I have written about the Catholic Church’s decades-long conspiracy to protect priesthood sexual predators, and their belated and inadequate efforts to atone once the truth comes out. It was evil on an industrial scale – but it was not unique.

It is a model in corrupt institutions of all kinds. Time and again, when one of their own commits terrible evils, their first impulse is to silence the victim and cover up the crime, in order to preserve the reputation of the institution of scandal. This seems especially likely to happen when the abuser works for a church. It is too easy for initiates to think that if the truth were revealed people would leave in disgust and lose their salvation – so, they conclude, how wrong can it be to cover up child abuse while eternal souls are in play?

This toxic reasoning played out among the Southern Baptists:

In total, since 1998, about 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct, according to newspapers. This includes those who have been convicted, credibly accused and successfully prosecuted, and those who have confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of whom were rejected by their churches, left on their own to rebuild their lives. Some have been asked to forgive their abusers or to have an abortion.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or entered into plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published “Abus of Faith,” an account of SBC pastors and church leaders who have cared for, assaulted and abused children, or who committed other sex crimes. Too often, churches have swept their misdeeds under the carpet, victims have been forced to remain silent, and predators have been able to rise to the pulpit without consequences.

The executive committee, the nominal leadership of the denomination, said there was nothing they could do. They said that because the SBC is a coalition of independent member churches, they have no disciplinary power over them. But this is clearly a lie, because they have took action against churches that flouted denominational dogma:

Other leaders have recognized that Baptist churches are troubled by predators, but cannot interfere in the affairs of the local church. Despite this, the SBC has terminated its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for asserting or endorsing homosexual behavior. SBC documents prohibit gay or female pastors, but they do not prohibit convicted sex offenders from working in churches.

In the eyes of the Executive Committee, hiring a woman or a gay man as a pastor is an unforgivable sin that kicks a church out of the SBC, but that same church hires a convicted child molester as a youth minister is perfectly acceptable. They didn’t even create a database of offenders known to warn churches, which they undoubtedly could have done.

Moreover, SBC management did not simply passively fail to act. He has taken active steps to smear and punish those who speak out against sexual predators in the denomination. An example is Jennifer Lyell:

In the spring of 2019, Lyell, then a respected leader of Christian publishing, decided to publicly reveal that she was a survivor of sexual abuse.

She did so after learning that her attacker, a former Southern Baptist seminary teacher, author and missionary, had recently returned to the ministry. Lyell feared that he would have the opportunity to abuse others again and wanted to prevent that from happening.

… Instead of reporting that she had been abused, Baptist Press of Nashville, which is overseen by the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, reported in March 2019 that Lyell, then vice president of Lifeway Christian Resources, admitted to being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former teacher.

The fallout was swift and devastating. Lyell has been labeled on social media as an “adulterer” rather than an abuse survivor, with users leaving dozens of vile comments about her on Lifeway’s Facebook page and on the Baptist Press website. Pastors and churches have called for her to be fired. She lost her reputation, her job and even her health in the process.

The executive committee’s inaction was not only malicious, but arguably self-serving. Paul Pressler, former SBC vice-chairman and architect of the conservative 1970s denomination takeover, faces a trial by several men alleging decades of sexual abuse. Another SBC big shot, Paige Patterson, faced a storm of criticism over her handling of a sexual assault case that culminated in her dismissal from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Chances are there is a network of good ol ‘people trying to protect people like these.

After being battered by wave after wave of scandals like these, SBC member churches have had enough. In June, they voted for an independent inquiry into leaders’ handling of sexual abuse cases. More importantly, they called on the executive committee to waive solicitor-client privilege so that we know exactly what was said behind closed doors. In other words, “What did they know and when did they know it? “

This is where this story gets interesting – because the Executive Committee, who insisted that they are not the kings of the Southern Baptist Convention, who claim they are nothing but servants of the collective will of the member churches… heard this request from the member churches, and refused to comply:

For the second time in a week, members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee defied the will of the SBC in an annual session – previously considered the final authority on governance – by refusing to waive attorney privilege -client in an investigation of possible sexual abuse. in the denomination.

The September 28 failure of the executive committee for the second time to resolve a disagreement with the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force jeopardizes the form of governance of the denomination congregation. By refusing to do what the annual convention messengers demanded, the Executive Committee is overturning the bottom-up model of governance that has characterized Baptist life since its inception.

Twice in a row, the SBC executive committee voted to reject the larger denomination’s demands. Several EC members explained that they were motivated by a fiduciary duty – the legal responsibility to act in the best interest of their organization – because, while their private correspondence proves that they were aware of sexual predators and that they acted to protect them, the SBC could be vulnerable to devastating lawsuits. It’s as good as an admission of guilt, let alone a perversion of what “best interests” means. It is like saying, “If we have covered up crimes in the past, fiduciary duty requires that we keep cover them!

Furious at the EC’s challenge, hundreds of SBC member churches threatened to withdraw their funding. After much drama, there was a third vote on October 5, and this time they ultimately agreed to waive solicitor-client privilege.

It’s a victory, but it’s just the start. Now the investigation needs to be done, and it’s unclear what she might find. Without a doubt, there are still factions within the Southern Baptist Convention that will attempt to block or censor the results. There are powerful men whose reputation – not to mention their personal freedom – may be on the line, and they will fight tooth and nail to protect what they have. But the SBC has taken a step forward in addressing its past wrongs. We will see if they have the courage to go all the way.


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