When Southern Baptist victims reported abuse, lawyers stood in the way

Washington Post

May 24, 2022

By David Von Drehle

Victims of sexual abuse at Southern Baptist institutions no doubt hoped they would find a caring reception when they took their stories to the denomination’s leaders in Nashville. But for decades, what they received was legal stonewalling.

The grim story is told in abundant detail by investigators hired to review the denomination’s stubborn failure to address abuse by clergy and other church employees. Again and again, their report shows, victims and their supporters went in search of atonement only to find attorneys in their way. Neither Jesus nor the Bible figures prominently in the internal documents quoted in the report, but risk management and dodging liability are constant concerns.

“Over the years, the EC’s response to sexual abuse allegations” — the “EC” referred to is the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention — “was largely driven by senior EC staff members, particularly D. August ‘Augie’ Boto, the EC General Counsel,” investigators found. Boto retired in 2019 after more than two decades spent guarding the stone wall. Yet he was a tenderfoot compared with attorney James P. Guenther, “the SBC’s long-serving outside counsel,” as investigators put it, who “had provided legal advice since 1966.”

The “main concern” of these legal graybeards “was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.” Victims and others concerned about abuse “were often ignored or told that the SBC had no power to take action.” But the lawyers advised more than mere statements of helplessness. They warned denomination leaders not to “elicit further information or details about reports of abuse, so that the EC not assume a legal duty to take further action.”

Imagine that: These soldiers of Christ were urged to go AWOL on a matter of great moral importance out of fear that if they showed any interest or concern, they might be expected to do something about it.

Behind the scenes, however, the lawyers condoned a secret list of credible abuse reports. “Basically, we are stuffing newspaper clippings in a drawer,” attorney Boto remarked dismissively in one internal memo.They needed a very big metaphorical drawer, it seems; investigators found that the list, drawn from more than 10 years of reports, contained more than 400 likely “SBC-affiliated”names, including repeat offenders.

For the victims, there is no difference between the worldwide sexual abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church and this calculated coldheartedness at the top of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination. Structurally, though, there is a difference — and the Baptist lawyers have clung to it fiercely.

Roman Catholicism is a formal hierarchy in which parish churches run by priests are part of dioceses run by bishops, and the bishop of Rome — also known as the pope — has authority over them all. By contrast, each Southern Baptist church is its own independent operation. The national convention has no authority except to say if a church is allowed to claim the brand.

Victim support groups have long argued that the national organization should refuse to allow churches to be part of the fellowship if they ignore abuse, fail to report abuse or hire known abusers. Enforcing that standard would entail the very eliciting of “information” and “details” that the lawyers have preached against — and so, nothing has been done.

And here the distinction between Catholics and Baptists evaporates. In both cases, leaders have hidden behind their lawyers. Some 20 years ago, Boston Globe reporters began digging into the history of coverups and victim silencing by the Catholic Church. Almost immediately, they ran into attorney Wilson D. Rogers Jr. What Boto and Guenther have been for the Baptists, Rogers was for Boston’s Cardinal Bernard F. Law: “an architect of the archdiocese’s years-long adversarial handling” of sexual abuse victims, in the words of the Globe.

There is a place for lawyers, of course. But they should never have been the first figures to meet the victims of abusive pastors and priests.

By leading with the lawyers and hunkering down behind them, religious leaders abdicated their moral duty to acknowledge errors, repair mistakes and care for the vulnerable. They lost a chance to show the world what it means to take responsibility.

Two days after the report came the apology, so long overdue. Willie McLaurin, interim president of the executive committee, told a virtual meeting of the group that “now is the time to change the culture.” Thankfully, he had the self-awareness to add that this is “the bare minimum” the SBC leadership can offer.

Yet maybe there is a silver lining. The scandal is out in the open now, forced into the light by rank-and-file Baptists who are determined to face the truth. That’s not the way the lawyers wanted it, but it is the right thing to do.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”