Southern Baptists and #metoo: Advocates for Church Sex Abuse Victims Push for Reform

By Ashlie D. Stevens
June 18, 2018

A rally protesting the Southern Baptist Convention's treatment of women, held on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in Dallas. (AP/Jeffrey McWhorter)

In 2008, The Nashville Scene published an article titled “What Would Jesus Say?” In it, journalist Elizabeth Ulrich wrote that churchgoers were asking for protection against clergy sex abuse, but the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention said “there was little it could do to fend for the flock."

At the time, the Southern Baptist Convention -- the world’s largest Baptist denomination with roughly 15 million members -- was under fire for several instances of sexual abuse within their member churches.

There was the 2007 case of Steven Haney, the Cordova, Tennessee-based pastor who was indicted on charges of rape and sexual battery by an authority figure after a 21-year-old man told police Haney had molested him over the course of five years; the man said Haney subjected him to “obedience tests” during which he was forced to perform various sex acts.

Also in 2007, an investigative committee from Bellevue Baptist Church, a Tennessee mega-church, found that minister of prayer and special projects Paul Williams “engaged in egregious, perverse, sexual activity with his adolescent son over a period of 12 to 18 months.” Williams had privately confessed this to lead pastor Steve Gaines six months prior; Gaines was criticized for not immediately disclosing the information to church leadership — though he was eventually elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2016.

In both Ulrich’s article and in media coverage surrounding the Williams case, members — mostly women — involved in the Southern Baptist Convention urged leaders to take some form of systemic action.

One option, which was proposed by Oklahoma pastor Rev. Wade Burleson at the SBC 2007 annual meeting, was creating a database of "Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.”

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of clergy felt hopeful about this option, but it never got off the ground. Now, a decade after Burleson’s proposal was rejected by the executive committee, the Southern Baptist Convention is in the midst of another national reckoning concerning the treatment of women and survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, and once again, the SBC is considering what forms church-wide accountability might take.

"The #MeToo moment has come to American evangelicals," wrote Albert Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Facebook last month. "And I am called to deal with it as a Christian, as a minister of the Gospel, as a seminary and college president, and as a public leader."

In May, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson — a key figure in the denomination’s resurgence over the past decade — was fired when the board of trustees found that he had “lied about his treatment of an alleged rape victim in 2003, and that in 2015 he tried to meet, with no other officials present, with another woman who had reported a sexual assault so he could ‘break her down,’” according to the Washington Post.

Additionally, Tennessee megachurch pastor Andy Savage stepped down from his position after confessing to having had sexual contact 20 years ago with Jules Woodson, who was at the time a high school student in the group he led as youth pastor. While Savage describes his actions as a “sexual incident,” Woodson wrote that Savage drove her to a deserted back road, sexually assaulted her, then asked for forgiveness and pleaded with her "not to tell anyone what had just happened."

Last week, the SBC held their 2018 Annual Meeting in Dallas — Vice President Mike Pence served as a key speaker — and in the wake of the recent scandals, discussion of how to prevent incidents of sexual abuse, fueled by the #MeToo movement and its evangelical-specific analog #ChurchToo, was a major topic on the agenda.

So what ever happened to Burleson’s database?

Burleson had proposed a feasibility study concerning the development of the database at the SBC 2007 Annual Meeting; archived minutes show the convention’s executive committee agreed that “the executive committee [would] consider this item during its June 9, 2008 meeting and report its action in the SBC Bulletin, Part II.”

A year later, the bulletin is released. In it, the executive committee wrote:

On the surface, creating our own database of Southern Baptist offenders seems like a good idea. How helpful to our churches if they could make a quick check on the Web site to see if any potential staff member or volunteer would be listed. However, in assessing the categories suggested for inclusion (“convicted,” “confessed” and “credibly accused”), several questions were raised and several concerns were identified.

The first was that "it would be impossible to assure that all convicted sexual predators who ever had a connection with a Baptist church would be discoverable for inclusion on such a list."

The second:

(S)exual predators are opportunistic and frequently migrate from one victim field to another. Since Baptist churches sometimes accept ministers and volunteers not formerly from an affiliated Southern Baptist church, creating a database of “Baptist only” convicted sexual offenders would leave out predators previously identified in other faith groups who could come in under the radar of such a limited design. Therefore, use of the most comprehensive database was opted for over creating a database that would be limited in scope. Any convicted sex offender, regardless of religious affiliation, is already listed in the Department of Justice’s national database of convicted sex offenders.

The last concern was that Baptist churches (unlike the Catholic Church, which dealt with its own heavily publicized sex abuse scandals) do not recognize any ecclesiastical authority outside the local church, despite the appearance of such that the Convention itself might create to outsiders.

Since its organization in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention — and its constitution — makes clear that “the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.”

Per the bulletin, this precludes the Convention from having any authority to require local churches to report instances of alleged sexual abuse to a national governing body.

This separates the SBC from other big denominations — and how they deal with sexual abuse — in other ways, too.

For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) maintains detailed outlines on how it will organizationally deal with sexual assault in the church, including steps for mandatory reporting. These regulations are made available “for churches, mid-councils, and related entities and if properly implemented by them can be used by church members, church officers, employees, and volunteers.”

Meanwhile, by 2008, according to the Catholic News Service, the U.S. Catholic church had trained 5.8 million children to recognize and report abuse. It had run criminal checks on 1.53 million volunteers and employees, and trained 1.8 million clergy, employees and volunteers in creating a “safe environment for children.”

Additionally, the Church established a uniform reporting plan, in which dioceses faced with an allegation are required to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.

Under the SBC’s organizational structure, all these safeguards — mandatory reporting, seeking assistance from law enforcement, mandatory background checks — can be (and have been) recommended to member churches, but not required.

“I was disappointed, but I tried to be respectful to those who were on the executive committee who made that decision,” Burleson, the pastor who originally proposed the database, told Salon last week.

He called while driving back to his home in Enid, Oklahoma after the Convention meeting in Dallas concluded.

“I thought their rationale [in 2008] was weak,” he continued. “To not have a database because you won’t catch everyone is like saying, ‘I’m not going to arrest this murderer because I can’t arrest all murderers.’ You know, so that’s how I felt.”

Around the time of Burleson’s proposal, the SBC was also getting pressure from victim advocacy groups like SNAP — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — to create a database.

Christa Brown is a vocal member of the group, an attorney, and is also the creator of the website Stop Baptist Predators. Brown says when she was 16, she was sexually abused over a period of seven months by her pastor at a Baptist church in Farmers Branch, Texas. She eventually reported it to the church’s music minister, who advised she keep quiet. It wasn’t until decades later, after Brown filed a lawsuit and gathered media attention, that the pastor was forced to step down from ministry. He was, at the time, still working with children at another Baptist church.

Like Burleson, she thought SBC’s reasonings for opting out of creating a database in 2007 were weak. In an open letter to Dr. Frank Page, the Convention president at the time, she wrote:

This denomination's routine ‘cover-up' of sexual abuse cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the individual churches. It is also a systemic problem that inheres in the free-wheeling structure of the denomination, which lacks effective systems for accountability and which indirectly shields perpetrators… Just as family members cannot properly investigate a molestation claim made against a close relative, local church leaders cannot properly investigate a report of clergy abuse made against a much-loved minister.

Last week, Brown told Salon that not much has changed in the decade since she wrote that letter.

“Very little [has changed] institutionally,” Brown wrote in an email. “But many more abuse survivors have gained their voices, and their voices will continue to rise, telling not only of abuses but also of systemic cover-ups.”

Those voices — along with the stories that have come out of the recent #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements — inspired Burleson to propose the creation of the database again at this year’s SBC annual meeting.

There are two key differences in this year’s proposal.

The first that Burleson suggested the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, which is the public policy arm of the SBC, oversee a new feasibility study and, hopefully, the ultimate implementation of the database.

Burleson is hopeful that working with the ELRC, which is based in Washington, D.C., will help the proposal gain some momentum this time; that’s due in part to Russell Moore, the current leader of the ELRC. Moore is a vocal advocate for those who have been sexually abused by the church. At the 2018 Annual Meeting, he addressed attendees and said: “Jesus does not need you to rescue His reputation" by “concealing sin.”

He went on to urge clergy not to see cases of abuse, assault or mistreatment as "a public relations issue to be managed."

The second difference in this new proposal is that it would involve the creation of some kind of sexual assault prevention training for clergy.

“Most Southern Baptist pastors have very little idea how to handle an allegation of sexual or physical abuse in their church, particularly if the allegation is against a friend or staff member,” Burleson said. “I hope to hear something back [from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission] soon.”

But while Burleson may informally communicate with the ERLC soon, no official comment about the feasibility study will be made until next year’s Annual Meeting, which will be held in Birmingham, Alabama. [Our requests to SBC leadership for comment went unreturned.]

And in the meantime, survivors of sex abuse within the Baptist church continue to wait for some kind of systemic reform.

“I believe it is inevitable that, eventually, the denomination will cooperatively empower an independent review board that receives and archives abuse reports — hence, a database,” Brown said. “This will become the standard of care for organized faith groups. I am not, however, optimistic that it will come in the SBC within a year or two. Sadly, I think it will take many more wounded kids, many more high-profile scandals, and many more lawsuits. But someday — I do believe it is inevitable.”








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