Southern Baptist Leaders Look at Ways to Move Forward on Abuse Response at Caring Well Conference

Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander discusses the Southern Baptist Convention’s history of addressing sexual abuse with ERLC President Russell Moore at the Caring Well conference in Dallas, Oct. 4, 2019. Credit: Karen Race Photography 2019

Southern Baptist leaders wrestled with questions of procedure and accountability during a gathering on sexual abuse this week, grappling with how best to address an issue some say the denomination took far too long to address.

After a first day focused on stories of abuse survivors, the Caring Well conference, organized by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, devoted its second and third days to hearing from critics of the denomination’s response to abuse.

“The SBC has, over and over again, trampled on these precious (abuse) survivors, and that is why they are afraid to speak up — that fear is deserved,” said Rachael Denhollander at a question-and-answer session Saturday morning. Denhollander, an attorney, was the first person to publicly accuse former Michigan State physician Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. She said that the first time she was abused — before encountering Nassar — was in a church at age 7.

A series of breakout sessions also offered pastors and church leaders practical lessons for dealing with sexual abuse and covered a broad range of issues that fall under the broader category of abuse: how to screen for child sex abusers, prevent domestic violence and how to talk to abuse survivors.

During a men-only seminar, Moody Bible Institute professor Andrew Schmutzer recounted how he was abused as a teenager by his father, a missionary.

“Within these strong spiritual families, you don’t question — you’re taught not to question,” he said, noting that male abuse survivors often have difficulty finding support.

Peter LaRuffa, a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in northern Kentucky, said he was struck by a seminar detailing how abusers groom people and situations to their benefit. He said the information unsettled him but better prepared him to put protections in place for children.

“(I was) just thinking through what that might look like for me as a dad — not being paranoid, but being vigilant and helpful for (my children),” said the father of four. “Then also for me as a pastor, to start rethinking what things might we want to put in place — particularly for our student ministry.”

Another pastor, Jonathan Spallino, said his church has already started using the ERLC’s Caring Well curriculum on preventing abuse but that the conference helped him to fine-tune policies and procedures to implement at his church, citing a seminar on acquiring references for new hires. He said he also planned to “raise the bar” for volunteers at his church.

“It really gave me the tools to go back to my family ministry team and say, ‘This is why it’s important, and this is why we’re going to implement some of these practices into our children’s ministry and student ministry,’” said Spallino, who works at a church in Tennessee.

Some speakers referenced the unique challenge the SBC faces in confronting abuse. Unlike the Catholic Church and other more hierarchical religious groups, the SBC gives a high degree of autonomy to individual churches, complicating efforts to implement sweeping policy changes.

On Friday evening, Boz Tchividjian, a former child abuse prosecutor and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, suggested polity challenges were no excuse for failing to address abuse.

“A system that claims to have little authority against abusive churches and pastors I think would undoubtedly find such authority if an SBC church ordained a woman or a gay man,” he said.

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Source: Religion News Service