Leaders of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination – Southern Baptists – for decades ignored or covered up sexual abuse allegations against top clergy, according to a new report.
Survivors repeatedly shared allegations with the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), only to be met with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility”, according to the report released on Sunday by Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm contracted by the SBC following an outcry over the allegations and the prospect of the executive committee investigating its own conduct.
The report said the executive committee, which largely controlled the denomination’s response to any allegations, “were singularly focused on avoiding liability”.
“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” it said.
Those abused varied in age and included children, according to the report. Interviewed survivors “spoke of trauma from the initial abuse, but also told us of the debilitating effects that come from the response of the churches and institutions like the SBC that did not believe them, ignored them, mistreated them, and failed to help them,” the report said.
Meanwhile, lawsuits against the church were denigrated as “opportunistic” and not having merit, according to the report.
The scandal echoed that of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been rocked by a deluge of allegations of sexual abuse, spurred by a 2002 report by the Boston Globe newspaper that documented a decades-long campaign of coverups. The US Catholic Church has since paid an estimated $3.2bn to settle clergy abuse cases, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks the issue.
The SBC claims 13 million members in the US and 40 million worldwide.
In its report, Guidepost Solutions said staffers on the executive committee of the SBC maintained a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, but there is no indication they “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches”.
The alleged abuses and institutional inaction gained national attention in 2019 when a landmark report from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News documented hundreds of cases, including several in which the alleged perpetrators remained in ministry.
Russell Moore, the former head of the SBC’s public policy wing who left the denomination after accusing the leadership of stalling efforts to address the sex abuse crisis, described the findings as “an apocalypse”.
“As dark a view as I had of the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be,” Moore wrote in Christianity Today.
Survivor Christa Brown, who said she was sexually abused as a teen by the youth and education minister at her SBC church, said the report “fundamentally confirms what Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors have been saying for decades”.
“I view this investigative report as a beginning, not an end. The work will continue,” she told the Associated Press news agency. “But no one should ever forget the human cost of what it has taken to even get the SBC to approach this starting line of beginning to deal with clergy sex abuse.”
SBC President Ed Litton, in a statement on Sunday, said he is “grieved to my core” for the victims.
He called on Southern Baptists to lament and prepare to change the denomination’s culture and implement reforms.
“I pray Southern Baptists will begin preparing today to take deliberate action to address these failures and chart a new course when we meet together in Anaheim,” Litton said, referring to the California city that will host the SBC’s national meeting on June 14 to 15.