The more time goes by, the more concerned I get about the Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse hotline.
For anyone who may be trying to make some kind of risk-benefit analysis in deciding whether to call the hotline, the balance of factors has grown more weighted toward the risk side. And the evidence of benefit is sparse.
The hotline was established in May 2022, shortly after release of the bombshell Guidepost report, which documented how, for decades, the SBC Executive Committee’s top leaders turned a blind eye to clergy sex abuse reports while stonewalling and vilifying survivors.
Something had to be done — and done fast — to shore up the SBC’s institutional image. So, the hotline was created.
I expect some will view that statement as harsh and insist the hotline was created not for PR purposes but to foster clergy accountability and aid survivors. I believe many in SBC life held this hope. But I find little evidence this is what’s actually happening.
The hotline is operated by Guidepost Solutions pursuant to a contract between Guidepost and the SBC Executive Committee. According to Guidepost’s own statement, “Guidepost is serving as an information provider to the SBC.”
This is something no one should lose sight of: Guidepost works for the SBC Executive Committee.
I have long been skeptical about the hotline, and I make no apologies for that. Too little about the hotline is transparent and too much about it is concerning. The chasm of what we don’t know is vast.
Yet, month after month, the SBC has touted its hotline, frequently placing information about it at the bottom of Baptist Press articles, telling abuse survivors to “reach out for help.”
And prominently placed on the SBC’s website is the message that survivors who contact the hotline “will be put in touch with an advocate.”
But how much “help” are survivors actually getting? And what is the nature of that “help”?
Who exactly is the “advocate” the SBC claims survivors “will be put in touch with” — if indeed that’s even happening — and what exactly does the “advocate” actually do for the survivors?
What are the credentials of the advocate? Is the advocate someone wholly independent? Who is paying the advocate?
All these are important questions, and I’m puzzled as to why the SBC doesn’t transparently provide this information up front.
No doubt there are many clergy sex abuse survivors who need help, and so the SBC’s apparent offer of “help” may be superficially enticing.
“One of the main things many survivors want help with is in exposing the pastor who abused them so he won’t be able to hurt others.”
But in my experience, one of the main things many survivors want help with is in exposing the pastor who abused them so he won’t be able to hurt others. I see no evidence that this kind of “help” is being provided via the hotline.
Hundreds of “unique submissions” have been made to the hotline — they’ve told us this much. Yet we still know nothing at all about who those reported pastors are. Nor do we know whether congregants in the reported pastors’ churches have been fully informed.
SBC officials don’t release even basic data. How many independent investigations have been initiated based on hotline reports? How many reported pastors have been placed on leave pending investigation? None of this is transparent.
What we do know is that, in the 21 months since the hotline’s inception, not a single abusive pastor’s name has been added to any SBC database. Not one. The hotline has not yet resulted in the institutional outing of any abusive SBC pastors.
The more time that goes by without any hotline-reported pastors being added to a database, the more I question whether the hotline is truly helping survivors.
The idea of a hotline is no doubt appealing, but if a call to the hotline doesn’t trigger urgent action, then is the idea of it supplanting the reality of it? Why is it even called a hotline?
So what exactly is the hotline accomplishing? I don’t know. But I see no evidence that it’s actually providing help for people sexually abused by Southern Baptist clergy.
The hotline appears to be more of a theater piece, presenting an illusion of accountability and care, but without the reality. It is an illusion that may serve the SBC’s institutional ends of image-management. But how does it serve the ends of survivors?
Absent a clear evidence-based track record of the hotline serving survivors, I wonder how much longer Guidepost’s own reputation can endure its propping up of what appears to be an illusion.
“I wonder how much longer Guidepost’s own reputation can endure its propping up of what appears to be an illusion.”
Not only is it hard to find evidence of survivor benefit from the hotline, but the risks of survivor communications with the hotline have become more apparent. Last November, a U.S. district court rejected Guidepost’s confidentiality argument and refused to let Guidepost shield a survivor’s communications made during the course of its original investigation. Instead, the court ruled that many of the survivor’s communications with Guidepost had to be unsealed, including the survivor’s text messages with a Guidepost representative, audio recordings the survivor’s husband had made of counseling sessions with his wife, and the husband’s private journal.
The court also ordered that Guidepost had to produce records of its interviews with the survivor.
This risk of forced disclosure for communications to Guidepost — communications survivors may have believed were confidential — is something many survivors will want to consider. And the time to do that is before contacting the hotline.
How, then, should a survivor weigh the potential risks and benefits of contacting the SBC’s hotline?
Survivors may weigh things differently depending on their circumstances — and also, sadly, depending on how desperate they’re feeling. But I would urge all survivors to at least attempt to consciously weigh the potential risks and benefits, and to do so based not on the mere words of SBC officials, and certainly not on the mere fact that it’s called a “hotline,” but rather on the reality of what we see in terms of actual results arising from the hotline.
For many survivors, it would be prudent to consult with legal counsel.
The SBC’s sexual abuse hotline has been operational for not quite two years. This means there’s a track record now, and in my view, it’s a lousy one.
Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang and a forthcoming memoir, due out spring 2024, called In Baptistland. Follow her on Twitter @ChristaBrown777.
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