The Southern Baptist Convention and the New Church Sex Abuse Scandal

The scandal of widespread sexual abuse has hit another major Christian denomination in the US. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which at 15 million plus members distributed throughout 47000 local congregations is the second largest religious group in the US after the Catholic Church, finds itself facing hundreds of credible cases of sexual abuse. Over 700 victims have been identified and 380 Baptist clergy, officials or volunteers implicated in rape, molestation, many of which have resulted in criminal convictions or civil liability, committed by Baptist clergy or officials.

The scandal in some ways mirrors that of the American Catholic Church. For decades, sexual abuse by church officials was ignored or dismissed. In several cases, abusive pastors moved from church to church, leaving behind growing lists of victims. And just as the widespread pattern of Catholic abuse was revealed by journalists from one of the country’s most Catholic areas – the Boston Globe, the preeminent paper of the American Northeast – these new revelations likewise come from reporters working for the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News in the heart of Baptist country:.

Prior to this story breaking, there had been some measures taken within the Southern Baptist Convention to curtail abuse, but not on a national or systematic level. For example, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, one of a number of state conventions under the SBC umbrella, compiled its own list of pastors who were convicted or credibly accused of sexual misconduct in order to inform congregations before they potentially hired predators. Yet the national Southern Baptist leadership explicitly rejected calls for a similar project for all SBC churches. individuals like Pastor Wade Burleson, who NBC News reports has spent years trying to establish a national database of sexual abusers within the SBC, do not feel vindicated by the report, but rather disappointed that it took a group of journalists from the outside to compile the list. Indeed, the reporters responsible for the bombshell reports also created this database, based on court records and other public sources, which is live and searchable online.

There are some key differences between the Catholic and Southern Baptist denomination and the nature of abuse within each organization. Unlike the Catholic Church, which operates as a worldwide hierarchy based in the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention is a federation of independent local congregations. The various levels of SBC bureaucracy – local associations of churches, state conventions, and the national convention – only serve to coordinate doctrine and activities among the member churches. Each of these local Baptist churches chooses its own leaders and officials and can disagree or disassociate with the national convention at any time.

The SBC does have one key disciplinary power; it can choose to disassociate with a local congregation that it deems in violation of a core principle or doctrine of the Convention; this move cuts that local church off from the label and resources of the SBC. As noted in the new reports, the SBC has used this power in recent years, for other purposes. At least 4 churches, for example, were expelled from the SBC over the last 10 years for affirming LGBT relationships in contradiction to the official SBC stance, but none have been disassociated for cases of abusive pastors.

Another key difference involved the victims. While the Catholic scandal primarily involved men molesting young boys, largely due to the gendered nature of Catholic rites and worship, many of the Southern Baptist victims are girls. While neither is worse than the other, the different compositions of the victims make for different dynamics: in the Catholic case, the additional stigma of “homosexuality” (never mind that same sex abuse is very different than consensual relationships) shamed many boys into not coming forward and motivated Church officials to cover up the abuse of those who did in order to avoid scandal.

For female victims, however, there is often a different complication; as the #MeToo movement has highlighted, women and girls are often simply not believed, especially when they make accusations against powerful men. Even inappropriate physical contact between men and young girls conducted in plain sight – part of a process of “grooming” victims – is often ignored or normalized, through a combination of “oh he would never” and “boys will be boys” attitudes.

And therefore it’s no coincidence that the Catholic scandal gained traction much earlier – men abusing boys strikes a chord with people uncomfortable with any form of same sex interaction – while it’s taken the cultural shift of the #MeToo movement to recognize that victimizing girls and women is equally abhorrent and that their voices should be heard when they speak out against their abuse.

Perhaps because they saw this coming – SBC officials recently predicted (or revealed private knowledge of) “ journalists … working on a similar type of story [like reports revealing sexual misconduct in other churches] focused on Southern Baptist churches as well” – there has been some movement from the SBC. Last month, the Convention’s President, through its Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, authorized a Presidential Study on Sexual Abuse. The upcoming report will hopefully help begin the processes of healing for victims and their families and accountability for predatory officials and those who turned blind eyes. It may also increase pressure to allow a greater role for women in Southern Baptist leadership roles, something the Convention has staunchly opposed until now. While it’s uncertain what exactly the Southern Baptist Convention will do, it seems clear that it cannot continue to do the one thing it has been doing up until now – looking away.

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