What Southern Baptists must do now to address clergy sex abuse

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

June 6, 2022

By Christa Brown

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention knew about clergy sex abuse cases — lots of them — and they consciously chose to take no action. For years.

This chilling reality now has been documented by the independent investigatory report of Guidepost Solutions, released two weeks ago.

In nauseating detail, the report revealed longstanding patterns of secrecy and grotesquery in the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse. It also exposed lies, cruelty, “mafia-esque intimidation” tactics, and ethical abdications that went beyond the bounds of human decency.

As many of Baptist News Global readers will know, I’ve been shouting for years about these horrific patterns. But lest any imagine that I take joy in this vindication, let me be clear: I do not.

The vindication goes hand in hand with grief because I am aware of the unfathomable human cost of what it has taken to bring this truth to light. Countless lives have been decimated.

So what should Southern Baptists do now?

On the heels of such damning disclosures, there can be no business-as-usual. Image-management maneuvers and feeble half-measures will not suffice and will only further alienate survivors.

Reforms must be truly transformational, and they must be immediate.

“Reforms must be truly transformational, and they must be immediate.”

Guidepost made extensive recommendations in its report, and now the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force has released its own suggestions and recommendations to be considered by messengers to the SBC’s mid-June annual meeting in Anaheim.

There’s no way to mince words: I’m disappointed. The task force proposals fall far short.

I’ll explain, but first, let me also say that, once again, my feelings are mixed. In the midst of disappointment, I am also profoundly grateful for the work of the task force in shepherding a truly transparent investigation which included a waiver of attorney-client privilege. We never would have gotten to this place of knowledge if not for their fortitude.

However, from this vantage point of knowledge that, thankfully, we now have, this is no time for timidity in addressing the problem.

The task force makes “suggestions and requests” to state conventions, SBC entities and other Baptist bodies. But these are essentially toothless.

The task force recommends the creation of another task force whose primary function would be to study the Guidepost recommendations — in other words, a task force to study the study. This amounts to little more than kicking the can down the road.

Finally, the task force proposes creation of a “Ministry Check” database but structures it in such a way as to render the process unsafe for clergy sex abuse survivors. It allows names of credibly accused clergy to be submitted to the database by “leadership of a church” and alternatively, “where a church … is unable or unwilling to engage an independent firm for an inquiry … and the related local or state associations are unable to assist the church … in engaging an independent firm for an inquiry,” then a survivor or whistleblower could seek an independent inquiry from the Ministry Check administrator.

As written, this is a process that will inflict grievous retraumatizing wounds on many clergy sex abuse survivors. If they are required first to go to the church to seek an independent inquiry, then to wait for the church to be “unable or unwilling,” then to wait for the local or state associations to be “unable to assist,” then many survivors will have their voices choked in their throats before sound is ever uttered.

And with a process unsafe for survivors, the task force’s proposed database becomes illusory, because it will never acquire most of the data. If the SBC wants to have an effective database of credibly accused clergy sex abusers, then survivors and whistleblowers must be able to go directly to an independent trauma-trained commission.

In the face of these troubling task force proposals, seven of us, as #SBCtoo survivors, came together to craft a joint statement with our own proposals. Together, we urge that the SBC take the following actions immediately:

  1. Create an independent commission, authorized to operate in perpetuity, with initial members appointed by the SBC president elected at the 2022 convention, staffed with trauma-trained professionals who will receive reports about clergy sex abuse directly from survivors, whistle-blowers and others, and who will commission independent inquiries to determine those having been credibly accused or having substantiated allegations of sexual abuse, or of having aided and abetted in the cover-up of sexual abuse.
  2. Create an independently administered and publicly accessible “Ministry Check” database of clergy who are determined by independent inquiries to be credibly accused, or to have substantiated allegations, or who are criminally convicted of sexual abuse. Independent inquiries may be those commissioned by the independent commission, as described under No. 1, or may be those commissioned by a church or Southern Baptist entity.
  3. Create a survivor restoration fund to be administered by an independent master for making restitution to those who have been sexually abused by clergy of Southern Baptist churches and entities. All SBC clergy sex abuse survivors shall be eligible to receive payments from the fund regardless of whether they have any continuing connection to any Southern Baptist church or entity, and no one within the SBC shall have any control over how the survivor chooses to use the money or over what therapist a survivor chooses. (See Guidepost recommendation 7(b) for criteria to be used by the independent master in determining payments.)

The creation of these three new institutional structures — an independent commission, a safely administered database, and a restoration fund — are not the totality of all that needs doing. Far from it. The lengthy Guidepost recommendations make that plain. But this is what needs doing most urgently.

The SBC has a moral obligation to protect the lives, bodies and humanity of kids and congregants in its affiliated churches, to provide care and validation for all who have been sexually abused by Southern Baptist clergy, to ensure accountability for abusive clergy, and to create systems that will ensure the unconscionable travesties of the past do not persist into the future.

This would be a start.

Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang. She previously served on the board of directors for the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and she currently serves on the board of advisors for the Child-Friendly Faith Project.