Sexual Abuse in the SBC
This past weekend the Houston Chronicle published the first in a promised series of stories detailing allegations of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and ministries. According to the published report, more than 700 victims have gone on record with stories of abuse at the hands of leaders in Southern Baptist churches and ministries. This follows on the heels of stories in recent years of sexual abuse within Roman Catholic churches and even several stories posted last year by the Fort-Worth Star Telegram of sexual abuse within independent fundamental Baptist churches. These stories are also part of a broader cultural moment often referred to as the “Me Too” movement where victims of sexual abuse have been embolden to speak out and many perpetrators of abuse have been called to account.
These stories are heartbreaking and infuriating and the connection with Southern Baptist Churches and ministries hits way too close to home. As a Southern Baptist Church, we partner with more than 47,000 churches across North America as part of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. While Calvary draws people from multiple denominational backgrounds and traditions, Calvary has always identified as a Southern Baptist congregation and this cooperative network serves as our primary vehicle for cooperative missions work around the globe.
It is worth noting for the uninformed, that one of the hallmarks of Baptist ecclesiology (how we organize our churches) is that each congregation is autonomous. There is no denominational umbrella that controls or oversees local churches. Each church is self-governing and cooperates freely with others to further our gospel mission across the country and around the world. In other words, the Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t ordain or supervise pastors, local churches do. That makes our organizational structure very different from, say our Roman Catholic friends, who have a very pronounced hierarchical structure. While it makes our organizational approach different, it doesn’t make the reality of sexual abuse any less horrific. In fact, our autonomous structures may actually allow perpetrators to hide more easily and simply move on to other victims with little accountability.
The stories being told are stories of human sin and depravity but they are also, in many cases, stories of systemic organizational failure. In far too many cases, churches and ministries have not adequately protected their flocks and have viewed sexual misconduct as a matter of church discipline, church policy, or, even more horrifically, as a public relations problem to be managed. Sexual abuse may involve any of those things, but it is more. It is sin and it is also criminal. Criminal activity should be reported to law enforcement and legal authorities should hold perpetrators of sexual abuse and sexual crimes to account.
The reports in the Chronicle highlight that all too often church ministries have gotten this wrong, tragically so. Last year as a discussion of these matters was sweeping through Southern Baptist life, I posted a blog from the secrets of my own family. I had two nieces who were sexually violated at a young age by a former Southern Baptist missionary who was allowed to come home from international work and assume a position in a local Baptist association. He was a pedophile and his records would later confirm that the International Mission Board (then the Foreign Mission Board) knew this. He had victimized children abroad. He was called home but then allowed to find another position and continue his conduct. You can read my account here.
What are we to say to these shameful things and how does it affect our ministry today here at Calvary? First, let us acknowledge that you can find sinful conduct anywhere, even in churches. As disgusting as it is, some pedophiles hide behind religious appearances to conduct their crimes. Churches are often soft targets that provide adults with easy access to supervising children. Historically, churches were far too lax in training, oversight, and enforcement. There are many reasons for such laxness but it is inexcusable that so many children have been put at risk. Inexcusable.
Second, it has become apparent that in not only churches but across our culture, many institutions have failed because we reflexively wanted to hide such shameful crimes and were worried about appearances and consequences. In so doing, we failed our children, the least of these. Sexual abuse is not a public relations problem; it is a sin problem. It is that and it is more; it is a crime. It is not a problem merely for internal church discipline; it is a legal problem that requires outside law enforcement. From the scandals at Penn State to the many stories in other institutions and now also churches, the lesson that must be learned is that we cannot cover up these horrific crimes, or merely pass our concerns up some chain of command. Crimes against children must be reported and we must care more for the victims than for the appearances of our own institutions.
The Chronicle report is tough on our network of churches and on many Baptist leaders. We might be tempted to argue over a phrase or reflexively try to defend or mitigate. That would be the wrong response. The reality is that we did not do enough. We failed and in many cases people have been irreparably damaged.
I do think things are changing. I believe our Baptist institutions are doing a much better job in addressing these issues. Like others across our culture we have seen the dark side of abuse exposed and realized that we are not immune. I know for a fact that attitudes have changed and meaningful policies have been enacted at our cooperating Baptist institutions. I am glad for that. Our SBC President J.D. Greear just last year appointed a panel to look over the entire Southern Baptist landscape and recommend ways in which we can work cooperatively to expose predators and protect innocent victims. This will not be a whitewash nor is it being buried in a bureaucratic committee (a Baptist dance of delay and deny). It will be an important report and I look forward to its release and hopefully meaningful reforms.
And yet, the great danger, especially in Baptist life is that all churches are indeed autonomous. Many churches are still too lax in their policies and seem all too willing to give an offender a “second chance”. It should be said that no one who ever sexually abuses a child should ever, EVER, get a second chance at gospel ministry.
At Calvary, we have taken this challenge seriously. Our staff and team have taken the responsibility of creating a safe environment in our ministries as one of our most sacred tasks. We have invested thousands of dollars in training and security. We have required training of every person who works in our ministry, both in the church ministry side and in the school side. Just last year, we invested in hiring Ministry Safe, a nationally recognized leader in training churches and ministries, to come and train all our staff and volunteers in sexual abuse prevention. We required every member of our team and every volunteer working in our ministry to attend training. Our Administrative Committee enacted comprehensive policies and procedures that every staff member must read and sign as well as every volunteer who works directly with minors. We require extensive background checks of all staff and volunteers who work with minors. We are committed to a safe environment and I give you my word as your pastor that we will do everything we can to protect the innocent and we will never give quarter to any perpetrators of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct.
The stories coming out in the Chronicle are painful to read but we must address the issue head on. We must hear the truth and tell the truth. We must confront the past, however painful. We must make changes in our ministries and we must insist that Baptist ministries with whom we cooperate make changes as well.
Finally, to those of you who have been hurt, no words can ever erase the pain of sexual violation, but as a pastor and church leader I would like to say I am so sorry. I am so sorry your trust and innocence were violated. There is no excuse for someone using a spiritual or religious cover to justify sexual abuse and there is no excuse for ministries and institutions ignoring the cries of the abused and giving cover to abusers. As a pastor, I am angry and ashamed. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I am angry and ashamed. For those who have courageously stood up and told your stories, thank you. For those who have stood up to insist that we can and must do better, thank you. Hopefully, in the future there will be fewer victims, greater accountability, and less stories like we are hearing now.
Jesus once warned those who offend a little child, that it would be better for them if they had a large stone tied around their neck and cast into the sea. Those are fighting words. Those are angry words. Those words come from the Son of God and they indicate that there is indeed a judgment waiting for those who prey upon the innocent.
It is past time to take sexual abuse seriously. It is past time to stand with those who have been wounded and have the courage to step forward. It is past time to quit excusing sexual misconduct in our leaders. Let the Lord arise and sweep out His house and let us humble ourselves, confess our sins, and repent. Let us pray for shepherds who will protect the flock and not prey upon it. And finally, let us resolve to stop the wolves, even those, especially those, who come in sheep’s clothing.