Four things the SBC Executive Committee should do right now to address clergy sex abuse

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

September 12, 2023

By Christa Brown

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee will meet next Monday in Nashville.

Here are four things it could do to address clergy sex abuse. All are within its own power and could be done without bumping up against church autonomy. All should be done without further delay.

Immediately add to the new Ministry Check database all the clergy abuser names on the Executive Committee’s list.

Starting in 2007, the SBC Executive Committee maintained a secret list of pastors and church staff credibly accused of sexual abuse. Over the course of 15 years, even as many survivors struggled desperately to warn congregations about preacher-predators, SBC officials compiled the names of more than 700 abusive pastors and took no action to protect people from them.

The existence of this secret list was one of the more stunning revelations of the Guidepost investigatory report.

In May 2022, in the face of survivors’ demands and massive media pressure, the Executive Committee finally made its list public, albeit with some redactions. SBC legal counsel reviewed the names that were released to assure they were substantiated.

Given that the Executive Committee had the power to keep this list, and to finally release it, the Executive Committee also should hold the power to simply transfer the names on the list. Given that its own legal counsel already reviewed the names made public, there should be no further stalling on adding those names to the new database.

Strip Morris Chapman of his honorary title.

Morris Chapman was president of the SBC Executive Committee during many of the years covered by the Guidepost investigatory report, and he now holds the honorary title of “president emeritus” of the Executive Committee.

Chapman was the person who presided over the institution’s egregious do-nothing response to abuse reports, its maltreatment of survivors, and its callous choice to protect the institution over people. He was the person who stood before the messengers at the SBC’s 2008 annual meeting and duplicitously declared the SBC couldn’t possibly keep a clergy abuser database — because of “polity” — even as, all the while, the Executive Committee was in fact doing exactly that, keeping a list of clergy abusers.

Countless kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only he had acted years ago. That realization has haunted me, but it doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone else in Southern Baptist life. Not only has the Executive Committee failed to impose any consequence on Chapman, but at its February 2023 meeting, the committee applauded him.

The SBC’s entrenched clergy sex abuse problem is about much more than the pastors who rape and molest the young and vulnerable. It’s also about the countless complicit enablers who perpetuate a rotten unaccountable system. Chief among those enablers was Morris Chapman.

Therefore, the Executive Committee should strip Chapman of his honorary title.

This is clearly within the Executive Committee’s own power, and it would be but the tiniest of consequences. If the Executive Committee will not do even this much, then it sets an example of unaccountability at the highest level.

State a position on Executive Committee accountability for its own harms.

Studies have shown institutional betrayal is associated with harm over and beyond the harm of sexual assaults. This academic research is consistent with what clergy sex abuse survivors almost invariably say — that the trauma from the institutional betrayal caused more damage than the trauma of the sexual abuse.

For myself — and for others — the Executive Committee played a huge role in that institutional betrayal.

For example, my name appears 75 times in the Guidepost report, and that doesn’t include the appendices. The reason my name appears so often is because the Executive Committee treated me so awfully for so long.

“In a room filled with powerful men in the country’s largest non-Catholic faith group, not a single person spoke up to protest such incivility.”

As documented in the investigatory report, as I stood before committee members recounting a pastor’s rapes of me as a child and pleaded for action to protect others, one member chortled and another physically rotated himself in his chair so as to turn his back to me. In a room filled with powerful men in the country’s largest non-Catholic faith group, not a single person spoke up to protest such incivility.

I was maligned as “a person of no integrity,” and again, all others sat silent.

“And then they lied about her”— that’s how the Houston Chronicle described the Executive Committee’s treatment of me when it wrongly published a phony claim that I had made “false accusations.” And all that is just the gist of the brutishness with which SBC officials tried to disparage and discredit me.

This conduct did me harm, separate from the harm of sexual abuse. The Executive Committee’s treatment of me was repeatedly re-traumatizing, dehumanizing and soul-crushing.

Yet, even with the documentation of the Guidepost report, the Executive Committee still stares into the face of its own cruelty and inhumanity and effectively shrugs. It makes no amends and imposes no consequence on itself as an institution. As such, the Guidepost report seems as yet one more thing the committee thumbs its nose at.

At this point, 16 months after release of the Guidepost report, I personally hold no hope the Executive Committee will hold itself accountable for its own reprehensible conduct. I ask only that the committee state plainly the truth of its institutional position: Is it the Executive Committee’s position that “sorry” is repentance enough for the kind of conduct documented in the Guidepost report? Yay or Nay? If the committee has no intention of making amends for its own harms, then it should just say so.

Publicly urge SBC-affiliated institutions to publicize the Guidepost report and the list of clergy abusers

The Executive Committee should use its influence to publicly and repeatedly prod every SBC-affiliated church, seminary, school and state convention to publicize the Guidepost report on websites and bulletin boards, and to make print copies readily available in libraries and church foyers.

Likewise, the Executive Committee should urge every SBC-affiliated institution to publicize the Executive Committee’s list of clergy sex abusers and to post it in places where people will see it.

If the SBC is truly a bottom-up organization, as it often claims, then all the people in the pews need ready access to this critical information about the faith group’s systemic abuses and cover-ups.

We all want to build a better future — a future in which kids and congregants are safer. But a better future will not be built on silence or amnesia about the institution’s past. A better future depends on people knowing the truth about the SBC’s travesties.

Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang and a forthcoming memoir, due out spring 2024, called In Baptistland. Follow her on Twitter @ChristaBrown777.