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Southern Baptists vote to fight sexual abuse and elect a leader eager for change

Bruce Frank, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's sexual abuse task force, speaks during its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Jae C. Hong
Bruce Frank, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's sexual abuse task force, speaks during its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention put dissonance on display.

The mass gathering Tuesday and Wednesday in Anaheim, Calif., entailed two days of bickering over hot-button religious topics — ordaining women, denouncing the LGBT movement, applauding abortion bans — interspersed with 15-minute blocks of worship, prayer and preaching.

Repentance was the dominant theme of the spiritual interludes.

There is much to repent for after the bombshell third-party investigation by Guidepost Solutions, authorized at last year's meeting. The report, made public May 22, revealed widespread silencing of abuse victims. The denomination even kept tabs on hundreds of credibly accused ministers but allowed them to move to other churches without sharing that information, the report noted.

"Today we will choose between humility or hubris. We will choose between genuine repentance or continually being passive to our approach to sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention," the Rev. Bruce Frank of North Carolina said Tuesday before a vote on several reforms he described as the "bare minimum" of what needs to be done. Frank led the denomination's Sexual Abuse Task Force, which oversaw the outside investigation.

The nation's largest protestant Christian denomination, based in Nashville, Tenn., and with more than 13 million members, has acknowledged sexual abuse by ministers for years. But the scourge took center stage this year. Outgoing president Ed Litton opened the gathering with an apology to victims.

"Many of them have suffered much," he said, with an interpreter translating into Spanish. "We honor them, and we honor their pain and suffering."

Multiple times, victims were described as heroes. Some were in attendance. A few who've been identified publicly are pastors themselves.

Brad Eubank leads Petal First Baptist Church in Mississippi. He was abused as a child by a minister of music and appears in the nearly 300-page Guidepost report. Eubank spoke in favor of the report's initial recommendations. One establishes a task force to oversee reforms across the denomination. The second creates a more public database, much like the one the denomination was keeping in secret to track known predators.

"I plead with you, on behalf of survivors that I speak on behalf of, that love our convention and love our churches, please, let's start the healing process today," Eubank said at the gathering, which was streamed live.

But even the starter proposals were a tough sell to a few of the nearly 8,000 voting representatives, known as Messengers. Mark Coppenger, who represents a church in Franklin, Tenn., said he's not convinced the hundreds of accused ministers warrant a denomination-wide response across 47,000 churches, saying it seems like a small percentage who are bad actors.

"It strikes me that the burden of proof is upon those who say that we have a dreadful problem that needs to be met," he said.

Some local church representatives also warned the database would lead to false accusations or open the denomination to massive legal liability. But the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposals.

Attorney Rachael Denhollander, who was one of the first to accuse U.S. gymnastics coach Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, helped guide Southern Baptist leaders through the year-long investigation and spoke at a news conference Wednesday. Nassar is serving what amounts to a life sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to multiple counts of molesting girls in his care.

"What I hope," she said, "is every survivor looking back goes, that's me being believed and that's the impact my voice can have."

Many leaders say they want to do more.

The newly elected Southern Baptist president, Bart Barber, supports a resolution asking state legislatures to shield churches from civil liability to make them more willing to share information. The measure also prods state lawmakers to increase criminal penalties for abuse by a pastor, akin to when a physician violates a patient.

But beyond new laws and policies, the Rev. Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist in Charleston, S.C., said church leaders need a change of heart.

"I think our instincts sometimes are about protection of the institution," he said, adding that his first instinct when cases of abuse arise had been to call an attorney. After serving on the Sexual Abuse Task Force, Blalock said he's learned the first move is to care for abuse survivors.

"It wasn't that I didn't care. It wasn't that I didn't want to do the right thing," he said. "I didn't know the right thing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Attendees hold up their ballots during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.
Jae C. Hong / AP
Attendees hold up their ballots during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

Blake Farmer