Southern Baptist Leaders Mishandled Sex Abuse Crisis, Report Alleges

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Southern Baptist Leaders Mishandled Sex Abuse Crisis, Report Alleges

Executives of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination ignored victims, resisted reforms and were concerned with avoiding ‘potential liability,’ the third-party investigation says.

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A session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Nashville, in June 2021.
A session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Nashville, in June 2021.Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
A session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Nashville, in June 2021.
Ruth Graham
Elizabeth Dias

By Ruth Graham and Elizabeth DiasMay 22, 2022Updated 10:13 p.m. ET

National leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention suppressed reports of sexual abuse and resisted proposals for reform over two decades, according to a third-party investigation published by the convention Sunday. The report also said that a former president of the denomination was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2010, a claim the report described as “credible.”

Sexual abuse allegations, and the church’s handling of them, have roiled the convention for years. After mounting pressure from survivors of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist settings, delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting last summer voted overwhelmingly to commission the report, and demanded that its 86-member executive committee hand over confidential documents in cooperation. The report covers abuse reports from women and children against male pastors, church employees and officials from the year 2000 to the present.

The release of the report represents an extraordinary moment for Southern Baptists, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. As the group nears its annual gathering in June, its conservative membership, which has fallen to its lowest count in four decades, remains sharply divided by debates over race, gender and politics.

The denomination’s president, Ed Litton, whose term expires in June and who is not running for re-election, said in an interview on Sunday night that what he read in the report was “far worse” than anything he had anticipated. “We knew it was coming,” he said, but “it still is very challenging and surprising — shocking — to have to face these realities.”

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The denomination has long emphasized that its decentralized structure meant it had little ability to force churches to take any action, because legally each church stood alone and did not report to higher authorities. But the report alleged that a handful of powerful leaders had the ability to stonewall abuse reports and attempts at accountability and reform.

It also found a pattern of intimidating survivors of sexual assault and their advocates, and said they were “denigrated as ‘opportunists.’”

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In an internal email, August Boto, an influential executive committee member, described advocates’ efforts as a “satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism,” referring to the work of Christa Brown, a survivor, and the advocate Rachael Denhollander, who has worked with the denomination, as “the devil being temporarily successful.” Mr. Boto could not be reached immediately for comment.

The report, which was conducted by Guidepost Solutions, stated that over the past two decades, “many reform efforts were met with resistance, typically due to concerns over incurring legal liability.” The Times did not independently verify the contents of the report.

A proposal in 2007 to keep track of accused sex offenders was rejected in 2008 on the grounds it interfered with individual church autonomy, the report said, even though an outside counsel had suggested it could be done in keeping with denominational structure.

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The report also revealed that an executive committee staff member working for Mr. Boto had, for more than 10 years, maintained a detailed list of ministers accused of abuse. But no one “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches,” the report stated. The most recent list, it added, contained the names of hundreds of alleged abusers affiliated with the denomination at some time. Investigators reviewed the same list and reported that it appears nine people remain at least connected to work in a ministry setting, including two connected with a Southern Baptist church.

It said that leaders including Ronnie Floyd, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who resigned as the head of the executive committee in October, had resisted the creation of a task force to investigate the executive committee. Mr. Floyd did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The report described revelations in recent years that senior leaders had “protected or even supported abusers.” The leaders included three former presidents of the denomination, Steve Gaines, Jack Graham and Paige Patterson, as well as a former vice president and Mr. Boto, a former executive committee interim president and general counsel. A spokesman for Prestonwood Baptist Church, where Mr. Graham is pastor, said the church “categorically denies” the way the report characterizes an incident under his leadership in which it alleged Mr. Graham quietly dismissed an accused abuser on his staff rather than contacting police. Mr. Gaines and Mr. Patterson could not be immediately reached for comment.

During the course of Guidepost’s investigation, the report said, a pastor and his wife came forward to allege that Johnny Hunt, who was president of the denomination 

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