Institutional, systematic evil hides in dark corners and whispers in hushed tones. It can undermine the innocent and protect the guilty.
Systematic evil is evil in its most destructive format. It is evil with the largest victim count. It is evil in its most innocuous disguise, and therefore hardest to stop.
With gleaming reports and perfect smiles, systematic evil presents a happy face to the outside world while covering numerous acts of depravity. What has happened in the Southern Baptist Convention is systematic evil. Sexual abuse has harmed hundreds of innocents and has corrupted an institution.
For evil to become systemic in nature, it needs enablers. The sexual abuse scandal affecting the SBC has become systemic in nature because those who were trusted with day-to-day authority in the SBC enabled the evil the gospel requires them to abjure.
The Executive Committee of the SBC is tasked with the day-to-day operation of the SBC when the convention is not in session. It is tasked with implementing the will of convention messengers and assuring the SBC is able to do its work in an efficient and effective manner.
In its extensive and harrowing report on sexual abuse in the SBC, Guidepost Solutions found grave unethical and destructive behaviors committed by members of the Executive Committee. The breaches of propriety are so significant they reflect on the very nature of the Executive Committee itself, not just individual members.
In no uncertain terms, members and staff of the Executive Committee participated in a cover-up regarding sexual abuse. In some cases, the Executive Committee seems to have been in denial. In other cases, members and staff of the Executive Committee bullied survivors, intimidated witnesses and ignored evidence. They also disparaged a survivor through an SBC publication and denigrated others in private communication.
While the Executive Committee should have been on the forefront of protecting the innocent, it instead added to their suffering. Worse, it may have actually enabled more abuse.
It has been known for some time that there are sexual abusers in the SBC. This knowledge is unsurprising, as any organization the size of the SBC will have some within it who are bent on doing evil. Knowing there are abusers connected to the SBC, it made sense to many observers to keep records of them, a list. The Executive Committee, however, long argued that keeping such a list was inappropriate. It argued maintaining such a list was a breach of congregational autonomy and opened the SBC up to lawsuits.
At least that was their public position. In private, they maintained a list of more than 400 persons who were sexual abusers or had been credibly accused.
“Despite having a list, the Executive Committee did nothing.”
Despite having a list, the Executive Committee did nothing. They did not reach out to churches that may have hired an abuser unaware. They did not turn the information over to police. They did nothing.
In doing nothing, they risked the young and vulnerable. How is it possible to know a 15-year-old young woman risked facing a predator in her church bus and do nothing? How is it possible to know a 3-year-old might face an abuser in his church nursery and do nothing?
Their reasoning for doing nothing was simple. They were trying to protect the SBC from lawsuits. Children were put in jeopardy because of inaction. Children were less important than lawsuits. Children were less important than lawsuits. The violation of ethical norms by the Executive Committee is staggering.
It almost seems trivial in comparison to the Executive Committee’s unwillingness to protect children, but the ability to oppose a list publicly while keeping one privately is diabolical in its duplicity. Despite public protestations to the contrary, the Executive Committee did not believe keeping a list was a bad idea or they would not have kept one. No, their reluctance to keep track of abusers was only public posturing. This is the kind of behavior one could expect of politicians, not what one should expect from a body whose purpose is the sharing of the gospel.
Because of the Executive Committee’s actions the SBC has forfeited moral standing. In light of the horror inflicted on abusers, this loss also seems trivial. In the future, however, the SBC will rue the day it lost its moral credibility. In the future, when the SBC speaks out on any moral or ethical issue, the Executive Committee’s actions will have tainted the message. The next time the SBC needs to speak out on war, human dignity, human liberty, the sanctify of life, human sexuality, human trafficking or any other moral issue, it will have no moral place to stand.
“Not only were some at the Executive Committee willing to sacrifice children to avoid lawsuits, they sacrificed the denomination’s moral clarity as well.”
Not only were some at the Executive Committee willing to sacrifice children to avoid lawsuits, they sacrificed the denomination’s moral clarity as well.
The Guidepost report notes a small group of well-entrenched leaders along with the Executive Committee’s legal counsel were able to control the response to the scandal. On a structural level, having a small group with this kind of control is problematic. If a small group can control the whole, then the whole system is capable of being hijacked on any issue. Organizational systems exist in order to protect the systems from such threats. Much like locks on a house, these systems exist to protect. If there were systems in place to keep the Executive Committee on mission, they failed.
While the recommendations of Guidepost Solutions and the Sexual Abuse Task Force are important, they are not large enough to address the size of this calamity. The Executive Committee refused to protect children from abusers, practiced gross duplicity to the institution it serves, bullied survivors and witnesses, through action and inaction enabled abuse, acted as its own authority, and willfully defied those whom it is to serve. There are no sets of reforms capable of restoring the trust the Executive Committee has broken.
It, therefore, cannot be salvaged and it should not be salvaged. The Executive Committee must be razed and replaced.
For the future of the SBC, the Executive Committee should be put on hiatus and replaced with an interim firm to provide guidance. The temporary governance structure would need to be in place until a new governance structure can be conceived, approved by convention messengers and implemented.
Layne Wallace serves as senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church, Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and is author of Karl Barth’s Concept of Nothingness: A Critical Evaluation.
Now we know why the SBC hasn’t acted more on sexual abuse | Opinion by Layne Wallace