Southern Baptist Convention responds to reports of ignoring incidents of sexual abuse
Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton (left) and outgoing President J. D. Greear (right) talk with denomination members following the conclusion of the annual meeting in June 2021. Mark Humphrey/AP
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A damning report published last week found the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest protestant denomination in the country, “ignored” reports of sexual abuse for “almost two decades”.

The 280-page report covers the findings of an independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions launched last fall. According to the document, survivors reporting “child molesters and other abusers” working “in the pulpit or employed as church staff” went unheard.

“They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at… meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press,” the report reads. Survivors making reports faced “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the [Executive Committee].”

Report details “failure” of the Southern Baptist Convention to manage incidents of abuse

Dozens of examples of the SBC executive committee’s “failure” to properly manage incidents of abuse are outlined in the report.

In May of 2018, a concerned mother left two voicemails after observing concerning behavior from her church pastor. She told the SBC her son was the victim of “inappropriate text messages and predatory grooming by a male youth minister.”

According to the report, the SBC claimed they could not intervene because it “was a local church matter”.

A similar excuse was provided to a concerned congregant in Florida who reached out to the SBC regarding a pastor’s criminal history. According to the congregant, the pastor was reportedly a convicted child molester who abused his own children. When they reached out to the SBC, they were told the organization “had no control” over local churches. The SBC representative reportedly told them to “call the church and ask the name and telephone number of the chair of deacons”.

Culture of abuse, silencing survivors reached the top of the organization

The allegations reached the very top of the organization, including its then President, Dr. Johnny Hunt. Dr. Hunt, the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, assaulted a woman during a 2010 trip to Panama City Beach, Florida.

The report details Hunt’s “violent” sexual assault of another pastor’s wife in a beachfront condo. Following the assault, Hunt reportedly asked the survivor not to speak of the incident to anyone.

According to the report, Dr. Hunt continues to reach out to the survivor’s husband, contacting him “even as recently as October 2021”.

The report also details efforts from the Southern Baptist Convention to silence and shame survivors who came forward.

“Rather than focusing on these accused ministers, some Executive Committee leaders turned against the very people trying to shine a light on sexual abuse,” the report concludes.

Leaders within the organization described survivors who came forward as “opportunistic” or “professional victims”.

D. August Boto, the Executive Committee’s general counsel, even suggested survivors and advocates were unwittingly aiding the work of “the devil”.

“They have gone to the SBC looking for sexual abuse, and of course, they found it,” Boto wrote in an email. “Their outcries have certainly caused an availability cascade… This is the devil being temporarily successful.”

Even the communications arm of the Southern Baptist Convention disparaged survivors.

The report notes that Jennifer Lyell shared the incident of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her former seminary professor. Rather than support Lyell’s account, the Southern Baptist Convention released a piece claiming she had “a morally inappropriate relationship” with her abuser. It took nearly seven months of pleading from Lyell for the communication’s branch to retract the story and issue an apology.

SBC leadership expresses remorse, promises change

In a statement on Sunday, Southern Baptist Convention president Ed Litton said the report “grieved him to his core”.

The SBC will meet next month for their annual convention in Anaheim, California. Litton says he hopes all Southern Baptists will “take deliberate action to address these failures and chart a new course”.

At least four of Litton’s predecessors “protected or supported abusers” according to the report.

The report was ordered last year amid mounting accusations of SBC leadership ignoring incidents of abuse. Thousands of SBC members voted for an investigation that was not overseen by the executive committee.

Litton appointed a task force to oversee the process and review the findings. That task force will present a series of recommendations at the national convention next month.

Nate Morris moved to the Tulsa area in 2012 and has committed himself to helping build a more equitable and just future for everyone who calls the city home. As a teacher, advocate, community organizer...