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SBC’s cover-up of sexual predators needs exposure | #predators | #childpredators | #kids

Some years ago, an old buddy stopped by the town where I live for a visit. We met at a crowded restaurant near the interstate. He’d retired from the Army and was working for child protective services, looking into allegations of abuse.

As we caught up, he told me about his job, including the cases of child sexual abuse he’d encountered. After he’d offered up several examples, I said in horror, “Who are these people? Who would do that to children?”

“They’re everybody and anybody,” he said.

He looked up from his plate, scanned the crowded restaurant. “Just based on the statistics,” he said, “a couple of the people sitting in this room are molesters.”

That thought was so disturbing it has stuck with me.

It was the first thing that came to my mind when I read about the blockbuster 400-page third-party investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which revealed that for decades Baptist leadership, as The New York Times put it, “suppressed reports of sexual abuse, opposed proposals for reform, and denigrated and discouraged abuse victims who approached them for help.” See:

The denomination has now released a previously secret list of more than 700 Southern Baptist clergy and other church workers credibly accused of sexual abuse against adults or children. See:

The fact that sexual abusers lurked within the walls of Southern Baptist churches didn’t of itself surprise me. It saddened me, of course. It outraged me. But it wasn’t surprising.

If recent decades have taught us anything, it’s that abusers, harassers and stalkers infiltrate every gathering place in society: the Roman Catholic Church, public and private schools, Boy Scout troops, gymnastics organizations, the military, Hollywood, universities, corporate offices. To paraphrase my buddy, there are probably a few predators eating cheeseburgers right now at your favorite restaurant.

This isn’t just a church problem, it’s a societal problem. It’s a human problem. In general, churches are no more or less susceptible than any other organizations.

Surely, the man-centric theology of some conservative faith groups does make it likelier that when women and children report abuse their reports will be disbelieved. There appears to have been an element of this in the Southern Baptist scandal.

Still, given that the Southern Baptist Convention claims 13.7 million members, it’s not shocking that somewhere along the line abuses occurred.

No, here’s the shocking part, the aspect that most makes you want to throw up in your pew.

It’s that Southern Baptist leaders have known since 2000 that widespread abuse of its churchgoers was taking place. Yet it covered up the abuse and discredited the survivors, as the Houston Chronicle reported in its excellent ongoing expose of the Southern Baptist Convention. See:

An insular group of officials focused on avoiding liability for the denomination to the exclusion of other considerations, such as acknowledging the problem, helping the victims or trying to stop offenders.

In the Chronicle’s description, “anyone who contacted the national office to report a suspected case of sexual abuse at a Southern Baptist church was either met with silence or told that the SBC had no power to take action against congregations that concealed abuses.”

That latter point was kind of, sort of true — and astoundingly hypocritical.

Historically, yes, each Baptist congregation functioned as a fully autonomous body, free to operate without denominational interference. But after the conservatives who now run the Southern Baptist Convention took it over, they rewrote the rules, authorizing the denomination to sniff out “independent” congregations that ordained women or affirmed homosexuals.

It would seem to an outsider that barring women from pulpits and ostracizing gay people were more central to the convention’s vision than guarding women and kids from assaults.

Leaders would up-end longstanding Baptist doctrine regarding congregational autonomy to stop women from preaching, but apparently not to stop sexual abusers from abusing.

We’ve seen before that whenever big organizations fear exposure of abuse, protecting their reputations and finances tends to become more important than protecting victims.

But for Christian organizations above all others, to value saving face over saving vulnerable people is an especially egregious institutional sin.

“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” wrote the apostle James nearly 2,000 years ago.

Mainly, Christians understand James’ statement to include not only those who are literally without spouses or parents, but also anyone who’s vulnerable, cast out or trampled under. Nobody better fits that bill than those devastated by sexual abuse.

The church’s duty always is to rush to the side of the suffering, to stand with them, to protect them from further violence, to risk our own lives for them if necessary.

Instead, one Southern Baptist leader reportedly described survivors who reported abuse as being used by the devil in a satanic scheme. To this guy, it was talkative survivors who were Satan’s instruments, not the perpetrators who committed the abuses.

To have protected the perpetrators of violence — and to have protected any institution, even the church, at the expense of helpless victims — demands lasting repentance by the officials of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at

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