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Southern Baptists set new tone on abuse

Delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting voted overwhelmingly for abuse prevention measures

An attendee holds a ribbon given to her by sexual abuse survivors at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., on Tuesday. Associated Press/Photo by Jae C. Hong

Southern Baptists set new tone on abuse

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Survivors of sexual abuse who attended the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting June 14 and 15 were given a private room with coffee, water, and snacks and staffed with trained counselors. Indiana Baptist pastor Todd Benkert organized a survivor booth inside the main hall during the two-day pastor’s conference that takes place before the annual meeting. He and others gave out teal ribbons and a card with a QR code linked to a 14-minute video message from sexual abuse victims that also played on a TV screen.

“You are the heroes in this hall,” North Carolina pastor Bruce Frank told survivors during his convention address. Frank chaired the nine-member sexual abuse task force that oversaw an investigation and report by the firm Guidepost Solutions. The report, released May 22, detailed how Baptist leaders mishandled abuse cases and mistreated survivors in recent decades.

David Pittman, a sexual abuse survivor, described this year’s annual meeting as a monumental change from three years ago in Birmingham, Ala. SBC organizers for the 2019 annual meeting declined survivors’ requests for a booth inside the convention hall and usage of the front lawn to host a rally bringing attention to the problem of sexual abuse in SBC churches, according to emails obtained by WORLD.

Instead, survivors held the rally by a nearby bus stop amid fumes, noise, and heat. Some passersby spoke vitriolic comments.

On Tuesday, nearly 8,100 church delegates, called “messengers,” voted on recommendations from the task force aimed at preventing abuse in SBC churches and entities, including a “ministry check” database to track people who are credibly accused of abuse. Sexual abuse survivor Christa Brown first proposed the denomination-wide database 16 years ago, according to Guidepost. When the time for the vote came, hands filled the air holding yellow ballot cards, clearly exceeding the required majority needed to approve the recommendations.

Messengers also elected a new SBC president, Bart Barber, a rural Texas pastor and Baptist historian. Barber previously co-developed legislation to protect churches and charities from civil liability for reporting alleged sexual predators. It became a state law in 2019.

Barber received nearly 61 percent of votes in a runoff election. His closest opponent, Tom Ascol of Cape Coral, Fla., campaigned to change the direction of what some Baptists see as a liberal drift in the SBC.

Barber called his new role an honor and a responsibility. At a Wednesday news conference, he underscored that sexual predators “have used our decentralized polity to turn our churches into hunting grounds.” He said it is time abusers “are put on notice that the tables have turned … the hunter is now the hunted.” The SBC has a congregationalist structure rooted in its doctrine of local church autonomy, which Baptists believe is based on the Biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church.

One of Barber’s first jobs will be to appoint new members to the sexual abuse task force. The messengers voted to keep the group working on reform initiatives to present at next year’s annual meeting. Those reforms include establishing a survivor care fund and memorial, revising the SBC’s complaint process, and helping Baptist churches and entities that voluntarily wish to implement abuse prevention measures, among other duties.

Frank said in his address that the recommendations approved on Tuesday represent the “bare minimum.” Brad Eubank, a Baptist pastor in Mississippi and an abuse survivor, admonished messengers: “This is a starting spot … let’s start the healing process today.”

I spoke with two Executive Committee members and heard other messengers who expressed concern that the SBC will become an investigative body, rather than leaving that to local authorities, and assume financial liability for abuse committed at local churches. They said the SBC could potentially undo Baptist polity on local church autonomy.

“This is a local issue,” said Joe Knott, an Executive Committee member and North Carolina attorney. “I fear that we would take steps toward connectivity … and it would be very detrimental toward the whole ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Some messengers opposed the definition of “credibly accused” abusers for the purposes of inclusion in the ministry check database. The task force defined a credibly accused abuser as “one who has confessed in a nonprivileged setting, who has been convicted in a court of law, or who has had a civil judgment rendered against them.” It also stated that an independent firm could determine “by a preponderance of the evidence, following an inquiry,” that a church worker is credibly accused. Opponents said putting people in the database who have not had a court judgment against them could violate their rights and risk defaming people who are falsely accused.

Southern Baptists on Wednesday adopted two abuse-related resolutions. In one “lament and repentance” resolution, they apologized to survivors “for our failure to care well for survivors … for our institutional responses which have prioritized [our] reputations over protection and justice for survivors.” The resolution also apologized to 10 survivors who consented to be named for “our not heeding their collective warnings and taking swift action to address clergy abuse sooner.”

Another resolution called for consistent state laws that criminalize pastoral sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile, one messenger proposed that the SBC adopt a designated day for abuse awareness on its calendar. That motion was referred to the Executive Committee, an 86-member group that manages the denomination’s business in between its annual meetings.

Divisions among Southern Baptists were more evident as they debated whether women should face criminal charges for obtaining an abortion amid the expected overturn of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court. Messengers also expressed sharp differences over whether Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., should be “disfellowshipped” from the convention for ordaining female pastors. The Credentials Committee, the group responsible for the decision, put the matter on hold.

In all, Executive Committee member and Mississippi pastor Adam Wyatt said the annual meeting represented “a 180-degree turn from last year.” He said the perception of abuse and sinful ways of relating to survivors is changing: “We want to swing for the fences and get it right. … We’re looking at a generational change that is going to take a while.”

Abuse survivor Jules Woodson said she waited 24 years to see Baptist leaders take action. On Tuesday, she felt encouraged: “It’s not just words anymore.”

Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report since its initial posting.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.


Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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