Texas Observer [Austin, Tx]

June 3, 2022

By David R Brockman

An epidemic of violence and broken lives. Leaders fail or refuse to respond. And the most vulnerable bear the cost of inaction.

While this story line describes the wave of mass shootings we’ve witnessed recently, it also summarizes another tragedy, described in an investigative report released, coincidentally, just days before the Uvalde massacre. In this case, the violence was perpetrated by ministers, the victims were members of their flock, and the leaders were senior officials in the nation’s second-largest Christian denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Released on May 22, the report details the findings of an independent investigation into how the SBC dealt with sexual abuse within its ranks over the past two decades. Though the report focuses on a single religious group, there are lessons here for all of us, Baptist and non-Baptist, religious and non-religious.

It’s a damning report. Investigators found that from 2000 to 2021, those reporting sexual abuse by clergy or staff encountered “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” from high-level SBC leaders who “by their words and actions, appeared more concerned with protecting abusers than with protecting victims.” 

Though the report indicates widespread systemic failure to deal with the sexual abuse crisis, much its focus isthe SBC’s 86-member executive committee, which handles the denomination’s day-to-day functioning.

Investigators found that a few senior exectutive committee leaders and attorneys closely guarded information about reported abuse, and seemed more concerned with avoiding legal liability than with correcting the problem or helping survivors. They told survivors that the executive committee had no authority to take action against abusers or their congregations due to the SBC doctrine of congregational autonomy, by which local churches govern themselves. At times, senior leaders showed outright hostility toward survivors and advocates, accusing them of wanting to “burn things to the ground.” As late as 2019, SBC attorney August “Augie” Boto called growing concerns about sexual abuse “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

Furthermore, even as SBC leaders dismissed calls by survivors and advocates for the creation of a database of accused sexual abusers, executive committee attorneys Boto and James Guenther—both of whom have since retired or resigned—maintained a secret list of more than 700 accused abusers. According to the Guidepost report, they didn’t share this information with the wider SBC nor did they take action to determine whether these alleged abusers were still in ministerial positions. (After the report went public, the SBC released a redacted version of this list, available here. Guenther and some others responsible for the list have defended their actions.)

Pressure has been growing on the SBC for years to confront its sexual abuse problem. Calls for reform by sexual abuse survivors and advocates were amplified by news reports of widespread sexual abuse in the denomination. In 2018, survivors and advocates protested outside the SBC’s 2018 annual meeting in Dallas. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a six-part investigative series, “Abuse of Faith.” After years of denial or silence, some prominent SBC leaders, among them then-president J. D. Greear, publicly acknowledged the problem. Then, last year, delegates at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville voted overwhelmingly to authorize an independent investigation.

Conducted by independent firm Guidepost Solutions, the investigation interviewed more than 300 individuals, including survivors, advocates, and SBC leaders and staff. The report detailing the findings runs more than 400 pages.

The survivor stories told in this report should sadden and infuriate any halfway-compassionate reader. Take the case of Debbie Vasquez. Starting at age 14, her Southern Baptist pastor abused her. When she became pregnant by him, Vasquez had to go before her congregation to ask for forgiveness but was forbidden to name the father because doing so “would harm the church.” Her abuser later went on to serve at another SBC church. 

In 2007, Vasquez reported her abuse to the executive committee. Her emails at first went unanswered; she later received a response from Boto, who assured her the committee was looking into the matter but asked her not to share her communications with others. As Vasquez persisted in pressing for reform, she encountered hostility from leaders. In a 2008 email to Vasquez, former SBC President Paige Patterson—who helped spearhead the conservative takeover of the SBC and was later dismissed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over his handling of sexual abuse cases—called survivor advocates “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” 

The report closes with a series of recommendations for how the SBC can better address its sexual abuse problem, including mandatory training, requiring comprehensive background checks, establishing an offender information system, and devoting resources for survivor support, including a compensation fund for survivors.

Christa Brown, a survivor of SBC clergy abuse and longtime activist for reforms, whose story is discussed in the report, calls it a “vindication.” It “confirms the brutal reality of what many clergy sex abuse survivors, including myself, have been trying to bring to light for the past couple decades,” she told the Observer. “But that vindication goes hand in hand with grief.”

Author and advocate Mary DeMuth expressed gratitude for the investigation and the thoroughness of the report, but said she was also broken and grieved by the fact that even as survivors and advocates were working tirelessly on the sexual abuse problem, leaders behind the scenes were “maligning, undermining, making fun of” them.

As I wrote in 2018, the SBC’s sexual abuse scandal raises “hard questions about how the denomination treats women, and especially its teaching about their ‘biblical’ roles.” While in other Protestant denominations women began taking positions in church leadership in the 1970s and 1980s, Southern Baptists still hold that only men can serve as pastors (though women can work in other ministries). Throughout the period covered by this investigation, all of the main actors in the SBC response to sexual abuse were men. Did the lack of women in positions of leadership and authority engender a situation in which women were repeatedly victimized by men?

More broadly, the findings underscore the dangers of valuing an institution or a tradition over people. Senior SBC leaders myopically focused on preserving the tradition of church autonomy and on evangelism and mission outward while neglecting care for the vulnerable inside the SBC. 

It’s clear that the Guidepost report has rocked the denomination, and its leaders are dealing with the fallout and a wave of unwelcome national publicity. As the Houston Chronicle reported earlier this week, top SBC officials are considering stripping retirement benefits from former leaders named in the report. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina is cutting ties with a former SBC president the report accuses of sexually abusing a pastor’s wife. An SBC mission board has retained Guidepost to review its sexual abuse policies.

But whether this investigation leads to deep, substantive change in the SBC remains to be seen. “I am hopeful-ish,” DeMuth said. She sees the report as a fork in the road for the denomination. “It’s either going to be the most amazing reconstruction of how they view themselves, and a road of repentance, or it’s going to be a doubling down,” a return to the status quo.

Survivor advocate Ashley Easter, vice president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is more pessimistic, in part because, she argues, the SBC doesn’t fully respect women. “Women do not have equality in this movement,” she says. Brown for her part worries that the SBC will fail to implement “truly transformational reforms,” and instead “will try to get by with tweaking things a bit and then doing a bunch of image-management PR work.”

Both Brown and Easter told the Observer that while the Guidepost investigation is an important first step, it focuses too narrowly on the denomenation’s relatively small executive committee. “This is the tiniest tip of the iceberg,” Brown said. “The [sexual abuse problem] is much, much bigger. The rot runs deep in this institution.” Easter and Brown want to see an investigation into the SBC as a whole, including the seminaries and the 47,000 affiliated churches. DeMuth highlighted the need for a similar investigation into the Southern Baptist mission board, which has reportedly covered up sexual misconduct or crimes by missionaries.

Regardless of what path the denomination ultimately takes, this report is above all a tribute to survivors and advocates. As Brown put it, “No one should ever forget the human cost of what it has taken to get the Southern Baptist Convention to this place.” Frequently ignored and sometimes vilified, they kept pushing the SBC to act, often at great personal cost—as in the case of survivor Jennifer Lyell, who lost her job at an SBC-affiliated organization. 
As Texans struggle against senseless gun policies that led to the latest massacre of the innocents—and against politicians who ignore or denigrate us, or try to distract us with extraneous issues—we can learn much from the courageous persistence of these survivors and advocates who just would not settle for more of the same.