The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, hit hard by an independent investigation of mishandling of sexual abuse claims over the past two decades, wants to release a secret file with the names of 703 alleged clergy abusers, has repudiated a statement by its former general counsel and may seek to suspend retirement benefits for that retired staff person.
These actions were the result of a special-called May 24 meeting of the Executive Committee.
“We’ll never know the full extent of the pain and the hurt that was caused for survivors. Care for the vulnerable should be our most important concern when dealing with sexual abuse,” Executive Committee Interim President Willie McLaurin said during the meeting. “And so today, on behalf of all Southern Baptists, I want to issue a formal apology and say that we are sorry to the survivors for all that we’ve done to cause hurt, pain and frustration. We’re committed today to Gospel reconciliation that will lead toward peace.”
A central figure in the group’s discussion was Augie Boto, former executive vice president and general counsel, who separately has been banned from ever serving as a trustee of a nonprofit in Texas or holding any office of trust within SBC life. Those bans resulted from a separate scheme in which he and Paige Patterson sought to take control of a nonprofit foundation and redirect its giving to benefit Patterson.
Baptist News Global and other media outlets have made multiple attempts to locate Boto for comment, but his whereabouts are unknown.
The list of alleged clergy sexual abusers was kept at the Executive Committee under Boto’s direction, according to the independent report, but never was used to prevent any of those abusers from moving to other congregations. All while Executive Committee leadership said publicly it was not possible to maintain a database of known abusers because of the Baptist doctrine of local church autonomy.
News that such a list existed and was not used to prevent future abuse sparked outrage among other denominational leaders and Baptist laypersons in the pew.
Thus, what to do with that list was a top point of discussion in the May 24 virtual meeting. Ultimately, Executive Committee staff recommended, and trustees approved in concept, making that list public.
In a statement after the meeting, Executive Committee Interim President Willie McLaurin said: “The SBC Executive Committee is diligently reviewing the list of offenders and abusers referenced in the Guidepost report with the goal of making as much of the report public as quickly as possible. As mentioned during the meeting on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, names of survivors, any confidential witnesses, and details regarding any unsubstantiated allegations will be redacted before the document is published. That work is being done carefully and as quickly as possible, with an anticipated release date of Thursday, May 26, 2022. Additional information will be provided with the release of the list.”
There is no precedent for anything of this magnitude happening in SBC history.
Also during the May 24 meeting, Executive Committee trustees repudiated a previous statement by Boto that the Guidepost report showed to be illustrative of the way abuse survivors were not believed and even shamed.
In correspondence dated Sept. 29, 2006, with abuse survivor and advocate Christa Brown, Boto wrote the following to Brown on behalf of then-SBC President Frank Page, then-Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, and then-Executive Committee President Morris Chapman: “The adversarial posture which you have assumed is one of several factors leading me to believe that continued discourse between us will not be positive or fruitful.”
Although the meeting was intended to be an informational session only, trustee Joshua Bonner of South Dakota moved to suspend the rules of the called meeting to allow for business, including taking a vote for adoption of a statement that “rejects” Boto’s sentiment “in its entirety.”
Boto’s claim that working with victims was fruitless points to the problems currently facing the committee and the SBC around sex abuse, Besen said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. And nothing could be more responsible for the cultural rot that brought us to this moment.”
With rules of order suspended, the motion to adopt the statement passed with a 97% majority, with 3% of trustees abstaining. There was not a single vote in the negative.
“The SBC Executive Committee rejects this sentiment in its entirety and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors.”
Of Boto’s declaration to Brown, trustees said: “The SBC Executive Committee rejects this sentiment in its entirety and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors. Today, in the immediate aftermath of the report’s release, the SBC Executive Committee seeks to make clear that it views engaging with survivors as a critical step toward healing our convention from the scourge of sexual abuse and working to avoid its continued impact on our loved ones, their families and our network of churches.”
Season of lament
In a statement issued to Baptist News Global, trustee Chairman Rolland Slade expressed more lament over the ways in which survivors had been mistreated.
“I hope that through this season of lamenting — and I don’t know how long that season will be — that it will not be a season of inaction,” Slade said. “I haven’t done all the things right, and I pray God gives me the opportunity to make it right and rectify it. The last thing we need to do is go off with a half-baked response when the survivors have gone through literally decades of not being believed.”
For her part, Brown expressed gratitude for the Executive Committee’s statement, but noted that, for those in the survivor community, it is merely “one small step.” And she urged that responses to the Guidepost findings need to “move forward quickly.”
While much of the blame rightly should be placed on Boto, she said, he clearly did not act alone.
“I never did place the whole of the responsibility on Augie Boto alone,” she said. “The letter expressly says it was also written on behalf of the offices of the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the ERLC. Those offices also should bear some of the responsibility. Augie Boto never acted alone.”
New hotline coming
In addition to the planned data release and the refutal of Boto’s letter, the Executive Committee “is currently working as quickly as possible to enter into an agreement with Guidepost Solutions to provide and operate a hotline number to answer and care for all the individuals calling various Baptist entities and Guidepost to report abuse,” McLaurin added. ‘The SBC Executive Committee is committed to ensuring each and every individual impacted by sexual abuse within the SBC has a place to process their story, report their abuse, and have access to care and caring resources. We are working as quickly as possible to set up this hotline. As soon as it is live, we will advertise this number as broadly and loudly as we are able.”
Seeking to punish Boto
Trustees took one additional action aimed at punishing Boto: They will investigate whether it is possible to strip him of some retirement benefits.
How that might work was not made known. Throughout SBC life, most church staff and denominational employees benefit from defined 401(3)b plans. Employers contribute to these plans — typically held at the SBC agency GuideStone — a percentage of compensation that the employee then directs as anyone would a typical retirement investment account. It is not possible for an employer to claw back such contributions because those contributions are, in effect, compensation paid.
If Boto receives some kind of retirement benefit that the Executive Committee could take away, that would indicate an extraordinary retirement benefit not available to most SBC pastors or denominational employees.
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