Bob Doucette: For Southern Baptists, a reckoning over sexual abuse is overdue

Tulsa World [Tulsa OK]

May 31, 2022

By Bob Doucette

When a sexual abuse scandal hits the church, words from its ministers can be indicative of how bad things really are. The reputation of the church is on the line, but so is the welfare of the people it serves.

“Mortified” is a word one minister used last week. “Heartbroken and sickened,” said another.

If you’re not up on this particular story, you might be led to believe that such reactions came from Catholic clergy, whose church has been repeatedly rocked by abuse allegations.

But not this time. These are the words of Eric Costanzo, pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, and Todd Fisher, executive director-treasurer of Oklahoma Baptists and former pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Shawnee.

They’re both ordained ministers in the Southern Baptist Church, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and probably the most influential religious group in Oklahoma.

I know both men. They are sincere, good people. On a subject like this, they’re not given to hyperbole.

So yes, the findings of an independent sexual abuse investigation, commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention last year, are that bad.

I read through the report, issued by Guidepost Solutions, over the last few days. It was released last Sunday. It’s grim stuff:

At Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, a music minister was allowed to quietly leave in 1989 after allegations of sexual abuse of young boys surfaced. Police were never notified. The minister went on to another church in Mississippi. After confessing to that church about “sexual indiscretions” in Texas and, before that, in Mississippi, he was arrested and convicted on sex crimes charges.

When told this story and asked to address sexual abuse in ministry settings, the SBC’s Executive Committee staff rejected the idea.

Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced to resign in 2018 after it was revealed that he told one student rape victim in 2003 not to report the crime. In 2015, he planned to meet with another student victim, one-on-one, with the intention to “break her down” so she wouldn’t pursue action against her assailant.

In the wake of Patterson’s dismissal, some in SBC leadership, including its president, sought to run background checks on various SBC appointments. They were rebuffed.

A former SBC vice president, Judge Paul Pressler, is a defendant in a civil lawsuit in which he is accused of repeatedly sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy several years earlier. Two other men have made similar claims.

In an email between two high-ranking SBC Executive Committee staff members, one man wrote, “Hopefully the statute of limitations” would run out on the lawsuit and, therefore, discourage similar suits in the future.

Jennifer Lyell, who was once an executive at the SBC’s Lifeway publishing arm, reported abuse she suffered at the hands of a past Southern Baptist seminary professor. Lyell initially had support from Lifeway and SBC officials to make her story public.

In a story published by Baptist Press, she alleged that she was “sexually abused” by her professor. But edits to the story made by SBC brass changed the wording to describe it as “a morally inappropriate relationship.”

That wording change drastically altered the meaning of the story. In the eyes of many Baptist Press readers, she was no victim. Lyell was castigated online for being an adulterer (she maintains that the incidents were nonconsensual), and a change in management at Lifeway led to her losing her job.

The volume of reported incidents prompted some in the SBC to call for the creation of a database of abusive clergy, an idea that was officially dismissed. But secretly, Executive Committee staff kept files of hundreds of abuse cases from Southern Baptist ministers.

The extensive files revealed the scale of the problem, but nothing was done with it.

Other survivors were victimized again when their stories weren’t believed and their characters were questioned. SBC Executive Committee General Counsel Augie Boto called survivors’ efforts to prompt change “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Through two decades, consistent resistance to tackling abuse in SBC ranks shielded national and state organizations from scrutiny and abusers from accountability. Liability and a potential loss in contributions to missions programs were two of the motivations for such stonewalling.

The SBC’s structure, in which each congregation is autonomous from state or national oversight, provided further cover to do nothing with reported cases.

There’s more. Quite a bit more, actually. But the news isn’t all bad.

Former SBC President J.D. Greear has been a persistent advocate for abuse survivors and was in office when the Guidepost investigation was launched.

Executive Committee trustees, who were largely left in the dark about all this, were firm in supporting an investigation once they were aware of the breadth and depth of the allegations.

And at last year’s Nashville Convention, where more than 15,000 Southern Baptist delegates from across the country gathered for their annual meeting, the call for an independent, third-party inquiry was met with overwhelming support.

The inertia for a cover-up was strong, but so was momentum for transparency. Credit the latter to the survivors, their advocates and the Houston Chronicle, which blew the abuse scandal wide open in a thorough investigation it published in 2019.

Many ministers and lay people are reading Guidepost’s conclusions and are as stunned as Costanzo and Fisher. They’re also poring over the report’s recommendations.

What’s clear is that the SBC can’t hide behind its decentralized organization anymore. It’s unacceptable to cite bylaws, throw up your hands and say nothing can be done. A workaround can and must be found.

Reform is needed to make sure Southern Baptist members — be they children or adults — are not cast aside when their stories of abuse come to light. Church leaders at every level need to be empowered to respond and to safeguard their flock from abusers who try to slip back into the ministerial ranks.

I’m sure there will be many heartfelt sermons, speeches and prayers at Southern Baptist meetings in the days and weeks to come. But it can’t stop there.

Don’t let the church bury this in a weepy prayer service and then walk away. The battered lives of hundreds of abuse survivors demand more.