After weeks of chaos, Southern Baptist leaders vote for full transparency in sex abuse investigation

Houston Chronicle [Houston TX]

October 5, 2021

By Robert Downen

Southern Baptist Convention leaders on Tuesday voted to waive attorney-client privilege in an investigation of their alleged mishandling and concealment of sex abuses over the last two decades.

The vote by the SBC’s Executive Committee caps weeks of tumult that nearly pushed the nation’s second-largest faith group into crisis over its handling of sexual abuse cases and, in the days leading up to the Tuesday vote, prompted a wave of resignations by top denominational leaders.

Had the committee refused to waive on Tuesday, numerous Baptist historians said the denomination would have been pushed into an unprecedented standoff over who holds ultimate power in the denomination — 47,000 churches, or the small group of executive committee members they elect to represent them?

“It’s time to know for sure where we have fallen short on the question of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention so that we can correct any errors and move into the future as a convention,” Executive Committee Chairman Rolland Slade, said after the 44-31 vote was tallied.

Sex abuse has dominated the agenda of the SBC since a 2019 Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News investigation, Abuse of Faith, that found hundreds of SBC church leaders and volunteers had been convicted of sex crimes. They left behind more than 700 victims, nearly all of them children.

The newspapers also detailed years of failed attempts by survivors to convince SBC leaders — namely executive committee members — that their churches were being targeted by predators.

Those and other allegations dominated the SBC’s annual meeting in June, at which more than 10,000 church delegates overwhelmingly approved a third-party investigation into whether executive committee members had mishandled abuse reports, sought to stifle reforms and intimidate other denominational leaders who’ve been outspoken on the issue. Delegates explicitly requested a waiver of attorney-client privilege by the executive committee to ensure transparency.

Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd said at the time he “heard” the delegates and vowed to honor their requests. But in the following months, Floyd and other executive committee members said they should not fulfill the request because it could threaten the SBC’s insurance and pave the way for lawsuits.

Floyd was accused of mishandling an abuse report after he took the committee’s helm in 2019 — an allegation he has denied.

They repeated those concerns about liability at two meetings held last month. Both meetings ended in an impasse over the waiver issue, prompting outcry from more than 1,000 pastors who said the executive committee had effectively overturned the will of thousands of church delegates and abandoned its responsibilities.

In the days ahead of Tuesday’s meeting at least five executive committee members resigned. Others said they changed their minds because of the pushback from pastors and church members.

Abuse survivors and their supporters said the vote was a victory.

“Not without major opposition and an abundance of fear tactics, we’ve seen so many rise to the occasion and say enough, calling for cooperation for survivors to finally show the truth,” said Tiffany Thigpen, who was assaulted by the protege of two former SBC presidents.

Thigpen said that more must be done to regain the trust of survivors, many of whom were vilified or disbelieved when they came forward.

“Now the real questions can be answered,” she said. “Why have we allowed this? How did we get here? Survivors have endured and now we seek the repentance and justice we deserve and God calls for.”

Robert Downen covers general assignment and breaking news stories for the Houston Chronicle’s metro desk. Prior to that, he worked as a business reporter in Albany, New York, and as the managing editor of a group of six newspapers in Illinois. He is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Illinois University.