Monday, February 11, 2019

Newspapers' probe details decades of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors and staff, and leaders' failure to act

The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in
Nashville (Associated Press photo by Mark Humphrey)
Nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have been accused — and about 220 took plea deals or were convicted of — sexually abusing as many as 700 victims in 20 states, some of them children as young as 3 years old, over the past two decades, and dozens of cases are still pending, says an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.

The problem has persisted because the denomination has an informal ordination process, pastors tend to move around frequently, and church leaders have mishandled, hidden or ignored complaints —and because the Southern Baptist Convention has refused to enact substantive reforms.

The newspapers dug deep, spending more than six months collecting and cross-checking news stories, prison and court records, sex offender registries, and other documents, as well as conducting hundreds of interviews with victims, church leaders, offenders and investigators. They focused on Texas, but looked at documents from 20 states and cited examples from several, and produced an online database and multimedia package in their three-part report, the first piece of which ran Sunday.

Since 1998, more than 380 people who worked or volunteered at Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes. Many confessed, or were convicted or successfully sued, and more than 90 are in prison today. "Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today," the papers report. Many of the more than 700 victims were shunned by their churches, encouraged to forgive their abusers or even get abortions following rape. The news package includes a database of 220 convicted church officials.

The Southern Baptist Convention has 47,000 churches, but its oversight of them is almost nonexistent. The churches are particularly vulnerable to predators because of the denomination's practice of local ordination. "It's a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he's been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister," said Christa Brown, who wrote a book about being molested as a child by her Southern Baptist pastor. "Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church. It's a porous sieve of a denomination."

Victims have pressed for reforms for years with little success; several of the perpetrators have been presidents and prominent leaders in the SBC. In 2007, victims asked SBC leaders to create a registry of current and former pastors or volunteers who had been convicted or credibly accused, but it didn't happen. In 2008, victims asked SBC leaders to track sexual predators and take action against churches that harbor or hide predators, but the leaders rejected almost every proposed reform. In 2018, victims once again asked leaders for such a registry but were denied. Wade Burleson, former president of Oklahoma's Baptist convention, told the papers that leaders rejected the reforms because of the local autonomy that is fundamental to the denomination, and because some feared lawsuits if the reforms didn't prevent sexual abuse.

August Boto, interim president of the SBC's Executive Committee, helped write the rejection of reforms proposed in 2008. He told the Chronicle and the Express-News that there is only so much SBC leadership can do to stop sexual abuse: "The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it's going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it." 

Though SBC leaders said they were troubled by predators, they said they couldn't interfere with local church problems. However, the papers note that the SBC has dis-affiliated from at least four churches in the past 10 years for welcoming homosexuals. "The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches," the papers note.

Meanwhile, "At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct," the papers report. "Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc."

Southern Baptist leaders have appeared more concerned about public blowback than in reform. A few years after popular Southern Baptist preacher Leslie Mason's 2003 conviction on two counts of sexual assault, he returned to the pulpit. When Michael Leathers, then the editor of the Illinois Baptist State Association's newspaper, published a story about it, state Baptist leaders told him he might be fired and lose his severance pay. Leathers resigned. 

J.D. Greear
SBC President J.D. Greear of North Carolina told the Chronicle in an email that any church that "proves a pattern of sinful neglect — regarding abuse or any other matter — should absolutely be removed from fellowship from the broader denomination." But he also wrote in the email that his authority is limited because of local autonomy. "Change has to begin at the ground level with churches and organizations," Greear wrote. "Our churches must start standing together with a commitment to take this issue much more seriously than ever before." Greear, 45, was elected last year on a platform of reaching out to and listening to women and minorities. 

One victim, Anne Marie Miller, said Greear has been supportive of her pending case against a missionary whom she says assaulted her as a teenager in the late 1990s, but that she doubts Greear's election will bring about change. "I was really, really hopeful that it was a turning point, but I've been disappointed that there hasn't been any meaningful action other than forming committees and assigning budgets, which is just good old Baptist red tape," Miller told the papers. "That's just what you do — you form a committee, and you put some money towards it and no change actually happens."

UPDATE, Feb. 12: How did Baptist media operations handle the story? A senior editor at Baptist Press wrote an 1,170-word story focusing on Greear's reaction; at midday Tuesday, it was the top-trending story on Kentucky Today, an online newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. It did not have a story on Kentuckians in the database, as the Louisville Courier Journal did.

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