Conflicting statements from Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders on the denomination’s approach to addressing sexual abuse have left victims, advocates, and pastors themselves with a sense of whiplash—and called into question the fate of proposed reforms to improve accountability among SBC churches.
Those concerned about abuse within America’s largest Protestant body—including the hundreds of cases reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News—cheered repentant statements and bold plans for policy changes from SBC president J. D. Greear last week, only to see his recommendations largely turned down by part of the SBC’s Executive Committee days later.
Greear called on the Executive Committee (EC), the decision-making body tasked with addressing convention business between annual meetings, to take a harder line against churches that mishandle abuse allegations. Specifically, he wanted the SBC to look into 10 particular churches implicated in the recent investigation to see if the churches still meet denominational standards.
Though Southern Baptists have generally resisted top-down oversight, several prominent SBC leaders, including Greear and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore, had begun to say that a commitment to church autonomy could not supersede their responsibility to prevent and address abuse.
But when it came to the 10 churches in question, the executive committee’s bylaws workgroup declared that 7 did not have credible claims of wrongdoing to investigate in the first place, reasoning that the churches didn’t merit further review and admonishing SBC leaders against calling for inquiries without criminal convictions and evidence that churches had knowingly permitted predators in their midst.
“I am deeply grieved at the SBC EC response to JD Greear. The EC has demonstrated the exact problems that lead to the abuse of so many—whitewashing the crimes and coverup, choosing largely irrelevant criteria, and investigating issues they have no training to investigate,” tweeted Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and victims’ advocate who was appointed to an SBC presidential advisory group tasked with studying its response to abuse.
“JD Greear and some leaders have been seeking expert/survivor help and moving forward with firm first steps to change. The EC has undermined and destroyed that effort. I hope these mistakes are due to lack of learning and that they will withdraw, seek help, and remedy these errors.”
After a two-day meeting, the six-person EC subcommittee released a statement last Saturday tempering Greear’s charge. “The Convention, through its 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,” the subcommittee concluded.
“Although the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse cases remains tragically unreported, in virtually all reported cases, the abuse and cover-up of abuse were criminal acts undertaken by a few individuals within a church,” the group wrote. “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 three churches the workgroup deemed to require further inquiry included Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, where concerns of abuse coverup have swirled around former Sovereign Grace Ministries president C. J. Mahaney for years.)
Their remarks sent waves across the SBC, including among fellow members of the executive committee who hadn’t been involved in crafting the response.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, called outthe bylaws workgroup for hasty decision-making and an “arbitrarily high standard for inquiry.”
“Assessing these situations typically takes months or, in some cases, years. Now, suddenly, a Baptist committee is able to consider six churches in just over 24 hours and declare them all open and shut cases?” wrote Stetzer, former president of LifeWay Research. “You can see why some may not feel that due diligence was done.”
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Source: Christianity Today