Blake Burleson: Attorney general must pursue church sex predators

Waco Tribune-Herald [Waco, TX]

June 4, 2022

By Blake Burleson

This summer churches in Waco and surrounding Central Texas suburbs and towns will offer Vacation Bible Schools, mission trips, church camps and other worthwhile and wholesome activities to our children. Those of us who grew up in such churches know their potential to set the trajectory of our lives. Who can forget Bible drills, campfire sing-a-longs, the pledge to the Christian flag, long bus rides to youth camp and backyard Bible clubs?

Parents sending their children and teens to church activities this summer expect that not only will their sons and daughters be provided religious instruction and spiritual formation but that they’ll be safe. This includes being safe from sexual predators.

Yet, on May 22, 2022, parishioners in the largest Protestant denomination in America were provided a scathing report by Guidepost Solutions that documents the systemic efforts by Southern Baptist executives to cover up sexual abuse of victims — many of whom were children and adolescents — in their own churches. The report by this independent investigation proves what hundreds of survivors have said all along, specifically that the Southern Baptist Convention downplayed scandalous and criminal behavior to protect their name brand and the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual donations that would be at risk from lawsuits by survivors.

Key findings:

  • SBC leaders misled its members and media outlets about alleged sexual predators and did not report, as required by law, abuse allegations to authorities.
  • SBC leaders expressed frustration with survivors, their advocacy and their demands by criticizing them in public and in private.
  • SBC leaders maintained a secret record of clergy accused of sex crimes, even as they argued that they had no ecclesial authority to keep such a list.

To add insult to injury, the report provides detailed evidence of sexual assault by Johnny Hunt, SBC president from 2008-2010. (Rev. Hunt recently resigned as a senior vice president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board shortly before the report was released. He also issued an open letter admitting to inappropriate behavior with a pastor’s wife but denying it was a sexual assault.) While the report, based on 330 interviews with survivors, is damning, it may be just the tip of the iceberg: Guidepost Solutions was limited to investigating the SBC Executive Committee. SBC mission boards and seminaries were excluded from the probe. What would an independent investigation of these SBC institutions reveal?

‘Criminal conspiracy’

Condemnation by some Southern Baptists of the abuse of power and dereliction of duty by these Baptist leaders has been swift. Rev. Russell Moore, former president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (2013-2021), wrote in Christianity Today: “The investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be. When I read the back-and-forth between some of these presidents, high-ranking staff and their lawyers, I cannot help but wonder what else this can be called but a criminal conspiracy.”

After the release of the Guidepost report, the following statement was published on the front page of the SBC website: “The recently released Guidepost report revealed a list of alleged abusers compiled by a former employee of the SBC Executive Committee. This list is being made public for the first time as an initial but important step towards addressing the scourge of sexual abuse and implementing reform in the Convention. Each entry in this list reminds us of the devastation and destruction brought about by sexual abuse. Our prayer is that the survivors of these heinous acts find hope and healing, and that churches will utilize this list proactively to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us.”

The list is 205 pages long and contains the names of Southern Baptists and other Baptists who were arrested, pleaded guilty to or are convicted of sexually oriented crimes. One hundred and seven on the list of more than 700 were affiliated with Texas churches and include pastors, youth ministers, Sunday School teachers, deacons, music teachers, child care workers, dorm supervisors and counselors. Central Texas churches in Waco, Peoria, Granbury and Corsicana are on the list. One entry describes a crime by a 38-year-old “music director and Bible teacher” at Waco’s Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church who “pleaded guilty in 2005 to abusing a 12-year-old boy and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.” The entry states that this individual had been “convicted in 1991 for sexual assault of two boys and in 2002 for failure to register as a sex offender in Burnet County. The church didn’t run background check. He is on the Texas Sex Offender Registry.” A 2006 report by the Waco Tribune-Herald revealed that church officials didn’t run a background check on the individual because they had known of his work at other area churches.

Alleged infractions on the list include among others: grooming, sexting, seduction, exposure, transporting obscene images across state lines, possession of child pornography, indecency with a child, taking indecent photographs of children and sexual assault.

It took decades of investigative journalism and the courage of sexual-abuse survivors for the largest denomination in America, the U.S. Catholic Church, to admit its complicitous sins and to expunge leadership that had denied and covered up for pedophiles and other sexual predators. Yet Southern Baptist Convention leaders were doing exactly the same thing as those in the Catholic hierarchy even though, by now, all Americans know or should know that to hide or not report abuse by an ordained clergy member is not only immoral but also a crime. Attorneys general in half of the states in America are now investigating or have investigated alleged sex abuse by Catholic priests.

Theological chauvinism

What’s next for Southern Baptists? Will church members demand accountability at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting which starts on June 14 in California? Will they demand resignations? Will they seek to make restitutions for victims who were physically, psychologically and spiritually raped? Will they ask for an investigation into other SBC agencies and institutions? Will they begin to examine theological issues that may have led to this sordid saga?

No matter what the SBC does this summer, parents and grandparents of church-going children — and all Texans who care about a safe place for our little ones to develop and thrive — should demand our state attorney general investigate allegations of sex crimes by clergy. Whether the accused minister is the senior executive pastor of a politically conservative mega (and MAGA) SBC church in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth or San Antonio or a youth minister shepherding a small flock of middle school students in Robinson, Hewitt, Bellmead or Woodway, Texans must demand the attorney general follow the leads of attorneys general from Arkansas to Wisconsin who are investigating alleged crimes by clergy. Now is the time to ask the three individuals on the November 2022 ballot for Texas attorney general — Republican Ken Paxton (incumbent), Democrat Rochelle Garza and Libertarian Mark Ash — if they have read the Guidepost Solutions report and what they plan to do if elected. Are they committed to spending the resources to find these predators in Texas places of worship? Some of the names on the SBC list have been blacked out. Will they investigate those names? Will the attorney general of Texas provide safe spaces for survivors to come forward? Will they open investigations into other state Southern Baptist agencies and institutions? In short, what’s their plan given this damning report?

An ancient proverb notes that “a fish rots from the head down.” For theological reasons, leadership in SBC institutions and SBC churches is relegated exclusively to men. Yet predictably, most of the crimes listed in this report were committed by male leaders against women or girls under their authority. The minimizing of crimes against female survivors and the subsequent cover-ups of those crimes were exclusively by men in charge. Beneath their exegetical tricks about the unequal but “complementary” roles of men and women in the ministry, the fundamentalist rule of the SBC is about preventing women from sharing ecclesial power with men as it is anything else. The current “apocalypse,” as Rev. Moore describes the scandal, is one of the damning results of this theological chauvinism.

It has not gone without notice that the architects of the conservative takeover of the SBC in the 1980s, Judge Paul Pressler and Rev. Paige Patterson, recently fell from almighty perches of veneration over issues regarding sexual abuse. Patterson was fired as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth in 2018 for lying to the board about a rape allegation that came before him and for attempting to “break down” the victim of a rape. Pressler, retired justice of the Texas 14th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, is on the Guidepost Solutions list as a defendant in a civil lawsuit alleging that he repeatedly abused the plaintiff beginning when the plaintiff was age 14. Two others have submitted affidavits accusing Pressler of sexual misconduct. Ironically, Rev. Patterson was reportedly given standing ovations by First Baptist Dallas worshipers when he gave twin sermons there only a week ago.

“A fish rots from the head down.” Parents in SBC churches should begin asking questions about this exclusive boys-only club to which their pastor belongs.

Blake Burleson is an ordained Baptist minister and a faculty member in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. The seventh-generation Texan enjoys carpentry, painting, backpacking and travel.