This story was updated Oct. 5 to correct an error in the final paragraph.
A former prosecutor and grandson of Billy Graham focused for the last 16 years on investigating allegations of clergy sexual abuse in evangelical churches shamed the Southern Baptist Convention for failing to act on abuse in its own ranks until prodded by the secular press.
Boz Tchividjian, who in 2003 founded an organization called GRACE, or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, told a gathering of church leaders Oct. 4 that prior to a series of investigative newspaper reports this year exposing more than 700 victims of abuse in Southern Baptist life during the last two decades, the voices of survivors went largely unheeded.
“To most survivors, what do they hear? What do they see?” Tchividjian said in an address at a three-day conference by the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty on equipping churches to confront abuse in the Southern Baptist church.
“Look through their lens: ‘I was sexually abused at a Southern Baptist church and now the Southern Baptist church is hosting a conference. Why? Because a newspaper down the road had a big expose on it.’ That’s what they’re hearing, and that’s what they see, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
In February the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News released the first of a series of investigative reports exposing alarming numbers of Southern Baptist clergy and volunteers engaging of sexual misconduct, churches harboring offenders while shaming and shunning victims and dozens of leaders accused of sex offenses who went on to serve in another church.
“Guys, your system’s broken,” Tchividjian said. “The system of this denomination is broken, and I’m not going to make many friends by saying that, but it is.”
“Imagine that the Southern Baptist Convention learned that in the past 20 years over 700 babies had been murdered at Southern Baptist churches around the country,” he said. “Imagine that people had been telling leadership about this for years, only to be ignored and sometimes vilified. Imagine that this horror then is written in a newspaper and suddenly the attention is brought to the forefront. What would happen?”
“I think that either the entire denomination would implode, or at least its entire system would have to be dismantled — leadership, beliefs and polity,” he said.
In the past SBC leaders have publicly condemned abuse in places like Hollywood and secular universities, but critics say they are less candid in addressing similar problems when they hit too close to home.
“The good-old-boy system that all too often places a greater value on public and private relationships, book sales and conference invitations than confronting evil and advocating for the abused, that’s got to be done with,” he said.
“We can talk about abuse and we can talk about how horrific it is until it’s some leader’s friend in a church or in an organization and suddenly now they’re not talking about it. That’s wrong.”
Survivor advocates have long called on the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics to take actions like creating a system to receive, assess and share abuse allegations. Denominational leaders say it would not work, because Southern Baptist churches are self-governing and not subject to oversight by the national body.
“A system that claims to have little authority against abusive churches and pastors, I think would undoubtedly find such authority if an SBC church ordained a woman or a gay man,” Tchividjian said. “It’s time to start listening to all survivors, and not just those who feel safe or are approved.”
Tchividjian, a law professor at Liberty University still active in a private law practice, also challenged Southern Baptist dogma that gender determines roles of leadership and service in the home and church.
“A system that excludes one entire gender from leadership, something [is] wrong with that,” he said. “Yes we can have a theological debate any day, and I’m happy to have it. But my goodness.”
“I’ve been dealing with this 25 years and I can tell you, if more women were in leadership in those rooms and making decisions, we wouldn’t have gotten rid of the whole issue — trust me, but to get their insights and their wisdom? And it cannot be ‘talk to my wife when I get home.’ Yeah, talk to your wife when you get home, but there’s so many others that need to be a part of that conversation.”