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Southern Baptist Convention takes steps toward reform on sexual abuse

People pray for America at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Dallas Convention Center in Dallas last month. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
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A new “study group” launched by the Southern Baptist Convention will focus on sexual abuse and harassment issues that have roiled the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and led to the dramatic fall of several prominent male leaders.

The move, announced Thursday, came a month after the election of North Carolina megachurch pastor J.D. Greear, 45, as the 15 million-member denomination’s new president, its youngest in 40 years. In May, Paige Patterson, a major leader in the denomination, was fired as leader of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over his handling of two reported campus rapes.

Many Baptists heralded Thursday’s announcement as a sign of a new era of openness and accountability.

“This is excellent news,” said Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor and one of more than 2,000 Baptist women who signed a petition in May demanding denominational action on Patterson. “It is unexpectedly quick, and it is encouraging.”

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And Boz Tchividjian, founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, said: “I think these are some of the strongest statements on abuse that we have ever seen from this denomination. It is a statement of action, and I think that is critically important — that we don’t stop at statements but move towards action.”

The new group, called the Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group, will consist of outside experts, Southern Baptist leaders and local church pastors, the denomination said in a statement. Members will examine how Baptists relate to and deal with sexual abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. The group, whose members have yet to be named, will study the issue for a year before reporting its findings and recommendations to Greear.

The study group will be formed in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denominational office that acts on religious liberty and human rights issues. The office acts as a sort of moral watchdog for Baptists and the broader culture.

“Sexual assault and sexual abuse are Satanic to the core, and churches should be the ones leading the way when it comes to protecting the vulnerable from predators,” Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, said in a statement.

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The Southern Baptist Convention, which teaches wives to “submit” to their husbands and does not ordain women as senior pastors, has had several sexual abuse scandals in the past year. In April, videos surfaced of Patterson saying he counseled an abused wife to return to her husband and describing a teenage girl as “built.”

In January, Tennessee megachurch pastor Andy Savage was placed on leave after admitting to a decades-old “sexual incident” with a high school student. And earlier this month, Baptist missionary Mark Aderholt was arrested in Texas on charges he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl.

But there are signs the denomination’s culture is shifting.

In 2007, Oklahoma Baptist pastor Wade Burleson proposed the establishment of a database of clergy and staff known to have committed sexual misconduct. Baptist hierarchy studied the motion for a year before deciding against it. “That was 10 years ago, so I think this is good progress,” said Burleson, who introduced a similar motion at this year’s conference, which was held last month in Dallas. “I think Russell Moore understands the seriousness of this issue, and I think J.D. Greear should be commended for doing this.”

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Prior, who is also a research fellow with the ERLC, said that for the new study group to succeed, it must include the perspectives of victims of sexual abuse. “Their input and experience should be of primary consideration during these exploratory stages,” she said.

In another indication of cultural shift, the denomination’s International Mission Board on Friday issued a public apology to Anne Marie Miller, a Baptist author and blogger who alerted the Baptist board in 2007 that Aderholt had abused her. The board did not report her abuse to police.

“I want to apologize for various ways we in the IMB have contributed to such hurt and pain through our response to this point,” IMB president David Platt said in a statement.

Miller, who lives in the Dallas area, said the apology and the new study group are signs of much-needed change. “This can no longer be ignored, and people are demanding answers and accountability,” she said in an email. “I believe the apology and actions set in motion today show promise; they are steps in the right direction…. It is never too late to begin again.”