By Tom Strode
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — The Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse Advisory Study issued a report Saturday, June 8, after 10 months of work with the hope that God will use it to “spark a movement of healing and reform.”
The 52-page report – produced by a fluid study group formed last July by new Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear – was released three days before the SBC’s annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. Sexual abuse has been increasingly revealed to be a significant problem among Southern Baptists the last two years, and it will be a focus before and during the meeting. The Advisory Study will make a presentation at the SBC meeting Wednesday afternoon, June 12.
The Advisory Study, which worked in collaboration with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), conducted interviews with hundreds of sexual abuse survivors, as well as church leaders and national experts in the field, according to the report. The report – which includes testimonies from several survivors – seeks “to begin to educate our churches on the abuse crisis, equip our churches to care well for survivors, and prepare our churches to prevent abuse.”
While acknowledging the report is not intended to be either exhaustive or “fully prescriptive,” the Advisory Study says one of its aims “is to begin to illuminate the evil that has occurred within our midst by sharing the stories of survivors of sexual abuse.” The report expresses gratitude to the “brave men and women” who told their stories of abuse so the SBC could understand the scope of the “sexual abuse crisis” it faces.
“We must not rest until Southern Baptist churches are places where [the dignity of being an image bearer of God] has been restored to survivors of sexual abuse and where leadership at all levels fights against the scourge of sexual abuse in all its forms and never covers over or protects abusers,” the report says. “We are committed to becoming churches that are safe for survivors and safe from abuse.”
Greear said the report “is a good first step at capturing where we have come from and where we must go to serve the vulnerable.”
“At its core, the Gospel is about God’s commitment to protect the vulnerable,” Greear said in written comments for Baptist Press. “The cross shows us that He is a safe refuge for all who run to Him. What greater lie could we tell about the Gospel than for us not to be doing whatever it takes to make our churches a safe place for the vulnerable?”
In three sections, the report calls for:
• The education of Southern Baptist churches to understand abuse, its prevalence, its effect, its underlying issues and the failures of churches.
The Advisory Study expresses lament in the report for every victim and cites statistics demonstrating how prevalent sexual abuse is in the church and the country – including a Department of Justice figure that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
The report says a misapplication of theology that is at the root of the abuse problem calls for correction in several areas, including a failure to value every person as an image bearer of God, a flawed handling of confession and forgiveness, and a misunderstanding of church autonomy.
Churches “must be willing to enter into the messy reality of abuse and not hide from the reality that is surrounding us,” according to the report.
• The equipping of Southern Baptist churches to care for abuse survivors.
Some churches and leaders “have been most concerned with protecting the reputation of their ministry and the church” when abuse is reported, the report says. As a result, they have failed to protect the vulnerable and prevent future victims, according to the report. “Jesus does not need us to protect his reputation,” it says. “The survivor must be our top priority.”
The report recommends churches establish a plan of response to a report of abuse that might include developing caregivers “to walk alongside” a survivor, know what the legal requirements are for disclosure, become acquainted with agencies that work with survivors and institute a policy for handling accused predators.
• The preparation of Southern Baptist churches to prevent abuse.
Churches must be proactive to keep abuse from occurring, according to the report. Steps to protect those in the church from predators, according to the report, are: Training staff and volunteers to recognize and prevent abuse; establishing safety policies; screening employees and volunteers; and appointing a safety team.
ERLC President Russell Moore said he is not sure he has “ever seen a group in all my years in Baptist life conduct work as thoroughly and with as much excellence” as has the Advisory Study.
“This report reflects the fruit of hundreds of interviews with survivors, experts in law enforcement, counseling, trauma, security and many others,” Moore said in an ERLC release. “It is a starting point, not the final word from this group or on this issue – but a significant document nonetheless. I hope all Southern Baptists will take the time to read it as we unite and commit to root out this wickedness from our midst and care for those who have experienced this horror.”
On June 10, the eve of the two-day SBC meeting, sexual abuse will be the focus at least twice:
• The SBC Executive Committee will consider in its meeting a constitutional amendment specifying that churches which harbor either sexual abuse or ethnic discrimination are not in harmony with the SBC as well as a bylaws amendment to establish a standing Credentials Committee to evaluate claims of church misconduct regarding sexual abuse and racism or any other matter that would call a church’s continued relationship with the SBC into question.
• The ERLC and the Advisory Study will co-host at 9 p.m. a panel discussion on sex abuse in the SBC. The panel will feature Greear; Moore; attorney, advocate, and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander; Bible teacher Beth Moore; and Susan Codone, senior associate dean of academic affairs at Mercer University School of Medicine.
The June 8 report follows closely the unveiling of two initiatives to help churches address sexual abuse:
• The ERLC and the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study collaborated with LifeWay Christian Resources to produce “Becoming a Church That Cares Well for the Abused,” a comprehensive training curriculum that consists of a handbook with 12 video lessons from experts in a variety of areas.
• The two entities also launched the “Caring Well Challenge,” a call for Southern Baptist churches to participate in a year-long initiative to become equipped to prevent predatory behavior and to care for survivors.
Sexual abuse already was a significant issue in the SBC, but an ongoing investigative series by the Houston Chronicle, joined by the San Antonio Express-News, that began in February revealed further some of the extent of the problem in the convention and its churches. The initial articles in the series found 220 pastors and other leaders in Southern Baptist churches who had been convicted of or taken plea deals in sex crimes involving more than 700 victims. More abusers in churches, as well as some who served as missionaries with the International Mission Board, have been reported since then.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.