Southern Baptist Sex Abuse Report Stuns, From Pulpit to Pews

Carissa Beard was helping her daughter pack up her dorm room on Sunday night when she got the text from her husband, the lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Thurmont in Maryland. The nearly 300-page report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention had dropped online. “It is every bit as bad as I expected it to be,” she said.

When Philip Meade, pastor at Graefenburg Baptist Church in Kentucky, read the details, he began reworking his plans for the church’s worship service next Sunday. He will now devote a portion of the service to “a lament for the mishandling of sexual abuse claims and for the survivors who have suffered so much,” he said.

Michael Howard, the head pastor of Seaford Baptist Church on the coast of Virginia, paused a family vacation to spend hours reading the report on Sunday afternoon. “It makes you ill,” Mr. Howard said. “I know as the word gets out, the people in our church will be asking: What is our response?”

Revelations in a sprawling report covering 20 years of sexual abuse accusations are coursing through every level of Southern Baptist society. The report, made public by the denomination on Sunday, claims that top church leaders suppressed and mishandled abuse claims, resisted reforms and belittled victims and their families.

The investigation, conducted by a third party at the insistence of church members, has thrust the nation’s largest Protestant denomination into turmoil at a particularly fraught moment. The Southern Baptist Convention is already grappling with declining membership, sharp divisions over politics and culture, and a high-stakes leadership change that is weeks away.

In some quarters, pastors and church members are openly frustrated at what they see as years of inaction on a crisis that has publicly persisted since 2019, when an investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News revealed that nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders, from youth pastors to top ministers, had pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998.

The report quickly proved to be another dividing line within the denomination, with some pastors and members seeing it as a call to action for deep cultural and structural changes on abuse, as well as a range of issues around politics and the treatment of women.

Turmoil in the Southern Baptist Convention

Internal and external crises have hit the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

  • Sex Abuse Crisis: Southern Baptist leaders suppressed reports of sexual abuse and resisted proposals for reform, a third-party investigation found after mounting pressure from survivors.
  • Hard-Right Revolt: Establishment leaders narrowly headed off an ultraconservative takeover. But the standoff portended further fractures.
  • A Split Over Trump: Beth Moore, a prominent evangelical, left the denomination over its support of Donald J. Trump.
  • ‘Sermongate’: The denomination’s president was found to have delivered sermons containing passages from those of his predecessor, causing a furor among Baptists.

The denomination’s former policy head, Russell Moore, who left last year, called it an “apocalypse” that revealed “a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.” Its current president, Ed Litton, said the report was “far worse” than he had anticipated.

More than 24 hours after the report was published online, leaders of the ultraconservative wing of the denomination remained relatively muted. The Conservative Baptist Network, an influential group founded in 2020, said in a brief statement on Monday evening that it joins other Southern Baptists in grieving, and that while it disagreed “with certain aspects of the report,” Southern Baptists should study its recommendations.

Mr. Litton’s successor, to be chosen at the denomination’s annual meeting in June, will determine the convention’s direction.

Bart Barber, a Texas pastor who is a candidate favored by many of Mr. Litton’s supporters, said in a statement that the convention needed leadership that “breaks decisively” from the patterns described in the report. “Discovery is no substitute for action,” he said.

Another candidate, Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who has said the denomination needs a “change of direction” from what he describes as a leftward drift, said in a statement late Monday that the report’s revelations should prompt Southern Baptists to “uphold God’s standards of holiness and purity in all things, especially in caring for those who are most vulnerable among us.” He urged prayer and study of the task force’s recommendations.

Leaders of the convention’s executive committee said they would meet on Tuesday to discuss the report.

In pews across the country, the report’s impact was just beginning to be felt. The denomination includes almost 14 million members in more than 47,000 congregations. In small towns and cities, pastors and churchgoers grappled with what the report said about their denomination, and what should happen next.

“Our people, I don’t think they have the bandwidth to get into all the details,” said Griffin Gulledge, the pastor of Madison Baptist Church in Georgia. “But what all my pastor friends are hearing is we better get this right, and we better fix this.” He is planning to discuss the report with attendees at the church’s weekly Bible study on Wednesday night.

For some victims and family members, the report did not go far enough. When a friend texted Christi Bragg that the report was online, she quickly tapped the Command and F keys to search for any references to the Village Church in Texas. Nothing popped up.

Four years ago she reported to the church’s leaders that her daughter, at about age 11, had been sexually abused at the church’s summer camp for children. A trial in her daughter’s lawsuit against the church is set to begin in October.

“The report ignores active legal litigation our daughter is navigating against one of the biggest churches in the S.B.C.,” Ms. Bragg said on Monday. “It continues to make you see the place she stands is such a difficult place; there is a lack of accountability and there is a lack of acknowledgment.”

The denomination has been roiled in debates over misogyny, racism and the handling of abuse cases in recent years. Critics say some pastors have focused more on fighting women in leadership and critical race theory than they have on rooting out abuse and the power structure that keeps it under wraps.

Three years ago, as the abuse crisis exploded in public view, a faction of ultraconservative pastors attacked Beth Moore, one of the most prominent white evangelical women in the United States, when she spoke at a church on Mother’s Day. She publicly renounced “the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC,” and has since left the denomination.

“If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you’re not just deceived,” Ms. Moore said in a tweet on Monday responding to the report. “You are part of the deception.”

The report shows how some leaders used the convention’s decentralized structure as a reason for avoiding mandatory accountability regarding sexual abuse in local churches. National entities have significantly less control over individual congregations than they do in institutions like the Roman Catholic Church.

Critics have said that the Southern Baptist Convention is comfortable drawing hard lines from the top down when it chooses. After one of the denomination’s largest congregations, Saddleback Church in Southern California, announced it had ordained three women pastors in supporting roles last year, high-profile pastors and leaders criticized the church sharply, and a committee was assigned to examine whether the denomination should break with the church.

Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee expelled two churches over their decisions to accept gay couples as members and church policies that the denomination deemed accepting of homosexuality.

For Ms. Beard, the Maryland pastor’s wife, the crisis remains personal. She is finishing a graduate degree in professional counseling, focused on trauma, to help people like her who have survived sexual and spiritual abuse in churches. While there are some people in the denomination who really want to do the right thing, she said, others are content with the status quo.

Last year she and her husband went to Nashville for the denomination’s convention and voted in favor of commissioning the report. They plan to go to next month’s convention in Anaheim, she said, “to make sure the S.B.C. follows through” on reforms.

“If we don’t have enough people that are willing to stand with the survivors, then, I’m going to call it the good ol’ boys network, is going to be successful at just brushing this aside,” she said.

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