SBC leaders approve more openness in abuse investigation
The contentious Executive Committee vote on Tuesday prompted 10 resignations
Southern Baptist Convention leaders voted on Tuesday to allow outside investigators access to legally protected communications about the denomination’s handling of sexual abuse cases over the past two decades.
The SBC Executive Committee’s 44-31 vote, which waives attorney-client privilege and gives independent investigators access to private correspondence, followed two previous committee decisions to the contrary and weeks of contentious debate. The 86-seat committee, tasked with making decisions for the SBC between its annual meetings of “messengers,” or delegates from local churches, sparred over a resolution about the investigation passed at the denomination’s last meeting in June.
The Executive Committee voted Tuesday to waive privilege selectively in an investigation into the actions and decisions of its members and staff related to “any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives … from Jan. 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.”
Ten committee members who voted against waiving privilege have resigned since Tuesday’s vote, according to committee chairman Rolland Slade. Members who opposed the waiver said it could jeopardize the financial stability of the committee and even the convention. Attorneys advising the committee warned the move could open the committee up to potential lawsuits and loss of insurance coverage. (Days after the vote, the Nashville, Tenn., law firm Guenther, Jordan & Price said it would no longer represent the SBC due to the committee’s decision to waive confidentiality.)
But in the days leading up to the most recent vote, seminary presidents, state conventions, and prominent pastors issued open letters, statements, and tweets imploring the Executive Committee to set aside financial concerns and honor the requests of sexual abuse survivors.
By Tuesday, nearly two dozen Executive Committee members who had previously opposed the waiver voted in favor of it, according to a tally by Virginia Pastor Brent Hobbs, a contributor to the blog SBC Voices.
Slade expressed relief after the vote tally was announced. He also conveyed sorrow over the conflict among SBC leaders—often on display via livestream in recent weeks. “Most importantly, it’s time to know for sure where we have fallen short on the question of sexual abuse within the [SBC] so that we can correct any errors and move into the future as a convention that’s the most safe for our most vulnerable members,” Slade told committee members.
A task force appointed by SBC president and Alabama Pastor Ed Litton is overseeing the third-party inquiry conducted by the law firm Guidepost Solutions. The inquiry is already underway, according to Bruce Frank, a North Carolina pastor and chairman of the task force. Guidepost is expected to present a public report of its findings 30 days before the 2022 annual meeting in June in Anaheim, Calif.
Sexual abuse survivors emphasized the long road ahead. “It’s a win but not a big win,” wrote David Pittman, who says an SBC pastor abused him when he was a boy. Pittman, now an advocate for survivors of clergy abuse, said the denomination needs to do more to protect sexual abuse victims in SBC churches and to ensure known predators do not serve in church ministries.
Tiffany Thigpen, a sexual abuse victim who attended and watched the Executive Committee meetings, said Tuesday’s vote “sits heavy.” Thigpen says a former Florida Baptist pastor attacked her when she was 18. She said an SBC leader she reported the abuse to discouraged her from going public with it. Thigpen came forward with her story after learning her alleged abuser had been convicted of molestation and lewd texting with underage girls.
“It’s taken so long to have so many people standing with us for transparency,” she said. “There will be a lot of fallout … but there can be so much good that comes from facing brokenness.”
—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.