic, relationship with a woman not his wife.
Tonne now works for a commercial alarm company and has abandoned his pursuit of a master’s degree in child counseling. He said five different congregations have asked his family to leave after church leaders learned about the accusations against him.
“Would I be put on [the Ministry Check] registry? Probably. Would I be taken off when my case was expunged? Probably not. The SBC is not known for its administrative efforts,” Tonne said.
Christi Bragg said she “wholeheartedly believes [Tonne] should be included” on the Ministry Check site. “Anyone who is credibly accused, because it’s not a legal database that they’re setting up, should be listed,” Bragg said. She believes credibly accused should include sexual abuse that is reported to law enforcement, even if no charges are brought, since it’s often difficult to prosecute those cases.
But that assumes that all sexual abuse allegations reported to law enforcement are true. The Making a Difference project put the false allegation rate at 7 percent in its study of rapes and sexual assaults reported to U.S. law enforcement. While that percentage may seem small, it could add up to a lot of people accused of a crime they didn’t commit. For example, FBI records list 139,380 rapes reported to law enforcement in 2018. At a rate of 7 percent, 9,756 were likely false—26 per day.
DURING THE CONVENTION in Anaheim, a small but vocal minority insisted the SBC’s abuse problem is overblown. Mark Coppenger, former SBC seminary president and professor, served as a messenger from Redemption City Church in Franklin, Tenn. During one session, he took to the mic to say those who have been convicted of sexual abuse in SBC churches are a “very small percentage.” He argued the denomination does not need a “superstructure with big funding.”
The Executive Committee allocated $3 million in cooperative dollars to fund the Ministry Check site and other proposed abuse reforms, with an additional $1 million set aside for “survivor care” and trauma-informed training for SBC pastors and state conventions. But those funds only cover one year’s expenses.
In June, Send Relief, the compassion arm of two Baptist entities, the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board, announced a one-time gift that will allow the program “to continue to serve and support SBC missionaries, church planters, and seminary students.”
Marshall Blalock said one of the task force’s jobs this year is to establish a sustainable budget for sexual abuse reforms—including the cost of an independent firm to operate the Ministry Check website—to present to Southern Baptists at the annual meeting next June. He admits it’s “a little controversial” to steer cooperative dollars away from missionaries and seminary students. “There’s going to have to be some sort of steady, designated money toward this … the organization as a whole will have to prioritize this,” he said.
Blalock said he does not anticipate the Department of Justice inquiry will delay work on the database, or its launch. But no one knows the scope of the federal investigation yet.
Christa Brown worries that under pressure, the denomination will resort to protecting Cooperative Program dollars over implementing costly, long-term abuse prevention measures, including funding a centralized resource for survivors to submit abuse allegations and directly procure an independent investigation.
SINCE KENNY STUBBLEFIELD’S alleged abuser has never been criminally convicted, a local SBC church or the denomination would have to absorb the cost of funding an independent inquiry before placing him on the list.
The inquiry would need to find key pieces of evidence, including whether Carwile confessed in a non-privileged setting. Tennessee law protects confessions made to a religious leader, except in cases of child abuse. It would also need to find a “preponderance of evidence,” the same standard required for civil law cases, before it could include him in the Ministry Check database.
Stubblefield says he came forward in 2016 to warn others about Carwile, not to gain attention from Baptist leaders. Even though his and the Hansen brothers’ story made a splash locally, it was largely ignored nationally. In Baptist circles, Stubblefield says, “our stories were met with such apathy.” And he believes indifference about abuse remains woven into the fabric of SBC life.
SBC President Bart Barber, who pastors a small, rural church in Farmersville, Texas, hopes that is changing. “Sexual predators have used our decentralized polity to try to turn our churches into a hunting ground,” he said during a press conference in Anaheim. “Our decentralized polity can become, rather than a hunting ground … a place where sexual predators are put on notice that the tables have turned and where the hunter is now the hunted.”
—WORLD has updated this story to correct the name of the Cedar Hill Police Department.