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LETTER FROM AMERICA: Southern Baptist Convention abuse scandal

May 2019 | by Ben Wilkerson

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In May 2018, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Paige Patterson, came under the spotlight for mishandling cases of sexual assault at the seminary.

The Southern Baptist Convention summarily terminated him from his position after investigating his role (Christianity Today, ‘Paige Patterson Fired by Southwestern’, June 2018).

While this action won much acclaim (and shock) from its members, this was only the tip of the iceberg for the world’s largest Baptist denomination in its relation to the #MeToo movement.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), while having origins in the southern US, has nearly fifty thousand congregations all over the country and currently boasts 15 million members. It sends over eight thousand missionaries to save the lost both in the US and across the globe.

As such, the impact is huge when the SBC is subjected to any kind of news report or investigation. According to the Houston Chronicle, ‘roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct’ since 1998 (from ‘Abuse of Faith’, Houston Chronicle, 2/10/2019). In their wake are over 700 victims, many of whom are still waiting for justice.

Debbie Vasquez is one such victim who was molested and left pregnant by her pastor in 1973. In 2008, she travelled to Indianapolis with other victims to speak with leaders of the SBC and begged them to ‘track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers’ (Houston Chronicle, Ibid.).

The Houston Chronicle has done much to aid these victims in the amount of research they conducted in 2007 and the database they built. Their findings are horrifying. The newspaper verified that about 220 people who held official positions within Southern Baptist churches had been convicted of sex crimes or received deferred prosecutions in plea deals.

Of these 220 people, more than 90 remain in prison and another 100 are still registered sex offenders. According to the Houston Chronicle, ‘some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit’.

As a result of these sexual offences, many families and individuals have suffered horribly and have experienced incredible trauma and even struggle to trust God afterwards. Even with such a wealth of evidence and a cry for reform, little has been done by the SBC’s executive committee.

Since the SBC is congregationalist in polity and each church is largely autonomous, the committee has stated there is little they can do. August Boto, the interim president of the SBC Executive Committee in 2008, expressed ‘sorrow’ about some of the newspaper’s findings but said the convention’s leadership can do only so much to stop sexual abuses.

‘It would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600’ cases, Boto said. ‘Sorrow. What we’re talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.’

Many of these sex offenders have used the SBC’s polity to their advantage to fuel their lustful appetites and are experienced con artists, ‘It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister,’ said [Christa] Brown, who lives in Colorado.

‘Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church’ (Houston Chronicle, Ibid.).

The Gospel Coalition summarised this gap in authority thus: ‘Per the SBC Constitution, the SBC “does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organisations, associations, or convention”. The most the SBC can do is to disassociate from abusive churches and consider them out of fellowship’ (TGC, ‘The FAQs: Investigative Report Uncovers Sexual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches’, 2/12/2019).

Many leaders within the denomination have written statements addressing these reports. J. D. Greear, the SBC President, responded: ‘As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem…

‘It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care).’

In the weeks following the Houston Chronicle’s report, the SBC has sought to investigate and address sexual abuse in its churches but with little success or drive. The bylaws committee of the SBC sought to address these cases but did so in injudicious manner. The committee has been accused of hastily issuing a statement saying that ‘no further inquiry was required’ in most of the cases (from Christianity Today, ‘The SBC, Abuse, and the Need for better response’, 2/26/2019).

Abuse is not to be trifled with. Sin, especially sexual sin, rends a hole in one’s relationship with God and with all the lives that touch our own. It destroys families, churches, vocations, and affects us to our core. Victims of sexual abuse may never fully recover and often decline into depression, drug abuse, or even suicide.

Even worse, others falter in their faith and reject God. Sexual offenders deserve the full power of justice as God has ordained. We would do well to heed the words of our Saviour Jesus Christ from Matthew 10: ‘Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.