Despite receiving requests from victims for 15 years, and a secret list of 700 accused pastors, the SBC Executive Committee refused to act on it.
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest evangelical denomination in the United States with around 13 million members, covered up sexual abuse in their own churches and entities for years.
This is the main conclusion of a three-part, nearly 300-page report prepared by Guidepost Solutions at the request of the SBC after the 2021 assembly.
According to the document, the SBC Executive Committee refused to take concrete action, despite receiving requests from victims for 15 years and having a secret list of up to 700 pastors and leaders who had committed abuse.
“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior Executive Committee (EC) leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees”, stresses the report.
Furthermore, “survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation”.
The investigation includes details of some of the cases that have been reported over the years. Such as that of Debbie Vasquez, who was repeatedly abused by an SBC pastor from the age of 14.
On one of those occasions, Vasquez became pregnant and was forced to apologise in front of the congregation of which she was a member, without being able to reveal the identity of the baby's father.
When the abusive pastor left for another church, Vasquez went to the Executive Committee to plead her case, but was ignored until a Houston Chronicle report about it three years ago.
There is also the story of Jennifer Lyell, who became one of the highest paid executive positions in the SBC and whose sexual abuse at a seminary in the denomination is detailed in the report.
“This denomination is all about power. It is misused power. It in no way reflects the Jesus I see in Scripture. I am devastated”, she said.
The report, which is based on 330 interviews and 5 terabytes of documentation collected and analysed over months, has cost the SBC $2 million, which will have to be added to the $2 million the Executive Committee committed to pay the legal fees involved in the investigation.
The document particularly targets August Boto, a prominent member of the Executive Committee for years who became interim president of the body. Boto described the defence of abuse victims as “a satanic plot to distract us completely from evangelism”.
In addition to his name, lawyers James Guenther and James Jordan, and the law firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price, also stand out, claiming that “their primary concern was to avoid any potential liability for the SBC”.
The current president of the SBC, Ed Litton, has told Christianity Today that “amid my grief, anger, and disappointment over the grave sin and failures this report lays bare, I earnestly believe that Southern Baptists must resolve to change our culture and implement desperately needed reforms”.
“The time is now. We have so much to lament, but genuine grief requires a godly response”, added Litton.
The current head of the SBC's Executive Committee, Rolland Slade, along with the SBC's interim executive director, Willie McLaurin, have issued a joint statement after the findings of the report, reported Baptist Press.
“We are grieved by the findings of this investigation. We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks, and to respond to the will of the messengers in Anaheim next month”, they stated, referring to the annual assembly that will take place on 14-15 June.
The anti-sexual abuse task force, which was formed specifically after the 2021 assembly, has also lamented the results of the investigation and the way in which the SBC has acted.
“With broken hearts, we want to lead the way by publicly repenting for what has happened in our convention. We implore our Southern Baptist family to respond to this report with deep repentance and a commitment to the ongoing moral demands of the gospel as it relates to sexual abuse”.
The Guidepost Solutions report spends around 30 pages to make several recommendations to the SBC Executive Committee.
For example, they talk about the need to create a permanent entity to oversee the response to and prevention of sexual abuse and the publication of a list including churches that have been expelled from the denomination and individuals whose pastoral ordination has been revoked.
They call for the launch of an "abuser reporting system", such as an online database open to congregations to report possible cases of abuse. They also encourage them to provide support programmes for survivors and even financial compensation to victims to cover medical and psychological support.
The sexual abuse task force has also asked that the assembly choose and establish a new working group that could evaluate how changes and recommendations are implemented according to their own denomination's codes.