The Church’s managing entity Southern Baptist Convention publicly apologizes for sexual assault investigation findings
By Christina Grube
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed resolutions at the 2022 convention publicly apologizing to survivors and enacting safeguards against future abuse after an internal investigation exposed widespread sexual abuse and negligence within the Executive Committee (EC) of the SBC.
In June, the SBC passed a resolution of “lament and repentance,” in which it “publicly apologize[d] to and ask[ed] forgiveness from survivors of sexual abuse for [its] failure to care well for survivors, for [its] failure to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse adequately accountable in [its] churches.” The SBC further apologized for having “prioritized the reputation of [its] institutions over protection and justice for survivors, and for the unspeakable harm this failure has caused to survivors.”
The SBC also enacted two sexual abuse safeguards proposed by Guidepost Solutions, an international security company hired by the SBC to investigate EC misconduct. In October 2021, Guidepost Solutions began an eight-month investigation, consisting of 330 interviews and five terabytes of collected and reviewed documents. In May 2022, Guidepost released a 201-page report of its findings, revealing that SBC EC members buried countless sexual assault reports by thousands of survivors against SBC leadership, including reports of abuse by committee members. In one instance, the report detailed a credible sexual assault allegation from an SBC pastor’s wife against SBC President Johnny Hunt (2008-2010), during his presidency.
Guidepost states that “those who reported abuse were often ignored or told that the SBC had no power to take action.” Instead of the EC investigating sexual assault accusations, “stories of abuse were minimized, and survivors were ignored or even vilified.” In cases when church leadership would report abuse, they would do so years later, after intimidating survivors to remain silent:
“Former SBC President Steve Gaines admitted that, as senior pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church, he had delayed reporting a staff minister’s prior sexual abuse of a child of “heartfelt concern and compassion for th[e] minister,” while acknowledging that he should have “brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately;
Former SBC President Jack Graham, when he was pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, allegedly allowed an accused abuser of young boys to be dismissed quietly in 1989 without reporting the abuse to police. The accused abuser, John Langworthy, later was charged with abusing young boys in Mississippi in 2011;
Former SBC President Paige Patterson was terminated from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 after it was revealed his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could ‘break her down;‘
Former SBC Vice President Judge Paul Pressler is the defendant in a civil sexual abuse lawsuit alleging that he repeatedly sexually abused the plaintiff beginning when the plaintiff was 14 years old. Two other men submitted separate affidavits in the case also accusing Judge Pressler of sexual misconduct”
Curiously enough, Guidepost also found that thought the EC took no action against sexual assault reports, they began keeping tabs on accusations in 2007 and compiled “a list of accused ministers in Baptist churches, including the minister’s name, year reported, relevant news articles, state, and denomination.” By 2021, the list named over 700 reported abusers and Guidepost found no indication the EC “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.” Instead, the SBC would move abusers around within the church network as a means to protect them and protect the SBC’s reputation, while silencing victims. Guidepost also found email and snail-mail correspondence where the SBC discussed current sexual misconduct in the church and means of addressing it, yet never acting to condemn or take action against abusers.
The report also noted the many instances in which the SBC refused to implement preventative measures against sexual assault within the church, including denying a proposal for an offender database and refusing to implement sexual abuse education within the church.
While many find the Guidepost report outright shocking, others seem to have expected the scathing results after 18 members resigned from the SBC EC after the committee rescinded attorney-client confidentiality for the Guidepost investigation. The resignations included the EC’s President and CEO, the Executive VP, the CFO, and the General Counsel. At the same time, the law firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price publicly announced that after 56 years of being retained by the EC to provide legal counsel– the firm would no longer represent the EC because the committee revoked attorney-client confidentiality for the investigation.
Guidepost ended the bombshell report with proposed safeguards against future sexual abuse within the church, including: the creation of a sexual predator database, the creation of a second task force to further act on Guidepost’s findings, training specific staff members to be first to receive abuse claims, training for church leaders and volunteers on sexual abuse prevention.
The SBC approved funding to implement two of the Guidepost suggestions: assembling a committee to continue responding to the sexual abuse claims and compiling a sexual assault predator database. Despite the implemented safeguards, advocates question the effectiveness of the adopted preventative measures.
SBC abuse survivor and advocate Christa Brown writes “I’m disappointed. The task force proposals fall far short,” and describes how the reforms do not take survivors into account, making disclosures even more difficult. She explains that only church leadership may submit names to the church sex offender registry, creating a breeding ground for leadership to continue silencing and ignoring victim disclosures.
The traumatic effects of sexual abuse can last a lifetime, specifically when abusers serve as a trusted minister or community leader. With the Guidepost findings made public and the SBC’s public apology, survivors have begun coming forward to seek justice for emotional, physical, and mental damages. With decades of abuse, thousands of survivors, and over 45,000 SBC churches, the law community expects SBC abuse to emerge as a leading mass tort within the next year. Should that happen, the expected financial impact on the SBC and its member churches would be drastic.