After Explosive Sex Abuse Allegations, Southern Baptist Leaders Promise Reform

Feb 11, 2019
Originally published on February 12, 2019 2:55 pm

First came a report in two Texas newspapers that hundreds of Southern Baptist preachers and church workers over the past 20 years have been credibly accused of child sex abuse. Now, an explosive follow-up: Church leaders have failed in many cases to investigate the abuse claims and even allowed known offenders to move from congregation to congregation.

In reports published Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News identified 35 Southern Baptist pastors, youth ministers and volunteers who were convicted of sex crimes or accused of sexual misconduct but were able to continue working in churches, with access to children and youth. In some cases, that led to repeated incidents of abuse in different church communities.

The newspaper reports have shaken the Southern Baptist world and prompted church leaders to promise reforms comparable to some now contemplated by Roman Catholic authorities.

"There can simply be no ambiguity about the church's responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable," wrote J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a blog post Monday.

As happened in response to reports of abuse by Catholic clergy, victim advocates say that SBC leaders can no longer be trusted to investigate abuse allegations on their own.

"A child who comes forward and makes a disclosure against somebody in a leadership position almost doesn't stand a chance," says Boz Tchvidjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor who now directs GRACE, an organization devoted to fighting child sex abuse in Christian circles. "The [church] power structure will circle the wagons around the one who's been accused, because they're seen as a representative of God. And how dare you destroy the career of God's representative?"

Tchvidjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, says any evidence of abuse by a church worker should be investigated by criminal authorities rather than church officials.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued in an essay published on his website that an independent third-party investigation is "the only credible avenue" for any church organization faced with a sex abuse allegation.

"No Christian body, church, or denomination can investigate itself on these terms," Mohler wrote, "because such an investigation requires a high level of thoroughness and trustworthiness. Only a third-party investigator can provide that kind of objective analysis."

According to the Texas newspaper reports, the Southern Baptist Convention has rejected efforts to establish a sex offender registry that local church authorities could consult to avoid hiring known predators.

One complicating factor is that Southern Baptist churches, unlike Catholic parishes, operate autonomously. Individual congregations are able to ordain and hire pastors on their own, and SBC authorities are powerless to force their churches to join efforts to track sex abusers from community to community.

The one power SBC authorities have stems from the SBC principle that a local Southern Baptist church must be "in friendly cooperation" with "the causes" of the convention. In the past, that principle led SBC authorities to break ties with those Southern Baptist congregations that declined to condemn homosexual activity.

In his website essay, Mohler suggested that similar action could be taken against any Southern Baptist church "that would willingly and knowingly harbor sexual abuse and sexual abusers."

In response to earlier reports of abuse in Southern Baptist congregations, the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission convened a "Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group."

"True, we have no bishops. But we have a priesthood of believers," wrote ERLC President Russell Moore in a post responding to the latest allegations. One of the study group's missions, Moore said, is "training churches to recognize sexual predation and deal with charges or suspicions when they emerge."

Such measures may not be sufficient for some victims of abusive church leaders, however.

Lori Anne Thompson, a survivor of sexual abuse both at home and in her church, has since avoided churches altogether, even though she still considers herself a devout Christian.

"When you are abused in a faith-based environment, that becomes a trigger," she says. "When a cleric sexualizes sacred things, they no longer nourish in the way they once did. They don't mean what they used to mean."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Southern Baptist leaders are grappling with allegations made in two Texas newspapers that many of their pastors have engaged in sexual misconduct. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News found that hundreds of Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced accusations of sexual abuse that stretch back 20 years. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Texas reporters scoured news archives, websites and nationwide databases of accused sex abusers. They had heard from victims that Southern Baptist Church officials had been unresponsive to abuse complaints levelled against church leaders. The reporters wanted to see how often pastors and other church workers had been implicated. What they uncovered was a pattern of abuse by clergy not unlike the one plaguing the Catholic Church. Could it be there's something about a church community that makes it a good hiding place for abusers?

RUSSELL MOORE: Many people are not naturally suspicious in a church context.

GJELTEN: Russell Moore directs the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

MOORE: Whenever there is a case of someone within a church being arrested for some horrific crime, often what one hears is that no one would ever have suspected this person because of how he presented himself, which, of course, is classic predatory behavior.

GJELTEN: It may also be that people - adults and children alike - are uniquely vulnerable to pastors or priests or other church workers. They are seen as being close to God and therefore above reproach. Lori Anne Thompson, now in her 40s, says she was abused as a child at home but then revictimized in her church.

LORI ANNE THOMPSON: I was chronically looking for somebody who was trustworthy - basically a father figure who would guide me. And I was quite drawn to strong nurturing clerics who were predators.

GJELTEN: One study, nearly 20 years old, found that more than 90 percent of sex offenders described themselves as religious. Moreover, the supposed spiritual leaders in a church community may not face the same accountability other predators may face. Boz Tchividjian prosecuted sex abusers in Florida. The grandson of Billy Graham, he now focuses his work almost entirely on abuse in a Christian context. He says he has found a systemic failure of church officials to take action against people in positions of responsibility.

BOZ TCHIVIDJIAN: A child who comes forward and makes a disclosure against somebody who is in a leadership position almost doesn't stand a chance because that power structure will circle the wagons around the one who's been accused because oftentimes if it's somebody in leadership, they're seen as being a representative of God. And how dare you destroy the career of God's representative.

GJELTEN: According to the stories appearing today on the Houston and San Antonio newspapers, Southern Baptist leaders have resisted reforms proposed to them by sexual abuse survivors. Lori Anne Thompson, who's been working for years to highlight the problem of sexual abuse, says she was overjoyed to see the stories and is eager to see more.

THOMPSON: I think those journalists are heroes, and I would love to shake their hand and tell them that.

GJELTEN: Two more stories in the series will appear this week. Southern Baptist leaders say they are determined to root out all abusers in their denomination. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.