A Brief Guide to the Southern Baptist Collapse Due to Sexual Abuse

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(RNS) – Over the next few days, members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee will meet for the third time in three weeks – in hopes of resolving a deadlock over the details of an investigation into the own management by the Sexual Abuse Committee in the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

The committee, which is responsible for making decisions for the SBC between its annual meetings, has held several epic, hour-long meetings to determine how much access it will grant a third-party investigator to its previous communications about the sexual abuse allegations. Their reluctance has prompted accusations of cover-up as its supporters say full transparency could lead to lawsuits that would bankrupt the denomination.

But what’s at stake, some Southern Baptists say, is the trust that holds the SBC together. The crisis has led pastors and seminary presidents – who are often reluctant to criticize their fellow conservative leaders – to call on the committee to pull itself together before it is too late.

A quick summary of how the SBC got there here:

Why is the SBC only now accepting sexual abuse?

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church or other faiths with a strong hierarchy, national leaders of the SBC have little control over what goes on in local churches, including the hiring and firing of pastors. and other staff. While SBC leaders condemned the abuses, they have long maintained that no direct denominational action is possible. For more than a decade they have discussed compiling a database of accused sex offenders for use by local churches, but this has never been established.

Some religious leaders have also long argued that abuse is not a problem in the SBC, calling their church the safest places in the country, while others allege that victims of sexual abuse and their advocates create a distraction. for their own purposes.

What changed?

Base southern Baptists had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the denomination’s approach to sexual abuse, especially after Paige Patterson, president of a major seminary and legend of the denomination, was fired for mishandling a sexual assault case at her school.

Then, in February 2019, a Houston Chronicle investigation reported hundreds of cases of suspected sexual abuse by pastors and others in Southern Baptist churches. In some cases, the Chronicle’s investigation showed pastors moved from church to church, abusing both children and adults. Some churches had convicted sex offenders among their staff.

Responding to the outcry that followed, then Baptist President JD Greear urged the executive committee to investigate several churches mentioned in the Chronicle report. He also recruited lawyer and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, who helped convict former US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse, to advise the SBC.

At that year’s annual meeting, Greear ran a grieving service for what they now call an abuse crisis. Delegates to the meeting, known as the messengers, also voted to change the denomination’s statutes to allow Southern Baptists to expel churches that have mismanaged the abuse.

In October 2019, Russell Moore, then head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission, hosted a conference called Caring Well, devoted to the issue of sexual abuse, in which Denhollander accused the leaders of the SBC for mismanaging abuse survivor Jennifer Lyell’s case. Moore himself accused the leaders – especially the staff and board members of the executive committee – of mistreating the survivors.

It was two years ago.

Yes, but last year’s annual meeting was canceled due to the pandemic, preventing sexual abuse advocates from forcing the issue. But in the run-up to this year’s June annual meeting, Russell Moore resigned his position at SBC and, in a leaked letter, accused SBC management of making his life miserable, largely for his advocacy against sexual abuse.

When they got to the annual meeting in Nashville, Southern Baptist was fed up. Over 18,000 of them showed up determined to hold the Executive Committee to account. They voted overwhelmingly to put in place an investigation into how the executive committee handled allegations of abuse and whether abuse survivors had been mistreated.

The executive committee tried to avoid this by organizing its own investigation, but the messengers would not. They canceled the chairman of the meeting and passed a motion to create a task force to oversee an independent investigation. More controversially, the motion ordered the Executive Committee to be completely transparent by waiving attorney-client privilege if asked to do so.

Shortly after, the seven-person task force appointed by SBC’s new president, Ed Litton, named Guidepost Solutions their choice to conduct the investigation.

What is solicitor-client privilege?

When lawyers and their clients discuss legal matters, their discussions are considered confidential and, therefore, their communications may be protected in any investigation. Clients may, however, consent to a waiver of this privilege, giving lawyers permission to reveal confidential information.

Are members of the Executive Committee accused of abuse?

Not to our knowledge. The allegations mainly revolve around the rejection of the needs of abuse survivors and the refusal to tackle the problem nationally.

So what is the problem?

Ronnie Floyd, chairman and chief executive officer of the executive committee, refused to waive the privilege, as did many longtime members of the committee, claiming that waiving the privilege, by opening the door to costly lawsuits, would violate their duty. to protect the assets of the SBC. They refused to include a general waiver in the contract with Guidepost, suggesting instead that access to information can be negotiated. In two grueling committee meetings – one in person, one online – members found themselves at a deadlock over the content of the contract.

The task force chair, a North Carolina pastor named Bruce Frank, along with his fellow task force members, backed down, demanding a waiver and substantiating their claim with a legal analysis claiming a refusal to waive the privilege. lawyer-client is riskier. legally.

So that’s it? Is there more than one clause in a contract?

No, the struggle has ramifications for the governance of the SBC itself. The ultimate power of the convention has traditionally rested with its constituent churches, not with its denominational leaders. These churches express their will through the votes of the messengers at annual meetings.

At least one member of the Executive Committee scoffed at the idea that the group should follow the example of the messengers. “15,000 people don’t have the power to tell us to do anything,” said Joe Knott, North Carolina lawyer and committee member, referring to the messengers at the last SBC meeting.

The refusal of the Executive Committee to follow the will of the messengers could lead to a denominational crisis, say several prominent members. Floyd himself wrote in 2020 that “If we ever reverse this order in our mindset and practice, then we will begin a descent which may become irreversible. “

What does this mean in practice?

The SBC relies on its cooperative program – a voluntary sharing of hundreds of millions of donations – to finance its work and its national and international structures. If the executive committee defies the will of the local churches, they could stop sharing their funds, disempower national leaders, and possibly dissolve the denomination itself.


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