The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC Executive Committee confirmed late Friday, Aug. 12.
The scope and focus of the investigation were not made public, although the Executive Committee said it had been served with a subpoena and that the DOJ investigation will include multiple SBC agencies.
It is not unprecedented for law enforcement to investigate sexual abuse in religious organizations. Nor do churches have any special protection against sexual abuse on religious liberty claims.
In recent years, the DOJ has launched investigations into claims of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. The results of those investigations have been mixed, and the pace has been too slow for many victims and victims’ advocates.
Presumably, the DOJ investigation into the SBC would follow a similar path, looking for previously unreported cases of sexual abuse that still would be viable under the statute of limitations and for cases where church leaders who had a legal duty to report abuse did nothing.
A recurring theme of the 300-page Guidepost Solutions investigation into the SBC Executive Committee — released just before the SBC annual meeting this June — was about denominational leaders who knew about abuse and alleged abuse and did nothing to stop it or report it. In a similar fashion to what happened with Catholic priests, clergy who were known abusers were allowed to move to other churches without being exposed.
The DOJ does not normally launch public investigations until it has gathered large troves of information behind the scenes first. What the DOJ has gathered on the SBC and how long it has been looking are not yet known.
Benjamin Cole, a Southern Baptist commentator who tweets under the name The Baptist Blogger, tweeted at midday Aug. 12 — hours before the Executive Committee statement was released — that “federal investigator(s) seek unredacted SATF Report and supplemental/source materials. Grand jury subpoenas issued for @SBCExecComm, @GuidepostGlobal. Other subpoenas to SBC entities, individuals anticipated.”
SATF is the Sexual Abuse Task Force that worked last year to facilitate the Guidepost report and to make initial recommendations to the convention on how to respond. A new task force was named just this week to continue implementation of reforms, including creating a database of clergy and lay leaders convicted or credibly accused of abuse.
The statement released today from the Executive Committee was signed by the head of every SBC entity and the president of the convention. It said: “Individually and collectively, each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation. While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future. The fact that the SBC Executive Committee recently completed a fully transparent investigation is evidence of this commitment.
“We recognize our reform efforts are not finished. In fact, those efforts are continuing this very moment as the recently announced Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force begins its work and as each entity has strengthened its efforts to protect against abuse. Our commitment to cooperate with the Department of Justice is born from our demonstrated commitment to transparently address the scourge of sexual abuse.”
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