The SBC Has a Sex-Abuse Problem

Wall Street Journal

Dec. 26, 2019

By Nicole Ault

Before Rachael Denhollander became a victim of USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, she says she was sexually abused by a college student at her nondenominational church when she was 7. Some parishioners protected her, she says, but others thought her family had falsely accused the man.

She told a crowd of Southern Baptists at an October conference that she had “internalized” the message that “if you cannot prove your abuse, do not speak up.” The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with some 15 million members and 47,000 churches—is reckoning with mistreatment of sexual-abuse victims in its ranks.

A six-part Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News report found more than 250 SBC officials and volunteers who were convicted of sex-abuse crimes over the past 20 years, and some 700 victims. It also revealed cases in which church members and leaders scorned victims and masked accusations of misconduct against popular pastors.

In a report published this summer by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public-policy arm, a woman recalls a pastor implying that she had brought her youth minister’s abuse on herself. Another woman said she was anally raped on campus at a Southern Baptist college, then told by a male administrator that she hadn’t really been raped because it wasn’t vaginal penetration. Paige Patterson was fired last year as president of an SBC seminary because, among other reasons, he said in an email that he’d try to “break . . . down” a woman who accused a student at the college of rape. The SBC has failed “to take disclosure seriously and to believe the survivor,” the commission’s report says.

The commission devoted its October conference to the topic of sexual abuse and promotes a “Caring Well” curriculum to train its congregations to identify and address abuse. But awareness won’t suffice. “The solution to this is a cultural shift,” Russell Moore, the commission’s president, says. That includes “vigilance,” educating church members and a new attitude toward survivors: “We want to listen and to care for you. Shaming or blaming of survivors is itself a predatory act.”

The cultural problem raises questions about the SBC’s practices and structure. The denomination ordains only men as pastors. It also leaves member churches fairly autonomous, with little top-down regulation and an emphasis on local responsibility. Southern Baptist leaders sometimes “try to hide behind” that structure, claiming that they can encourage but not mandate certain behavior for local churches, says Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer and former sex-crimes prosecutor. That’s legally “very beneficial” to the SBC.

Changes are in the works. Women can already hold nonordained leadership positions in SBC churches, and Mr. Moore acknowledges “we need to hear more from women” in these capacities. The SBC approved an amendment this summer (which must pass again in 2020) providing that churches found to be “indifferent” toward sexual abuse may be removed from fellowship with the denomination. It also established a committee to apply greater scrutiny to disputes between churches and the national body. The committee recently set up an online portal where congregants can submit concerns.

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