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Southern Baptist church leaders minimized sex abuse, lied to congregants for years, independent report finds

Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention covered up complaints of sexual abuse, steadfastly resisted calls for reform made by survivors, and lied about their ability to keep track of alleged abusers for nearly two decades, a bombshell report from independent investigators released Sunday found.

The scathing 300-page report by third-party group Guidepost Solutions details horrific behavior by Christian leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, who for more than 15 years responded to abuse survivors reporting child molesters and other abusers with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility,” the report said.

Evidence collected by investigators suggests that denomination leaders also lied to Southern Baptists about their ability to create and maintain a database of sexual predators to prevent abuse while keeping a private list in secret. SBC leaders are accused of acting to protect the denomination from litigation instead of responding forcefully to reports of sexual abuse and stopping abusers.

“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations,” the report said.

“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were 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 child molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

Some church leaders reportedly acted to cover up abuse allegations and permitted clergy members accused of abuse to remain pastors or hold other positions with authority. Records show that leaders also disparaged survivors behind their backs, calling them “opportunistic” or asserting they were acting as a “professional victim,” and downplayed the extent of the sexual abuse crisis facing the denomination.

In one email, senior church leader August Boto wrote that sexual abuse survivors and advocates were participating in “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Other stories of abuse were “minimized” and survivors were “ignored or even vilified,” the report said. Calls for reform “were met with resistance, typically due to concerns over incurring legal liability.”

The SBC Executive Committee commissioned this third-party review in response to an explosive investigative report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News in 2019 that found there were more than 700 victims of sexual abuse within the SBC in the past 20 years. At the 2021 SBC Convention in Nashville, survivors and reform advocates successfully campaigned for the creation of a task force to investigate the Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. Guidepost Solutions was chosen to conduct the independent investigation.

Among other revelations, the investigation unearthed a previously unknown accusation of abuse against former SBC President Johnny Hunt, a well-respected minister. An SBC pastor and his wife had credibly accused Hunt of sexually assaulting the wife in 2010, a month after Hunt’s term as president had ended, and reported the incident to the EC.

This report of abuse and many others were known to the EC but were not shared with EC Trustees, the report said. At least one EC staff member maintained a list of accused ministers in Baptist churches, including the ministers’ names, year reported, relevant news articles, state, and denomination. But nothing was ever done with that information.

According to the investigators, at least nine accused abusers are still in active ministry or connected to ministry and at least two of these people appear to be associated with an SBC church.

Guidepost Solutions makes several recommendations for the SBC to improve its response to sexual abuse and misconduct allegations. Among its suggestions is the creation of an independent commission to oversee and implement reforms and a “permanent Administrative Entity” with staffing and funding to prevent and respond to sexual abuse in SBC churches. The report also recommends providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.

“There are not adequate words to express my sorrow at the things revealed in this report. I am grieved to my core for those who have suffered sexual abuse in Southern Baptist contexts, both for those named in this report and the many who are not,” said Ed Litton, the current SBC president in a statement.

“Southern Baptists must resolve to change our culture and implement desperately needed reforms. The time is now. We have so much to lament, but genuine grief requires a godly response. 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,” he said.

The next annual meeting of SBC pastors, where reform efforts are sure to be discussed, will be in Anaheim, California on June 12-15, 2022.