A landmark investigation into hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches opened with a collage of pictures of the offenders, row after row of headshots and mugshots of men who had been accused of abusing a total of 700 victims over the past 20 years.
In Sunday’s report, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News were able to do what victims say the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has failed to for years: provide a picture of the extent of the abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention and a database of those found guilty of their crimes.
With allegations against 380 church leaders in 20 states (a majority of whom were convicted or took plea deals), it’s believed to be the biggest report on sexual abuse among Southern Baptists in the movement’s history. The report confronts the longstanding defense that the organization can only do so much to monitor abuse since affiliated congregations operate autonomously.
Another set of pictures captures a sense of the impact of abusers in Southern Baptist congregations. In response to the investigation, Southern Baptist women and fellow Christians shared childhood photos on Twitter from the age when they first suffered abuse.
Over the past couple years, the #MeToo campaign has raised awareness about abuse within the SBC and galvanized official efforts to improve the denomination’s response. Last December, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram rounded up more than 400 allegations among independent Baptists, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) executive vice president Philip Bethancourt wrote, “it would not be surprising if journalists are working on a similar type of story focused on Southern Baptist churches as well.”
That day has come. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News revealed in the first of a three-part series that more than 200 Southern Baptist abusers were convicted or took plea deals for their crimes since 1998, including 90 who remain in prison and 100 who are registered as sex offenders.
Even worse, “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,” the reporters found. “In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.”
In response, Southern Baptist leaders and pastors have spoken even more frankly about the problem of abuse and reiterated their commitment to more rigorous, research-driven efforts launched last year to address the issue. SBC president J. D. Greear called the voices in the article “a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent.”
“The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse. Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse,” he said in a statement to CT. “As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must.”
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Source: Christianity Today