Southern Baptists to address report on sexual abuse cases during annual meeting this week

Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette ([Fayetteville AR]

June 13, 2022

By Frank E. Lockwood

Southern Baptists, facing falling membership and internal conflict, will elect a new convention president and debate changes aimed at better safeguarding churchgoers from sexual predators.

Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor who was elected to the post a year ago, opted not to seek reelection at this year’s annual meeting in Anaheim.

Bart Barber, a Lake City native and pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, is one of the leading contenders to replace him, along with Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla.

Robin Hadaway of California, who pastored in the southwestern United States before becoming a foreign missionary, has also agreed to be nominated.

All three candidates have expressed concerns about the way the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has addressed sexual abuse claims in the past.

A recent report, commissioned by denominational officials and created by Guidepost Solutions, criticized some of its leaders for attempting to discredit abusers and deflect blame, allowing the problem to fester for years.

The denomination’s Sexual Abuse Task Force is asking annual meeting delegates — known as messengers — to authorize creation of a “Ministry Check” website, which would maintain “a record of pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees, and volunteers who have at any time been credibly accused of sexual abuse and who have been or are associated with a cooperating Southern Baptist church or entity.”

It also recommends that “denominational workers, volunteers, and students in all entities” receive “training on sexual abuse prevention and survivor care.”

It seeks a minimum of $3 million to help pay for “sexual abuse reforms” during the first year.

The need for improvements is clear, Barber said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, calling past responses to sexual abuse “atrocious and appalling.”

“Instead of doing all they could to help people who were survivors of sexual abuse, they were, in many cases, doing the least they could to help survivors of sexual abuse because they feared the legal consequences if they got too involved,” he said.

“That’s not the heart of Southern Baptists in our churches,” Barber said.

“We’ve got to make sure that we have clean hands and clean hearts with a clean house as Southern Baptists,” he said. “Who is going to listen to the Gospel if the people who claim to be sharing it are abusing people, left and right.”

Ascol also portrayed the report as troubling.

“The things that are reported are horrific and we ought to be grieved and brokenhearted over them. And I certainly am. I don’t know any Southern Baptist that isn’t,” he told the Democrat-Gazette.

While the problem must be dealt with, it’s important to do so in a way that recognizes the independence of each congregation, he said.

“There is no The Southern Baptist Church. There’s 47,000 individual, autonomous churches,” Ascol said. “We need to be careful that we don’t hold a church in Florida responsible for what a church in Texas does or doesn’t do.”

Hadaway predicted messengers would take “corrective action” to fix the problem, but was sparing in his criticism of the way the issue had been handled by previous leadership.

“I think we could always say ‘Yeah, we could have done better, but I’d say ‘dropped the ball’ would be a bit too harsh,'” he told the Democrat-Gazette.

Despite its name, the 13.7 million member Southern Baptist Convention is actually a nationwide network of 47,614 congregations with churches in all 50 states. Total receipts surpassed $11.5 billion in 2021, according to the latest Annual Church Profile Statistical Survey, which was released in May.

In Arkansas, nearly 1,500 Baptist churches with total membership of 412,404 voluntarily cooperate with the convention.

The country’s largest Protestant denomination since the 1960s, the convention’s membership peaked in 2006 at 16.3 million. Since then, it has seen its membership steadily decline.

Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention has been rocked by claims that it harbored sexual predators and failed to take steps to protect children and to expose abusers.

Over the past two decades, as Catholics released the names of thousands of credibly-accused priests, top Baptist leaders repeatedly opposed calls for a similar accounting, arguing that it would violate the autonomy of local congregations.

With Baptists unwilling to create a sex abuse database of their own, the Houston Chronicle, in 2019, published a list of its own, containing the names of 263 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers convicted of sex abuse crimes.

At last year’s annual meeting, messengers called for a sweeping independent investigation and requested that the convention’s executive committee, which oversees much of the denomination’s day-to-day business, waive attorney-client privilege so that investigators would have unfettered access to the facts.

After initially resisting the move, the executive committee eventually agreed to give investigators access to everything in the legal files.

Warning that the move would place the organization and its finances in jeopardy, the committee’s president and chief executive officer — former Cross Church Northwest Arkansas Pastor Ronnie Floyd — resigned, as did executive committee counsel.

Guidepost Solutions, which was hired to conduct the investigation, issued a report last month, detailing problems and offering possible solutions.

Among other things, it noted that officials in the denomination’s Nashville headquarters had been compiling data about Baptists credibly accused of sex abuse, but had failed to make the information public.

Within days, the executive committee released a 205-page document, providing information about 585 alleged Baptist abusers, church officials said.

At least 15 current or former Arkansans were named; three other allegations arising in Arkansas were also included, with names redacted.

The list, readers were warned, is “incomplete. It has not been proofed. It has not been adequately researched. It is not Southern Baptist specific.”

In other words, not all of the Baptists on the list are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.