Just days after an independent investigation revealed a list of 700 volunteers, ministers and pastors known to be “credibly accused” of sexual abuse, the Southern Baptist Convention ushered in a series of reforms meant to ensure public oversight over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination continues.
Roughly 8,500 delegates overwhelming approved the changes in a vote taken June 14 during the organization’s annual meeting. One of the first requirements is for the Southern Baptist Convention to issue a formal apology to those victimized by its leadership after an independent study found that Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated churches have a decadeslong history of mishandling abuse claims and mistreating victims.
“Reading those 300 pages’ worth of failures to act, of not passing along information that would have protected, is both heartbreaking and horrifying. But the question on the floor today is, ‘Is it humbling?’” Bruce Frank, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force, asked the assembly ahead of the vote.
The reforms that ultimately were approved are “the bare minimum of what needs to be done,” the North Carolina-based reverend said.
One makes Frank’s task force a permanent fixture that can continue overseeing changes in the denomination’s churches. Another establishes a more detailed public database tracking known predators. The Southern Baptist Convention’s affiliated churches have 14 million members spread across more than 47,000 churches nationwide.
The creation of such a database had been discussed by the Southern Baptist Convention for more than a decade until, at last year’s gathering, members voted to launch a review of sexual assault claims reported to the executive committee .
The result was a scathing report, released last month by independent consultancy firm Guidepost Solutions, detailing the many ways leadership mishandled cases and stonewalled and denigrated sexual abuse survivors, all while maintaining a list of roughly 700 known cases between 2000 and 2019 that involved Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated clergy deemed “credibly accused.”
That means those listed were either the subject of civil judgments, criminal convictions or, in some cases, even submitted their own confessions to acts of sexual abuse on people ranging from senior citizens to a 3-year-old child.
Texas is the state with the most names on the list, while Florida was second with at least 58 known predators in Southern Baptist churches.
Southern Baptist Convention executives had long argued it would be impossible to create a list like the one it kept in secret without “violating congregations’ autonomy,” the report said. And because none of those allegations were shared, ministers forced out of one church for sexual misconduct were allowed to move into new leadership roles in another, perpetuating crimes.
“The fact that our council was keeping a list of hundreds of people who were entrusted with caring for sheep who were found out with little more than just a simple Google search should tell us this is the tip of the iceberg,” Frank cautioned the group. “Fellow pastors in this room, please hear me. You will get the phone call. That’s not a word of prophecy. That’s just math.”
Still, the new reforms didn’t pass without scrutiny from member pastors concerned about false accusations, legal responsibilities and the high costs of maintaining such efforts.
The day after Frank’s measures were approved, the Southern Baptist Convention delegates voted on another resolution that calls for lawmakers to create a legal shield that protects churches against civil liability if they share information on alleged abuse with legal authorities.
For now, at least, the organization’s existing database of accused clergy is available to the public on the Southern Baptist Convention’s website.
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