The reforms adopted this month by the Southern Baptist Convention mark the start of a long road toward reestablishing faith in the wake of the church’s sex abuse scandal. The sheer scope of the abuse and the church’s indefensible failure to act call into question how much of this is an exercise in accountability or public relations. Of course, that remains to be seen, but at least the church has brought a microscope to a history it must fully explain.
The reforms come just days after an independent investigation revealed a list of 700 volunteers, ministers and pastors known to be “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Anastasia Dawson reported, roughly 8,500 delegates overwhelming approved the changes in a vote June 14 during the organization’s annual meeting. The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with 14 million members across more than 47,000 affiliated churches nationwide.
The changes were prompted after the membership voted last year to review sexual assault claims reported to the executive committee. A scathing report, released last month by independent consultancy firm Guidepost Solutions, detailed the multiple ways that leaders mishandled cases and stonewalled and denigrated sexual abuse survivors, all while maintaining a list of roughly 700 known cases between 2000 and 2019 that involved Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated clergy deemed “credibly accused.” Those mentioned were either the subject of civil judgments, criminal convictions or, in some cases, even submitted their own confessions to acts of sexual abuse on people ranging from senior citizens to a 3-year-old child.
This isn’t an indictment of Southern Baptists, organized worship or religious faith, but of sexual predators and their enablers in power who victimized followers of all ages. The report documents numerous cases of sexual abuse, finding that for almost two decades, survivors tried to report “child molesters and other abusers” who worked as pastors or church staff. But convention officials “closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits,” and “were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC.” The secrecy compounded the trauma by making some victims feel ignored and leaving some abusers in the ministry. Florida was second on the list with at least 58 known predators in Southern Baptist churches. Only Texas had more.
The reforms call for the convention to issue a formal apology, to establish a permanent task force to oversee change and to create a more detailed public database tracking known predators. The convention needs to work with its affiliated churches to conduct stronger background checks on ministry staff and volunteers, and to make those findings easily and widely available across jurisdictions. Congregants also need to demand more from their church leaders. And law enforcement should vigorously prosecute abuse without fearing criticism of crossing some church-state divide.
Confronting this legacy in meaningful, tangible ways is the only course for reestablishing public faith in the convention. And as the Roman Catholic Church’s own experience shows, any equivocation or missteps along the way will only worsen the damage.
This editorial reflects the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.