Southern Baptists aren't doing enough for sexual abuse victims

A Southern Baptist church in Texas during offertory. Photo by Meagan Clark.

A Southern Baptist church in Texas during offertory. Photo by Meagan Clark.

COMMENTARY— Southern Baptists, the largest single Protestant group in the US with 14.8 million members, ended their annual two-day meeting Wednesday amid ongoing sexual abuse allegations and internal debates about restricting women from pastoral leadership. The outcome? After years of resisting addressing this issue, still not nearly enough.

The SBC’s “action” on sexual abuse was that its 8,000 messengers from local churches voted to initiate the process to create a committee to investigate claims of sexual abuse in their member churches and threaten to end membership of churches found to have mishandled abuse. These measures, while perhaps well-intentioned, are more about absolving responsibility and further protecting the convention from potential financial and legal risk than helping victims or preventing future abuse. The vote on these amendments to their constitution would need another vote in favor next year to come into effect.

Unlike the Catholic Church, the SBC doesn’t impose a hierarchy of leadership on churches. Each member church runs its own affairs autonomously. They pay membership dues to combine resources, pay for seminaries, send missionaries out, etc. and in return receive teaching materials and agree to adhere to certain doctrinal views. For example, any church allowing a female pastor cannot remain a member.

If the SBC could end church memberships at the state and local levels over women preaching to congregations that include men, they could also try to more quickly end memberships over credible sexual abuse allegations that have surfaced, especially since earlier this year, a Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News investigation revealed 700 alleged sexual abuse victims in the Southern Baptist Convention churches over 20 years. More than 250 had been criminally charged, and some were convicted or successfully sued. Maybe it’s just taking them time to do so, but why didn’t they speed up this process to end church memberships for such an important cause? At the same time, it’s notable that the national SBC decided to intervene at all with authority over members.

Aside from some irony in threatening a Baptist church with a split (they have a history of autonomy with many independent Baptist churches who already eschew the SBC), we’re already seeing some megachurches create separate legal entities for their own campuses. The reason is that the main church doesn’t want to take legal responsibility for what may happen in a sub-church across town, just in case.

The Village Church in North Texas, accused of mishandling sexual abuse of a teen girl at a summer camp by a youth pastor, announced in 2017 their plans to switch from its megachurch model to individual autonomous churches. It’s not clear how much the church knew at the time about abuse happening in its ranks. The victim’s mother alleges in a New York Times story this week that the church didn’t immediately remove the pastor or announce the allegations to the church after his removal. Matt Chandler, head of that church, addressed the article at the SBC meeting this week, saying his “imperfect church” takes abuse allegations seriously.

It makes sense to curb financial fallout, but the SBC should focus more on how to help victims and their families report abuse, instead of the SBC simply distancing itself from churches that have messed up. This was touched on at the meeting and in a document released shortly before this week, a commendable step.

Still, ater the Texas newspaper investigations, the SBC president said it would be possible to create a database of perpetrators to prevent credibly accused people from hopping to another church and abusing again. If the SBC decides to disown churches facing sexual abuse scandals, a database won’t help the “excommunicated” congregants. The congregation is made to pay for their leadership’s sins.

What’s more, the SBC’s proposed measure could further discourage member churches from disclosing abuse to police or any outside authority, for the risk of losing financial benefits and stability that membership brings.

Popular author and Southern Baptist Beth Moore, who has recently spoken out about her views that women should be able to preach, told those at the SBC meeting that “our family is sick,” referring to the sexual abuse crisis. She has previously spoken about her own abuse as a child.

At the meeting, the messengers also decided against allowing sexual abuse survivor Susan Codone to serve on the committee that would investigate claims of sexual abuse and racism.

In 1995, the SBC apologized for practicing racial segregation in the past, and today it remains about 85 percent white. A 71-page report by the SBC’s flagship seminary in 2018 documented the school’s dark history of racism and brought renewed attention to the issue. That seminary also recently declined to offer financial reparations to a black seminary, citing differences in theology as the reason.

We can’t expect the SBC to change its structure, based on the belief that the authority of the church rests with local congregations, to become financially liable for sexual abuse settlements. But you’d think that if the SBC was serious about sexual abuse victims, they would offer financial help to those families reeling from the long-term effects of abuse, which often lead to expensive challenges like mental health trauma and therapy, prolonged unemployment and alcohol and drug addictions to name a few. Protection from lawsuits makes sense, but why not create a fund for victims and their families, similar to the other social justice activities SBC churches love to fund? The SBC could also suggest that member churches buy insurance to cover potential abuse settlements. Allegations are probably not going to decrease anytime soon.

Not having women in leadership is one thing, but not listening to women is another. Although women spoke about abuse on panels at the annual meeting, it’s unclear so far on how an all-male committee would decide whether or not a sexual abuse claim is substantiated enough to kick out a church when victim-blaming is unfortunately still a norm.

Women are often the driving force in churches, preparing meals and running childcare and other kid programs like Vacation Bible School that drive traffic into the community. They also often literally bring traffic in, by coercing their families to accompany them to church. Pew research has repeatedly found that women are more likely to pray daily and affiliate with a religion than men both globally and in the US. It would be a good idea to involve them more in preventing, recognizing and reporting sexual abuse, especially of children.

Church-going baby boomers often bemoan that young Americans are leaving their pews and not coming back. This is particularly true of Southern Baptists, where Millennials make up only 13 percent. (I’m one of those who left for other Protestant churches, though I also left the South.)

Southern Baptists are still only a smidgeon of the 240 million Americans (75 percent) who called themselves Christians in 2015, according to Gallup, and the 72 million Americans who self-identify as Catholic.

They should tread carefully.

Meagan Clark is the managing editor of Religion Unplugged, grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Texas, and previously spent 2.5 years working for a non-profit against child sexual abuse, supported generously by many Southern Baptists.