The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Southern Baptists finally face up to sex abuse. They must follow through.

The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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“How many kids and congregants could have been spared horrific harm if only the Executive Committee had taken action back in 2006 when I first wrote to them, urging specific concrete steps? And how many survivors could have been spared the re-traumatizing hell of trying to report clergy sex abuse into a system that consistently turns its back?” Those questions were posed last year to the company probing the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of allegations from a woman who had been sexually assaulted by a youth minister when she was 16. The questions bear repeating now that the investigation has concluded with findings that Southern Baptist leaders stonewalled and bullied victims and resisted any attempts at reform over two decades.

The SBC, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, on Sunday released a report by independent investigators that describes in nearly 300 pages of scathing detail how the executive committee that runs the convention’s day-to-day operations and its lawyers conspired to squelch complaints of predator pastors to avoid legal liability. Guidepost Solutions, which interviewed about 330 people and amassed five terabytes of data over the course of its eight-month investigation, examined abuse reports from women and children against male ministers from 2000 to 2021. Among the damning revelations: Senior leaders, including three former presidents, protected or even supported abusers; women and girls who were subjected to sexual abuse were re-victimized by a system that sought to demonize them; leaders falsely claimed they could not maintain a database of offenders to prevent abuse when a secret list of more than 700 abusive pastors had been compiled. No action was taken to ensure the accused ministers were no longer in positions to do harm.

Michael Gerson: The report on Southern Baptist abuses is a portrait of brutal misogyny

Credit the survivors of the abuse and their advocates for their persistence in seeking answers and accountability for the horrors they experienced. Credit also the pioneering journalism of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News for their landmark investigation in 2019 that documented hundreds of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches, including several in which accused perpetrators remained in the ministry. Just as the Boston Globe’s prizewinning investigation of sex abuse by Catholic priests made it impossible to ignore the problem, so the Texas newspapers put a spotlight on this same scourge in the SBC, prompting delegates to last year’s national meeting to insist on an independent investigation and the disclosure of that confidential church material.

The thoroughness and transparency of the investigation — no cost was spared and no punches were pulled — are a encouraging signs that the SBC might be serious about cleaning house and changing a culture that enabled molesters. The report contains nearly 30 pages of recommendations, including creating a permanent entity to oversee sexual abuse and prevention, requiring a code of conduct, issuing an apology to survivors and prohibiting nondisclosure agreements. SBC leaders held a public meeting Tuesday and said there would be an apology to survivors and that the organization was working on making the list of sex abusers available to the public. The convention next month will hold its annual meeting and should finish the job it started.