A Southern Baptist Convention leadership group announced on Saturday it has cleared seven of 10 churches called out by SBC President J.D. Greear for possible “wanton disregard” of sexual abuse.
A bylaws workgroup for the SBC Executive Committee said “no further inquiry is warranted” toward congregations including Second Baptist Church in Houston, a 60,000-member megachurch led by former SBC President Ed Young.
Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, suggested the investigation as one of a number of proposals to improve the denomination’s response to abuse allegations in Southern Baptist churches. He identified 10 specific congregations mentioned in a series of articles on abuse in the SBC this month by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.
The SBC Executive Committee – a group responsible for setting convention policy – responded by proposing bylaw changes to exclude churches determined “to have evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse that targets minors and other vulnerable persons and in caring for persons who have suffered because of sexual abuse.”
While following up on Greear’s request, the bylaws workgroup issued a reminder that “no individual possesses the authority to declare a church to be under a convention inquiry of any kind.”
The workgroup urged other Southern Baptists “to avoid publicly calling the names of churches without having documentation of criminal convictions and giving prior notice to the church.”
The workgroup said requiring churches to disprove public allegations of ignoring or concealing abuse would create an “untenable and unscriptural” presumption of guilt.
“We utterly and completely condemn the abominable horror of child sexual abuse,” the group said in a statement dated Feb. 23. “We must also be careful that our righteous anger does not prevent a deliberate and thoughtful response.”
“In virtually all reported cases, the abuse and cover-up of abuse were criminal acts undertaken by a few individuals within a church,” the statement said. “The church body rarely knew about these actions and even more rarely took any action to endorse or affirm the wrongful acts or the actors themselves.”
The group said the Southern Baptist Convention – acting through the Executive Committee – “should not disrupt the ministries of its churches by launching an inquiry until it has received credible information that the church has knowingly acted wrongfully.”
Based on that, the workgroup said it will send “letters of inquiry” — similar to those used in the past to investigate churches accused of violating the denomination’s standards against homosexuality – to three congregations: Bolivar Baptist Church in Sanger, Texas; Cathedral of Faith in Houston; and Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 2008 Bolivar Baptist Church settled a lawsuit accusing its pastor of raping and impregnating a 14-year-old in the 1970s. The pastor admitted to paternity and paid child support but claimed he did not have sex with the girl before she reached the legal age of consent.
The Rev. Michael Lee Jones, founding pastor of Cathedral of Faith Baptist Church in Houston, is listed for lifetime on a sex offender registry maintained by the Texas Department of Safety based on a 1998 conviction of sexual assault of a child.
Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville became affiliated with the SBC after its founding pastor, C.J. Mahaney, walked away from a lawsuit in Maryland alleging what media called the biggest evangelical sex abuse cover-up to date. The case, alleging a conspiracy to conceal decades of child abuse and molestation at Mahaney’s previous church, was thrown out of court due to statute of limitations.
Rachael Denhollander, an abuse survivor and member of Greear’s sexual abuse advisory group, said on social media she was “deeply grieved” by the Executive Committee response and that it “undermined and destroyed” recent progress toward proactive change.
Christa Brown, who has been calling for reform in the SBC for years, called it “a Saturday night massacre of hope for any near-term change on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention.”
“The workgroup’s statement presents a perfect illustration of why, even if they tried, the Executive Committee itself could not possibly do responsible inquiries on church abuse and cover-ups in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Brown said Feb. 25. “These sorts of inquiries must be transparently conducted by an outside independent third-party who can bring to bear expertise, objectivity and credibility.”
In evaluating whether the 10 churches named by Greer evidenced indifference to sexual abuse, the Executive Committee workgroup considered whether each church employed or allowed a convicted sex offender to volunteer, unlawfully concealed information from law enforcement or intentionally ignored mandatory child abuse reporting laws.
The group said it also considered whether factors such as the passage of time “would make launching an inquiry of no value in addressing sexual abuse but only further harm a congregation recovering from the effects of crimes committed in its midst.”
While Greear and other leaders have said they do not blame the controversy on the media, the Executive Committee workgroup opined that “untoward actions by a church will be first and best known to the local association and the state or regional convention.”
“When questions arise as to whether a church is in friendly cooperation with our convention, we believe it is preferable and fairer to all involved if the names of suspect churches come to the attention of the Executive Committee and the Southern Baptist Convention from those sources,” the statement said.