In early 2019, journalists from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published findings from a months-long investigation that exposed decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by Southern Baptist Convention leaders. The investigation was in response to a call for action from sexual abuse survivors and advocates who in 2008 called for changes to be made within the Southern Baptist Church. These survivors and advocates sought transparency and accountability from SBC leaders for the way that reports of sexual abuse were handled.
The journalists focused their report on the 10 years prior to and the 10 years after this change was requested and found that nearly all of the requested changes were rejected by SBC leaders. Journalists uncovered since 1998 around 380 Southern Baptist Convention leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual misconduct involving 700 victims, many of whom were children.
Three years after the journalists first shined a light on this sexual abuse crisis, Guidepost Solutions was hired by the Southern Baptist Convention to conduct an independent investigation into reports of sexual abuse within the church. Guidepost published its findings in a 259-page report on May 22, 2022. This report includes sexual abuse survivor interviews, allegations of abuse committed by Executive Committee members, reports of mishandling of abuse allegations and allegations of mistreatment of sexual abuse victims by Executive Committee members spanning over 20 years.
Mishandling of sexual abuse allegations and mistreatment of victims within the Southern Baptist Church
The Guidepost investigation reviewed allegations of mishandled reports of abuse by Executive Committee members and allegations of mistreatment of sexual abuse victims by Executive Committee members from January 1, 2000 to June 14, 2021. Investigators found a prevailing attitude among Executive Committee leaders that the Southern Baptist Convention had no responsibility for addressing the sexual abuse crisis within member churches. These leaders believed the churches to be autonomous and not under the control of the SBC. This attitude created an environment where accused perpetrators were not held accountable for their actions and victims were ignored or treated poorly.
Guidepost investigators witnessed a lack of transparency regarding reports of sexual abuse. Executive Committee leaders generally did not discuss allegations of sexual abuse within the church outside of their inner circle, did not respond to the survivor, and took no action to address the allegations in an effort to prevent ongoing abuse or future abuse. Executive Committee leaders also thwarted Board discussion by keeping information about sexual abuse allegations from Executive Committee Trustees. In fact, Executive Committee leadership had collected and concealed information about reports of sexual abuse for years over fear of potential liability for the church. Once shocking revelation in the report included a disclosure from an Executive Committee staff member who had been tasked with keeping a list of news reports and other information about accused Southern Baptist ministers. The staff member noted there were 585 possible abusers. Yet no action was taken to share the information or address the need for reform.
Another area of concern is the treatment of sexual abuse survivors who came forward to report abuse. Many survivors who reached out to SBC leadership were ignored or were told the SBC could not assist with their concerns with individual churches. In some cases, survivors were bullied and harassed on social media not only by the general public but also by Southern Baptist leaders and in one instance an Executive Committee Trustee.
Sexual Abuse Survivors Subjected to Intimidation by Southern Baptist Executive Committee Members
Intimidation of sexual abuse survivors is a separate concern from the mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse as stated above. Several survivors reported to Guidepost that the Baptist Press, a publication of the Executive Committee, published articles that cast survivors in a negative light or minimized facts of the abuse they suffered. This created an atmosphere where other survivors felt threatened to come forward for fear of suffering a similar attack to their reputation. Another example of intimidation involved a representative from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) who submitted an article to the Baptist Press. The article included some criticism of the way the Southern Baptist Church had handled the sexual abuse crisis to date. Executive Committee staff initially attempted to silence this view by not publishing the article in the Baptist Press. When the ERLC member pressed about the publication of the article, it was eventually published but only after considerable editing which gutted much of the language the Executive Committee found to be inflammatory against the church.
Reports of Sexual Abuse Perpetrated by Southern Baptist Church Executive Committee Members
Reports of sexual abuse were not limited to only ministers within the membership but also included Executive Committee members. The May 2022 report includes a case where an allegation of grooming and sexual assault was made against former Southern Baptist Convention President and pastor Dr. Johnny Hunt by the wife of a Southern Baptist Church pastor. The wife and her pastor husband claim they were silenced by Dr. Hunt as well as a staff counselor from Dr. Hunt’s church after the assault. It was only after the wife began therapy with a licensed trauma therapist and her pastor husband was completing his doctorate while studying clinical counseling did they begin to process their experience and contacted Guidepost investigators to have their voice heard.
Southern Baptist Leaders Resisted Sexual Abuse Reform
A review of Executive Committee leadership actions over the past 20 years shows a lack of willingness to address the issue of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Church. The Guidepost report repeatedly mentions Executive Committee General Counsel and former Interim Executive Committee President D. August “Augie” Boto, James Guenther, James Jordan, and the firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price as individuals who largely steered the decisions about how the Southern Baptist Church would handle issues involving the sexual abuse crisis within the church. Mr. Boto played a key role in the church’s decision to reject a proposal in 2008 to create a database of individuals reported for sexual misconduct as well as the decision to reject a proposal to hold a sexual abuse education conference in 2014.
Justice for Sexual Abuse Survivors in the Southern Baptist Church
Clergy sexual abuse has a profound impact on victims as they deal with the guilt, shame and trauma caused by sexual abuse. Our attorneys have helped sexual abuse survivors and their families for decades seek justice and get compensation to help pay for resources needed to heal from their trauma. We represent survivors on a contingency basis which means we do not get paid until your case is resolved. Contact us now for a free, confidential consultation.