Southern Baptist members detail alleged grooming, sexual misconduct among clergy in new report

NBC News [New York NY]

May 23, 2022

By Erik Ortiz

In the summer of 2010, a pastor and his wife at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, said they received an invite to vacation in Florida with Johnny Hunt, a senior pastor of their church whom they considered a mentor.

The 55-year-old church leader had been elected national president of the Southern Baptist Convention two years earlier, making him one of the most powerful members of the largest denomination of Protestants in the U.S.

Hunt allegedly helped to book them a place in Panama City Beach that, unbeknownst to them, was directly beside his unit in the same condo complex, the unnamed young couple said in a 288-page blockbuster investigative report released Sunday by the Southern Baptist Convention. When the pastor’s wife arrived alone after a day out, she said she was greeted by Hunt, and they interacted from their respective balconies.

But when she invited him inside her condo to escape the heat and continue their conversation, during which she said she opened up about the stress she and her husband were under at the church, he became aggressive, she said to investigators, as detailed in the report. According to her, he pulled down her shorts, made sexual remarks about her body, and then pinned her to the couch and pulled up her shirt. She said in the report that he groped her and sexually assaulted her with his hands and mouth.

Moments later, she said in the report, Hunt — who is married with two adult daughters close to her age — texted her to come out to her balcony to discuss what had happened. Instead of an apology, she said, he made a proposition that they have sex three times a day.

Hunt did not immediately return a request for comment Monday about the allegations, but in a statement posted on Twitter following the report’s release, he denied its contents while also saying he had not yet read the findings in their entirety.

“To put it bluntly: I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report. I have never abused anybody,” he wrote.

The report detailed widespread allegations of sexual misconduct among named clergy and a cover-up involving the upper echelons of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The denomination’s executive committee contracted an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, an independent consultant that conducts investigations on behalf of faith-based organizations, to launch an inquiry after delegates voted overwhelmingly for one last summer.

In its wake, Ronnie Floyd, a Southern Baptist Convention president from 2014 to 2016, resigned in October as head of the executive committee.

The report also goes over several reforms the church could implement, including creating and maintaining an “Offender Information System” to alert the community to alleged offenders, and restricting the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements that bind accusers to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters.

A church task force will present its own recommendations based on the report during its annual meeting next month in Anaheim, California.

Already, the reaction from some prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and followers has centered on a demand for sweeping changes that ensure the accused are not protected and the abused are not silenced.

“What was published is heartbreaking, with some parts just horrifying,” tweeted J.D. Greear, a North Carolina pastor and Southern Baptist Convention president from 2018 to 2021 who has spoken in support of sex abuse victims. “We have no choice but to learn from our past and change the future.”

In response to the report, current Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton said in a statement Sunday that there “are not adequate words to express my sorrow at the things revealed in this report” and that Southern Baptists “must resolve to change our culture and implement desperately needed reforms.”

Litton could not be reached Monday for further comment.

Another leader of the denomination, Kevin Ezell, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, said he was unaware of any misconduct allegations against Hunt, who resigned from a leadership position with the board more than a week ago.

“I learned the details of the report today along with the rest of our Southern Baptist family,” Ezell said, adding that the details in the report are “egregious and deeply disturbing.”

He said he declined to speak publicly about Hunt’s resignation until after the Guidepost report was released “out of respect for the investigation.”