Investigation confirms SBC abuse survivors’ claims
Guidepost Solutions found top Southern Baptist leaders ignored reports of sexual abuse and intimidated victims into silence
Staff members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s top leadership body began compiling in 2007 a list of Baptist ministers who were accused of sexual abuse, according to a newly released investigative report by Guidepost Solutions. By August 2018, the list contained 585 names, but only a few staffers and leaders from the Executive Committee knew the list existed, the report noted.
A group of sexual abuse survivors and advocates had previously urged the SBC to create such a database of sexual offenders in its churches earlier in 2007. They argued it would give congregations the ability to protect their members from known abusers. The Executive Committee at the time studied the idea but later rejected it, saying it would violate the autonomy of Southern Baptist churches.
“Yes, we are collecting them and may even post them in some way, but we’d have to really examine the potential liabilities that would stem therefrom,” Augie Boto, the Executive Committee’s former general counsel, wrote about the list in a 2018 email to select committee staff members, according to the Guidepost report.
The existence of such a list and the secrecy surrounding it is one of several bombshell revelations from the Guidepost report released by the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force on Sunday afternoon. Church delegates at last year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly approved the independent investigation amid swirling reports of SBC bureaucracy mishandling allegations of abuse in its churches and mistreating sexual abuse survivors who came forward with their stories. Over seven months, Guidepost investigators interviewed 330 individuals, including 19 survivors of sexual abuse.
The firm found that Executive Committee members were “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC” at the expense of transparency, accountability, and caring for survivors.
The 396-page report (including two appendices) covers more than 20 years of information. It recounts many of the stories of sexual abuse survivors who went public with their accounts years ago. Survivors such as Christa Brown, Jennifer Lyell, Tiffany Thigpen, Jules Woodson, Debbie Vasquez, David Pittman, and Hannah-Kate Williams have advocated for greater accountability for abusers and the churches and institutions that knowingly harbored them.
“The survivors with whom we spoke told us that they felt ignored and unheard when they reported their abuse to SBC leadership—some survivors received perfunctory and dismissive responses while others did not receive a response at all,” Guidepost investigators said in the report.
In their public responses on Sunday, sexual abuse survivors conveyed sadness and grief. “Processing the heavy news … but I must say, I am NOT surprised or shocked … which is grievous in and of itself,” said Woodson, who was abused by a Baptist youth minister when she was 17 and he was 22.
“Tonight there are children, teens, and adults going to bed having been sexually exploited, abused, and assaulted in SBC churches that the [Executive Committee] heard about and did nothing to stop or serve,” said Lyell, whose disclosure of sexual abuse by a Baptist seminary professor was inaccurately portrayed by the Executive Committee–run news outlet as a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
The Guidepost report includes a previously unpublished accusation from an unnamed woman who said former pastor and past president of the SBC Johnny Hunt of Woodstock, Ga., groomed and assaulted her in 2010 and urged her not to report the abuse. In interviews with Guidepost and a statement issued on Sunday, Hunt denied ever having physical contact with the woman.
“To put it bluntly: I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report,” he said. “I have never abused anybody.”
The woman and her husband claimed that after the alleged assault, Hunt called them to a meeting with another pastor from First Baptist Church Woodstock, where Hunt was senior pastor at the time. The couple said the second pastor told them they “could never talk about what had happened” because it could negatively affect the 40,000 churches that Hunt represented.
The Guidepost report emphasized that the desire to protect the image of the SBC and shield it from legal liability drove the Executive Committee’s response to sexual abuse allegations for decades. Boto and attorney James Guenther, the SBC’s outside counsel from 1966 to 2021, set the tone for handling allegations and focused on “avoiding any potential liability for the SBC,” the report stated. That included keeping many of the elected members of the Executive Committee in the dark about the breadth of abuse allegations brought to SBC leadership.
Guidepost investigators interviewed 175 current and former members of the Executive Committee and found that before a 2018 investigative report on sexual abuse in SBC churches, members “were largely unaware that survivors had been contacting the EC to report sexual abuse allegations.” One trustee told Guidepost there was “a pattern that officers and staff knew more than the EC members.”
The doctrine of church autonomy, which Baptists believe is based on the Biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only head of the church, limits the Executive Committee’s authority over local churches, and, SBC attorney Guenther has argued, its liability when abuse occurs in a local congregation. In its report, Guidepost included a copy of a 2007 memo from Guenther to Boto in which Guenther cites the importance of church autonomy in protecting the SBC from lawsuits. The memo was about the proposal from survivors and advocates for a database of accused abusers. Guenther wrote that while he could support a listing of abusers convicted by police or found liable in civil court, he discouraged any system in which the Executive Committee would receive reports of abuse directly from churches or alleged victims.
“I fear that a request from a Baptist general body to a church, or a church’s voluntary report to the general body, will be argued to show that the church had a duty to report,” Guenther wrote. “And, if the church has a duty on the church’s part to report to the general body, then the general body has control over the church, and control, of any kind, breaks the principal and the legal shield of church autonomy.”
Sexual abuse survivors and their advocates claim the SBC can do more to respond to and prevent abuse without endangering the doctrine of church autonomy. The Guidepost report includes numerous recommendations, including creating and maintaining an “Offender Information System” of Baptist leaders credibly accused of abuse, establishing an independent commission to enact long-term reforms and abuse prevention protocols, restricting nondisclosure agreements, and providing churches with “governance controls” such as enhanced background checks, letters of good standing, and codes of conduct to “strengthen hiring standards.”
In public statements on Sunday, many SBC leaders expressed sorrow and concern for victims and a commitment to change.
“Amid my grief, anger, and disappointment over the grave sin and failures this report lays bare, I earnestly believe that Southern Baptists must resolve to change our culture and implement desperately needed reforms,” said SBC President Ed Litton.
Rolland Slade, current Executive Committee chairman, and Willie McLaurin, the committee’s interim president and CEO, addressed the survivor community in a joint statement on Sunday: “We are grieved by the findings of this investigation. We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our care, and to remove reporting roadblocks.”
Slade and McLaurin announced a special meeting on Tuesday to “discuss and process” ahead of the convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., on June 14 and 15, where church delegates are slated to consider the report’s recommendations.
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