I’ve written about the Catholic church’s decades-long conspiracy to protect the sexual predators in the priesthood, and their belated and inadequate efforts to atone once the truth got out. It was evil on an industrial scale – but it wasn’t unique.
This is a pattern in corrupt institutions of all kinds. Time and again, when one of their own commits awful evils, their first impulse is to silence the victim and cover up the crime, to preserve the institution’s reputation from scandal. This seems especially likely to happen when the perpetrator works for a church. It’s all too easy for insiders to reason that, if the truth got out, people would walk away in disgust and lose their salvation – so, they conclude, how can it be wrong to cover up child abuse when eternal souls are at stake?
That toxic reasoning has been playing out among the Southern Baptists:
In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.
They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.
About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published “Abuse of Faith“, an expose of SBC pastors and church leaders who groomed, molested and abused children, or who committed other sex crimes. All too often, the churches swept their misdeeds under the rug, the victims were pressured to stay silent, and the predators were able to return to the pulpit with no consequences.
The Executive Committee, the nominal leaders of the denomination, claimed that there was nothing they could do. They said that because the SBC is a coalition of independent member churches, they have no disciplinary power over them. But this is clearly a lie, because they have taken action against churches that flouted denominational dogma:
Other leaders have acknowledged that Baptist churches are troubled by predators but that they could not interfere in local church affairs. Even so, the SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.
In the Executive Committee’s eyes, hiring a woman or gay person as a pastor is an unforgivable sin that gets a church kicked out of the SBC, but that same church hiring a convicted child molester as its youth minister is perfectly OK. They haven’t even created a database of known offenders as a warning for churches, which they could undeniably have done.
What’s more, the SBC leadership hasn’t just passively failed to act. It’s taken active steps to smear and punish people who speak up about sexual predators in the denomination. A case in point is Jennifer Lyell:
In the spring of 2019, Lyell, then a well-respected leader in Christian publishing, decided to publicly disclose that she was a survivor of sexual abuse.
She did so after learning her abuser, a former Southern Baptist seminary professor, author and missionary, had recently returned to ministry. Lyell feared he would once again have the opportunity to abuse others and wanted to stop that from happening.
…Instead of reporting she had been abused, Nashville-based Baptist Press, which is overseen by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, reported in March 2019 that Lyell, then a vice president at Lifeway Christian Resources, had admitted being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor.
The fallout was quick and devastating. Lyell was labeled on social media as an “adulteress” rather than an abuse survivor, with users leaving scores of vile comments about her on Lifeway’s Facebook page and the Baptist Press website. Pastors and churches called for her to be fired. She lost her reputation, her job and even her health in the process.
The Executive Committee’s inaction wasn’t just malicious, but arguably self-serving. Paul Pressler, a former vice president of the SBC and an architect of the conservative takeover of the denomination in the 1970s, is facing a lawsuit by multiple men alleging decades of sexual abuse. Another SBC bigwig, Paige Patterson, faced a firestorm of criticism over his handling of a sexual assault case that culminated with his firing from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s likely that there’s a good-old-boys network trying to protect people like these.
After being battered by wave after wave of scandals like these, the member churches of the SBC were fed up. In June, they voted for an independent investigation into the leadership’s handling of sex-abuse cases. Most significantly, they called on the Executive Committee to waive attorney-client privilege so we know exactly what was said behind closed doors. In other words, “What did they know and when did they know it?”
That’s where this story gets interesting – because the Executive Committee, who’ve insisted they’re not the kings of the Southern Baptist Convention, who claim they’re nothing but servants of the collective will of the member churches… heard this demand from the member churches, and refused to comply:
For the second time in a week, members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee have defied the will of the SBC in annual session — previously considered the final authority in governance — by refusing to waive attorney-client privilege in an investigation into possible sexual abuse in the denomination.
The Sept. 28 failure of the Executive Committee for a second time to resolve a disagreement with the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force puts the denomination’s congregational form of governance in peril. By refusing to do what messengers to the convention in annual session have asked, the Executive Committee upends the bottom-up governance model that has been a hallmark of Baptist life from its beginnings.
Twice in a row, the SBC’s Executive Committee voted to reject the demands of the wider denomination. Several EC members explained that they were motivated by fiduciary duty – the legal responsibility to act in the best interests of their organization – because, if their private correspondence proves that they knew about sexual predators and acted to protect them, the SBC might be vulnerable to devastating lawsuits. This is as good as an admission of guilt, not to mention a perversion of what “best interests” means. It’s like saying, “If we covered up crimes in the past, fiduciary duty requires that we keep covering them up!”
Infuriated by the EC’s defiance, hundreds of SBC member churches threatened to pull their funding. After much drama, there was a third vote on October 5, and this time, they finally agreed to waive attorney-client privilege.
This is a victory, but it’s only the beginning. Now the investigation actually has to be done, and there’s no telling what it might find. Doubtless, there are still factions within the Southern Baptist Convention that will try to stonewall or censor the results. There are powerful men whose reputations – not to mention their personal freedom – may be at stake, and they’ll fight tooth and nail to protect what they have. But the SBC has taken a welcome step toward reckoning with their past misdeeds. We’ll see if they have the courage to follow through.