New nonprofit organization being created to oversee SBC sexual abuse reforms


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Convention’s Abuse Reform Task Force has announced the creation of a new nonprofit organization that will oversee reforms.

Incorporation papers for the Abuse Response Commission are prepped and ready to be submitted in South Carolina.

With Abuse Response Commission comes a permanent home for abuse reform in the SBC, according to members of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force participating in a Feb. 20 news conference in Nashville. Abuse Response Commission is not a Southern Baptist entity and not part of the Cooperative Program allocation structure.

Abuse Reform Task Force chairman and North Carolina pastor Josh Wester also shared the information the night before during the opening session of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s February trustee meeting.

“After painstakingly evaluating and exhausting every option, there is broad agreement that the best way to accomplish [our goals] is through an independent organization,” Wester said.

“An independent organization will have more credibility with survivors, more flexibility to help our churches and more success in accomplishing the mandate given to us by [convention] messengers,” he said.

“Given the current legal and financial challenges facing the SBC and the Executive Committee, the formation of a new independent organization is the only viable path that allows progress toward abuse reform to continue unencumbered and without delay.”

Abuse Response Commission’s incorporators are Wester; Marshall Blalock, a pastor in South Carolina; Melissa Bowen, a retired attorney in Alabama; Brad Eubank, a pastor in Mississippi; Mike Keahbone, a pastor in Oklahoma; and Jon Nelson, a pastor in Missouri.

Blalock previously served as Abuse Reform Task Force chair and was vice chair for the original Sexual Abuse Task Force, which was formed following concerns raised by annual meeting messengers in 2021 about the Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse cases during the previous 20 years.

Abuse Response Commission “is being started by a group of concerned individual Southern Baptists who want to continue to move forward our efforts to combat sexual abuse,” Wester said.

“ARC intends to make sure that it moves forward in a manner that will protect the SBC and the Executive Committee from additional liability,” he said. “It intends to procure an insurance policy that includes coverage that would provide cost of defense and indemnification to the SBC and Executive Committee in the event that they’re named in lawsuits related to the work and activities of ARC.”

While Abuse Response Commission’s business plan and other specific details are still being worked out, the anticipation is a $1.5 million annual operating budget, which includes all aspects of running the organization and staffing an executive director. Another $1 million also is needed in the launch phase for final development of the Ministry Check website and initial insurance coverage.

Basically, $2.5 million is needed “to successfully launch this,” Wester said.

“There’s a lot of different ways to fund this work, and we’re not necessarily tied to any specific one of them,” he said, noting he has been in discussions with the various SBC entity and auxiliary leaders for ideas on securing long-term funding.

Much of the resources provided by Abuse Response Commission will be free, but some services will have a fee attached which could help generate revenue going forward, Wester added.

Securing financial backing seems to be the only remaining obstacle because there’s no longer a concern over whether it can be done or if it can be insured, he indicated. “It turns out, databases like this do exist, they are insured, and they don’t get sued all the time.”

Wester said the Ministry Check website will feature two categories initially — criminal convictions and civil judgments related to sexual abuse. The ARITF members and Abuse Response Commission investors want the site released “as soon as possible,” he added.

The idea of creating a publicly available database of individuals in churches who have been convicted of or found liable for sex abuse has been brewing for more than 25 years.

A particularly aggressive effort took place in 2007 when then-Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson presented a motion at the SBC Annual Meeting to create a Database of Clergy or Staff in SBC Churches Involved in Sexual Harassment or Abuse. It was referred to the Executive Committee and ultimately declined.

Along with noting practical concerns for maintaining such a database, the group appointed to study the possibility stated, “the Convention does not have the authority to create a centralized investigative body to investigate whether an individual has been ‘credibly accused’ by someone within a local church in regard to any matter.”

A few weeks prior to Burleson’s motion in 2007, then-SBC and Executive Committee attorney Jim Guenther is noted as proposing a similar plan, according to page 61 of the Guidepost Solutions Independent Investigation Report. He presented the idea to D. August “Augie” Boto, then executive vice president and general counsel for the Executive Committee.

Guenther suggested the SBC website link to a database that listed the names of individuals “who engaged in sexual misconduct and were convicted of a felony or criminal misdemeanor, and/or had a judgment in a civil action for a common tort,” according to the report.

He said the plan “would fit our polity and present ministries to help churches in this area of child abuse and sexual misconduct,” the report continues.

On page 64 of the report, Guidepost officials state that Boto said in their May 2022 interview with him that he was against an SBC database because the Executive Committee could not be involved in making judgments about who should be on the list, which could create a risk of false accusations and liability.

According to the report, Boto stated he was in favor of a database if it had been managed by an outside entity so it would not be on the SBC to assume the liability.