Seventeen years ago, the two of us wrote to Southern Baptist Convention officials, urging creation of a denominational database of pastors criminally convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse.
“Moral obligation demands it,” we said.
That moral obligation still stands unmet.
For decades, SBC officials “lied” about their reason for refusing to meet that obligation. While publicly proclaiming they couldn’t keep a database because of “local church autonomy,” privately, they could, and they did.
The Guidepost report exposed that deceit, along with numerous other cruelties and ethical abdications. Yet although the report was released a year ago, the reckoning has been puny and pusillanimous: a proposal for “the bare minimum” and then the doing of not even that.
Despite much talk and multiple committees, the SBC has not yet, on its own, outed and held accountable a single credibly accused clergy sex abuser. It has further alienated many survivors because, absent meaningful action, hollow talk feels duplicitous and rightly raises skepticism.
“The SBC has not yet, on its own, outed and held accountable a single credibly accused clergy sex abuser.”
The SBC’s 2023 annual meeting convenes next month in New Orleans. Here are five steps the SBC should take if it wants credibility for attempting to deal with clergy sex abuse.
- Give clergy sex abuse survivors the option of an immediate independent inquiry to assess their reports, without necessity for reliance on the local church.
Currently, a call to the SBC’s sexual abuse hotline does not trigger an immediate independent investigation to assess whether a pastor is credibly accused. Instead, an abuse report may get referred to the relevant church, and the church is responsible for initiating an independent investigation. According to the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, “each local church has full autonomy in selecting an independent, qualified firm.”
Although we have publicly advocated for an SBC database since 2006, let us be clear: We never advocated for anything like this.
Why not? Because it’s not a survivor-friendly model of database. Instead, the SBC is producing a church-centric model that presumes a wishful reality of churches doing the right thing, which is directly contrary to the lived reality of most clergy sex abuse survivors, hundreds of whom have recounted how horrifically Southern Baptist churches treated them.
Have SBC leaders not been listening to survivors?
Under the SBC’s church-centric system, survivors will have to wait for the local church to commission an inquiry, trust in the church’s choice of investigatory firm and hope the church specifies adequate contractual terms for a good investigation.
This asks too much of survivors. For many, the local church is not only the situs of sexual trauma but also the hellhole where they were retraumatized by the church’s shaming, blaming and intimidation tactics.
To place any kind of reliance on the local church will understandably be psychologically untenable for many. As one survivor said: “Hell no. No way. No how.”
“Such a system is like telling bloody sheep they should put their trust in the den of the wolf that savaged them.”
Such a system is like telling bloody sheep they should put their trust in the den of the wolf that savaged them.
Not only is it cruel for survivors, it will yield an illusory and dysfunctional database. If survivors don’t trust the process, they won’t pursue abuse reports and the database won’t acquire the information.
- Immediately add to the new Ministry Check database all the names of pastors and church staff that are on the Executive Committee’s list released a year ago.
For at least 15 years, the SBC’s Executive Committee kept a secret list of sexual abusers. Even as survivors struggled desperately to warn congregations about preacher-predators, SBC officials knew about more than 700 abusive pastors and took no action to protect people — the moral bankruptcy of it is unfathomable.
Finally, in the face of survivors’ demands and media pressure, the Executive Committee made its list public.
No survivor should now have to do a single thing more to get one of those previously listed names onto the new Ministry Check database. We have done enough. All those names should be transferred automatically and immediately.
- Provide public information about the abuse reports made to the hotline.
The Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force has said that “hundreds of unique submissions” have been reported to the SBC’s sexual abuse hotline. This raises many urgent questions.
How many pastors and church staff have been accused of sexual abuse? How many reported pastors have been placed on leave pending investigation? How many independent investigations are currently in progress? Have congregations with accused pastors been fully informed? And where are these potentially dangerous pastors now?
Answers to these questions should already have been transparently and proactively provided. It shouldn’t fall to the survivor community to have to beg for information.
- Immediately add to the new Ministry Check database all the names of any pastor or church staff for whom documentation has been submitted of a criminal conviction or plea bargain on sexual abuse or sexual assault, or on the possession or distribution of child sexual abuse materials.
“I gave her the name of my perp, I sent the scanned felony paperwork, the link to his being on the Texas sex offender list, and still, I do not see his name on the SBC list.”
That’s what a survivor said about her communication, 10 months ago, with the SBC’s sexual abuse hotline.
Since then, she’s been worrying and wondering and repeatedly checking to see if her perpetrator’s name has been added to the SBC’s list.
Of course, she’s not the only survivor who’s been disappointed by the lack of prompt action. Some are rightly asking whether the “hotline” is really a cold line.
- Strip Morris Chapman of his honorary title as president emeritus of the SBC Executive Committee.
As the man who held top power during many of the years covered by the Guidepost report, Morris Chapman presided over the SBC Executive Committee’s egregious mishandling of abuse reports, its maltreatment of survivors, its resistance to reform and its callous, duplicitous choice to protect the institution over people.
Countless kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only Chapman had acted years ago.
“If the callous and complicit are praised, they will be emulated.”
Yet, not only has the Executive Committee imposed no consequence on him, at its February 2023 meeting, committee members applauded Chapman.
If the SBC Executive Committee does not even hold itself accountable, then no one should be surprised by SBC churches that fail to hold their pastors accountable. The example has been set at the highest level. If the callous and complicit are praised, they will be emulated.
To strip Chapman of his honorary title would be the tiniest consequence. If the Executive Committee will not do even this, then all their “we care” words ring hollow.
The SBC has a moral obligation to protect the lives and bodies of kids and congregants in its affiliated churches, to foster accountability for abusers and enablers and to create proactive systems that will ensure the travesties of the past and present do not persist into the future.
The five steps here are not enough, but they would at least give reason to believe SBC officials are beginning to act in earnest good faith.
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.
David Clohessy was the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, for 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @davidgclohessy.