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'The Safety of Victims Matters More than the Reputation of Southern Baptists': Leaders Respond to Huge Abuse Report

Carolyn Deevers speaks about her former marriage to an abusive pastor during a rally protesting the Southern Baptist Convention's treatment of women. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

A multi-month Houston Chronicle investigation into sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches has rocked the denomination and prompted calls for immediate, aggressive action.

Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear called for the denomination to mourn and repent. He promised to put the Southern Baptist Convention's spiritual, financial and organizational resources behind an effort to stop predators in churches and other Southern Baptist institutions. 

He also called for the care of victims saying "the safety of victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists."

Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called on churches to report all child abuse cases to the civil authorities.

Moore also addressed church governance issues which historically have been used by denominational leaders to reject calls for abuse protection measures such as a registry of offenders to track predators who move from church to church.

"Church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability," said Moore. He called on churches that use issues like sexual immorality or opposing missions to deem another church "out of fellowship" to do the same for churches that cover up rape or sexual abuse.

Last year the denomination created a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group, largely in response to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. One of the key goals is to train churches to recognize sexual predators and how to respond to charges of abuse.

That study group has signaled to many that the denomination is taking the issue seriously, although many survivors have scoffed at any hope that it will prompt significant change.

But this week Moore warned that the denomination cannot afford to do any less than give sexual abuse its undivided attention. "The issue of predators in the church is not a secondary issue, on which churches should brush up merely because of the cultural moment," he said. "This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning. The church is a flock, he told us, vulnerable to prey."

Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University English professor who has called for reform within the convention, said Monday that she was not surprised by the scope of the Chronicle report and didn't think it had surprised Southern Baptist leaders.

What could be significant, she said, is the effect of having all the cases compiled into a database and presented by an outside organization like the Chronicle. 

"I think a lot of the SBC leaders have already known about these stories and I think the most significant effect of this story will be that the people in the pews will know more and be motivated, I hope, to speak up," she said.

Longtime survivor advocate Ashley Easter said she expects more Southern Baptist survivors to come forward in the next several weeks.

"I think they have only scratched the tip of the iceberg," she said of the report. "I think this is only the beginning of an amazingly larger number of survivors that are going to be coming forward in the next couple of weeks."

Easter said she'd like to see the denomination find a way to ban predators from the pulpit, as well as train its seminarians to receive reports of abuse. "So many times victims and survivors reach out to their pastors first and their pastors need to be equipped with what to do when that happens," she said.

Boz Tchividjian, who founded the non-profit organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to advise churches and ministries on the issue of abuse, applauded Baptist leaders for their initial response to the Chronicle investigation but called on them to take a deeper look into their own actions and how they've contributed to a system that tolerates abuse.

"Leaders need to take a step back and ask themselves what have they said or done that contributed to an environment where systemic abuse and cover-up is the norm," he said. "We need to ask ourselves where we have failed and to be humbled and to be teachable and to say--we need to not only grieve but ask where to take action. This is going to be a long road for them if they're going to implement complete cultural transformation as it relates to protecting the vulnerable people within their congregations."

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