A few key leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee repeatedly worked to stall, deny and control information about sexual abuse within the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination, according to an independent investigation released Sunday, May 22.
And almost coincidentally during this outside investigation, allegations of abusive behavior surfaced against a former SBC president who — until last week — was the No. 2 leader of the SBC’s North American Mission Board.
“During our investigation, an SBC pastor and his wife came forward to report that SBC President Johnny Hunt (2008-2010) had sexually assaulted the wife on July 25, 2010. We include this sexual assault allegation in the report because our investigators found the pastor and his wife to be credible; their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible,” the executive summary of the Guidepost report states.
According to NAMB President Kevin Ezell, Hunt, who is 69, resigned his role as senior vice president for evangelism and leadership Friday, May 13, “effective immediately.”
Ezell called the details of the Guidepost report “egregious and deeply disturbing.”
“Prior to May 13, I was not aware of any alleged misconduct on the part of Johnny Hunt,” Ezell said on Sunday afternoon, May 22. “I learned the details of the report today along with the rest of our Southern Baptist family.”
About an hour and a half after release of the report, Hunt issued a statement via Twitter confirming he had indeed resigned from NAMB but denying the allegations of abuse: “I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report. I have never abused anybody.”
Prior to assuming the NAMB leadership role in 2018, Hunt served for three decades as pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga. He was a frequent guest preacher at churches and events across the nation. At Woodstock, he created a much-celebrated program for “hurting pastors” and their families. That residential program, called City of Refuge, has served pastors who experienced “infidelity, addiction, abuse of power or other moral failings.”
Executive Committee secrecy
As shocking as Hunt’s story may read, his name is not the one that stands out most in the Guidepost report. The alleged center of the information black hole created at the SBC Executive Committee was Augie Boto, who for 21 years (1998-2019) served as executive vice president and general counsel for the Executive Committee.
Boto, in his previous work as an Austin, Texas, lawyer, had been instrumental in working with Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler to advance the so-called “conservative resurgence” that took control of all SBC structures in the 1980s and 1990s. He remained close to Patterson, even after Patterson was fired as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over allegations of mishandling sexual abuse cases.
Later, Boto was involved in a scheme along with Patterson to take control of a family foundation — the Harold E. Riley Foundation — that had been created to benefit Southwestern Seminary and Baylor University and redirect its funds to Patterson’s private foundation. This scheme also included a plan to get Boto and two others seated on the board of directors of Citizens Inc., the $300 million publicly traded insurance company founded by Harold Riley and the primary source of income to the Riley Foundation. According to terms of a settlement over that case, Boto is now barred from accepting employment or appointment as an officer, director or trustee of any Texas public or private nonprofit charitable organization as well as all SBC entities.
The Guidepost report places Boto at the center of a closely held group attempting to protect the SBC from accusations of inaction on sexual abuse claims while actively burying sexual abuse claims.
For two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have contacted the Executive Committee for help, “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the Executive Committee,” the report summarizes.
“For many years, a few senior Executive Committee leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the Executive Committee’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with Executive Committee trustees and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.
“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
“Survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
Guidepost interviewed 175 current and former Executive Committee trustees. Many of those “told us that they were unaware that survivors and others had been reporting abuse to the Executive Committee for years, or that lawsuits had been filed. A common concern was that Executive Committee officers and staff members knew more than the 86 Executive Committee trustees, who were not provided with enough time or materials to be thoroughly informed about Executive Committee issues. The Executive Committee trustees with whom we spoke were sympathetic to survivors and believed that they should have been met with greater compassion.”
However, a few Executive Committee trustees allegedly took part in the denial and intimidation, even if they weren’t in the loop on details. Guidepost gives Rod Martin as an example. In 2021, he engaged in a Twitter exchange with an abuse survivor who had a specific claim against the Executive Committee: “The trustees of any organization have a legal duty to know the amount and terms of any legal settlement. The EC staff has withheld that and virtually all other knowledge of your case from the trustees.”
Later, Martin called that same abuse survivor “a professional victim.”
The Guidepost report says Martin’s public interchanges with Jennifer Lyell became so combative that Executive Committee staff members were alarmed and that Executive Committee leaders spoke with him multiple times about his social media behavior. Eventually, on Oct. 9, 2021, Executive Committee Chairman Roland Slade urged all trustees to cease social media conversations with or about sexual abuse survivors.
Martin was one of the most vocal opponents to waiving attorney-client privilege to allow the independent Guidepost investigation to happen. He ultimately joined about two dozen trustees who resigned.
Martin illustrates a rift that had been present within the Executive Committee but grew more obvious as outside pressure mounted for some kind of accountability. Those who were open to reforms “were met with opposition and antagonism from those resistant to change,” the report states.
This pressure came from certain Executive Committee staff and trustees, Guidepost explains, but “particularly” originated with Boto.
Aiding him in this strategy was the SBC’s longtime legal counsel in the persons of James Guenther and James Jordan, representing the Nashville firm Guenther, Jordan and Price.
The report makes clear why the vote of Executive Committee trustees to waive attorney-client privilege for this investigation was so important: Most of the stalling, denial and blocking had been done in service of a legal strategy.
Even though messengers to the 2021 SBC annual meeting specifically called for a full and independent investigation, then Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd, joined by legal counsel, strenuously resisted that action. It took three months and three votes to get a majority vote to waive privilege.
Speaking of Boto, Guenther and Jordan, the Guidepost report says: “Their status and longevity in the SBC organization … enabled them to control decisions about how the SBC Executive Committee would deal with the increasing attention on church sexual abuse. Their main concern was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.”
The result of that strategy is that “those who reported abuse were often ignored or told that the SBC had no power to take action” and “abuse allegations were often mishandled in a manner that involved the mistreatment of survivors.”
Information was so closely controlled that over the years known reports of sexual abuse were not shared with Executive Committee trustees.
Information was so closely controlled that over the years known reports of sexual abuse were not shared with Executive Committee trustees. Nor were trustees informed that Boto had assigned a staff member to maintain a list of accused ministers in Baptist churches, including news clippings.
“Despite collecting these reports for more than 10 years, there is no indication that (anyone) took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches. The most recent list prepared by the Executive Committee staff member contained the names of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time,” the report states. “Our investigative team reviewed the list and conducted significant research to assess whether any of the alleged abusers were still associated with an SBC church. Based on these efforts, it appears that nine people remain in active ministry or connected to ministry. Two of those people appear to be associated with an SBC church. The remaining seven appear to be associated with churches that are not SBC-affiliated. “
Pattern of intimidation
What’s worse, the report continues, is that “rather than focusing on these accused ministers, some Executive Committee leaders turned against the very people trying to shine a light on sexual abuse. The survivors — those persons who actually suffered at the hands of SBC clergy or SBC church staff or volunteers — who spoke out the most, and who criticized the SBC’s inaction, were denigrated as ‘opportunistic,’ having a ‘hidden agenda of lawsuits,’ wanting to ‘burn things to the ground,’ and acting as a ‘professional victim.’”
The Guidepost report quotes an internal email authored by Boto that called any focus on the problem of sexual abuse in the SBC a “satanic scheme.”
“This whole thing should be seen for what it is,” Boto wrote. “It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.”
Boto took specific aim at two women well-known as advocates for more to be done about sexual abuse, Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander. Brown had been the teenage victim of an abusive staff member in a Texas Baptist church. Denhollander was one of the advocates who helped bring down Team USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Boto said Brown and Denhollander are signs of “the devil being temporarily successful.”
This pattern of intimidation extended to Baptist Press, the denomination’s news service, Guidepost continues. Even though Baptist Press claims to have journalistic autonomy from the Executive Committee leaders who sign their paychecks, that was not always the case when it came to stories about sexual abuse; lawyers were editing stories.
Baptist Press “was also used to portray survivors in an unflattering light and mischaracterize allegations of abuse,” the report states. “For example, in March 2019, Jennifer Lyell, a senior executive at an SBC entity, was asked by executives at Lifeway and SBC entity heads to disclose her sexual abuse at the hands of her former seminary professor through a first-person account to be published in BP.
“Rather than publishing Ms. Lyell’s corroborated account as BP staff had originally drafted it, the account was changed to read as if Ms. Lyell was consensually involved with her alleged abuser.”
“Rather than publishing Ms. Lyell’s corroborated account as BP staff had originally drafted it, the account was changed to read as if Ms. Lyell was consensually involved with her alleged abuser. The article as published reported that Ms. Lyell alleged that she had a ‘morally inappropriate relationship’ with her former seminary professor, making it appear that she engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with him. Ms. Lyell was thereafter subject to vicious attacks.”
According to Guidepost documentation, those edits were made by the lawyers, not the professional journalists.
When Lyell protested about the story’s inaccuracies for several months, the story was removed but never corrected.
Guidepost documents various details from this period, including an Oct. 16, 2019, email to Floyd from Jonathan Howe, Executive Committee vice president for communications, who said: “The ‘survivor community’ is all up in arms about things they have no clue about” and “online survivor folks, they just want to burn things to the ground.”
His advice to Floyd: “They just have to be ignored. They don’t reason; they don’t listen.”
Finally, seven months after the incorrect article was published, BP issued an apology. And just this February — two and a half years later — trustees of the Executive Committee issued a formal public apology to Lyell and approved a financial settlement in her claims against the SBC.
But that’s not the only time something like this happened, the report says. In 2019, when the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission held its “Caring Well” conference to highlight the problem of sexual abuse — a conference Executive Committee leaders protested and ridiculed — a story written about the conference by an ERLC staff member “was sanitized before publication,” Guidepost said.
“The draft article had contained quotes from two survivor advocates who had spoken critically at the conference about the SBC’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. When the article was published, some of the story had been deleted, including all references to one of the advocates and all claims that the SBC had failed survivors.”
Pattern of blocking
The long-term pattern of blocking meaningful conversation about sexual abuse in SBC churches and reforms that might prevent future abuse continued right up to the formation of the current SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force, the Guidepost report explains.
The investigators shine a bright light on the process by which they were first engaged, when then-Executive Committee President Floyd announced an outside investigation in an apparent preemptory move to what he feared — correctly — would be an attempt by convention messengers to mandate an independent investigation.
Floyd and then-Executive Vice President Greg Addison “were opposed to a task force to investigate the Executive Committee’s response, and Dr. Floyd tried to prevent the motion.”
This continued a long-term pattern of obfuscation, the report states.
“Over the past 20 years, various reform proposals have been brought to the Executive Committee. In evaluating the Executive Committee’s response to these proposals, we recognize that public awareness about sexual abuse and prevention has changed over time, as people have become more informed about the severe repercussions on survivors and the key steps that can be taken to address the problem. Nevertheless, although some proposals may not have been feasible, it is striking that many reform efforts were met with resistance, typically due to concerns over incurring legal liability.”
Among examples offered:
- “A 2007 proposal for an SBC database of accused molesters was rejected in 2008 based on church autonomy, even though SBC outside counsel had submitted a memo to Mr. Boto discussing how it could be accomplished consistent with polity.”
- “A 2014 proposal for the SBC to hold a sexual abuse education conference was opposed by Mr. Boto, delayed, and ultimately did not occur.”
- “Some Executive Committee leaders and some Executive Committee trustees criticized SBC President J.D. Greear for mentioning the names of churches cited in the Houston Chronicle’s series about sexual abuse, and outside counsel warned Dr. Greear that such actions could get the SBC sued for libel. Mr. Boto even called one of the churches to apologize for Dr. Greear’s actions — that church’s music minister later confessed to committing abuse and the church voluntarily disassociated from the SBC.”
- “Mr. Boto was resistant to having a Credentials Committee because it might make the convention vulnerable to liability claims.”
Within the last three years, the SBC’s Credentials Committee has become a lightning rod in the debates about sexual abuse in SBC churches.
Prior to 2019, the SBC had a Credentials Committee that existed only for the annual meeting and was set up to ensure that those who showed up at the meetings to register as messengers were qualified persons from qualified churches. Any messenger could challenge the credentials of a messenger to be seated for that convention, if they thought the person’s church should not be considered in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC.
Partly in response to the sexual abuse problem and partly in response to a greater desire to remove churches that are LGBTQ-inclusive or that embrace racism, the Credentials Committee was elevated to a standing committee with more power. Those three issues — sexual abuse, race and LGBTQ inclusion — are treated in the same process by the same committee.
The Credentials Committee has recommended, and the convention or the Executive Committee has since approved, removal of a few churches. However, the most conservative wing of the SBC has criticized the committee for not removing churches that ordain or employ women as ministers, while others have criticized the committee for not taking more aggressive action against churches that have mishandled sexual abuse cases.
“Credentials Committee members themselves expressed dissatisfaction because they did not receive adequate information about their role, nor did they have any training.”
“We found that the Credentials Committee was under pressure almost immediately after its formation to begin reviewing sexual abuse submissions,” Guidepost reports. “Consequently, the Credentials Committee began operating without adopting any written policies and procedures, such as set timelines/deadlines, protocols for correspondence with submitters and churches, and standards for review.
“At least one outside expert offered help and support in developing criteria and standards, but the offers were rebuffed. Credentials Committee members themselves expressed dissatisfaction because they did not receive adequate information about their role, nor did they have any training.
“These and other deficiencies led to delays and communications breakdowns that caused submitters and others to lose faith in the process, despite what we believe to be good intentions and effort on the part of the Credentials Committee members.”
Reactions to the nearly 300-page report began rolling out within a couple of hours of its release. Notable among those was a post on the Christianity Today website by Russell Moore, former leader of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and organizer of the Caring Well conference. Moore was pressured out of the SBC leadership role, in part, because of his advocacy for abuse survivors.
“They were right. I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse,” he wrote. “Someone asked me a few weeks ago what I expected from the third-party investigation into the handling of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. I said I didn’t expect to be surprised at all. How could I be? I lived through years with that entity. I was the one who called for such an investigation in the first place.
“And yet, as I read the report, I found that I could not swipe the screen to the next page because my hands were shaking with rage. That’s because, as dark a view as I had of the SBC Executive Committee, the investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.”
The Sexual Abuse Task Force that is the liaison between the SBC and Guidepost, issued a statement saying Guidepost had done “excellent work.”
“We grieve for what has been revealed in this report. We lament on behalf of survivors for how they have not been protected and cared for as they deserve and as God demands. With broken hearts, we want to lead the way by publicly repenting for what has happened in our convention. We implore our Southern Baptist family to respond to this report with deep repentance and a commitment to the ongoing moral demands of the gospel as it relates to sexual abuse.”
The task force added: “As a convention, we did not hold our own leaders accountable, and we did not listen to the warnings. Leaders had access to expertise but chose not to seek assistance, and in some cases, rejected any assistance that was offered.”
Now, the task force is in dialogue with state Baptist convention leaders about how to move forward. The task force “recognizes that most churches will not call Nashville when there is a sex abuse crisis in the local church but will instead look to state and local leaders for help. With that in mind, several of our forthcoming formal recommendations will be targeted to assisting local and state associations. “
Between now and the June 14-15 annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., the task force will issue several recommendations for messengers to consider.
The two current top leaders at the Executive Committee, trustee Chairman Rolland Slade and Interim President Willie McLaurin, issued a joint statement saying: “We are grieved by the findings of this investigation. We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks, and to respond to the will of the messengers in Anaheim next month.”
In order to prepare for the upcoming annual meeting, trustees of the Executive Committee have been summoned to a called meeting this Tuesday, May 24.
The SBC Credentials Committee issued its own brief response as well, saying: “We receive this report with open minds and heavy hearts. We grieve for those impacted by abuse, and we are prepared to repent for anything the Credentials Committee inadvertently failed to do to alleviate the suffering of survivors. We are committed to listening and learning from this extensive report and its recommendations. We look forward to implementing recommendations and strengthening the Credentials Committee’s work.”