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Southern Baptists’ sexual abuse scandal prompts calls for criminal investigations, comparisons to Catholics

People pray for America at the 2018 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. In late July, the SBC announced plans to create a study group to develop strategies for combating sexual abuse. The move followed a series of revelations about sexual misconduct cases involving SBC churches and seminaries. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

A report published in two Texas newspapers this past weekend detailing 20 years of sexual abuse allegations within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has sparked calls for authorities to investigate whether leaders covered up abuse and allowed the accused to continue working in churches.

The investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found more than 380 clergy and volunteers had been charged with sexual misconduct over two decades, leaving behind more than 700 victims to deal with the aftermath. The stories set off the sort of shock waves in the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention that similar blockbuster investigations have been causing ever since the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team exposed abuse in the Catholic Church in 2002.

That 2002 investigation sparked nationwide policy changes within the Catholic Church to drastically curtail abuse by priests. And last year, inspired by an exhaustive inquiry in Pennsylvania, more than a dozen state attorneys general opened civil and criminal investigations into crimes by priests.

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Now, the Texas newspapers’ report has sparked calls for authorities to open the same type of investigations into the Southern Baptist.

“The truth is that this is a cultural problem,” said Marci Hamilton, the chief executive of anti-abuse nonprofit organization CHILD USA. “It goes across every single organization where any adult has had access to children alone. No prosecutor at this point could possibly believe there are parts of society where this didn’t happen. It did.

“I do expect there will be more interest from prosecutors” in Southern Baptists, she added. “I also think it’s going to create added pressure in the Southern states for statute of limitation reform.”

Alabama and Mississippi, two states with the largest concentration of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, have some of the shortest limitations on prosecuting child-sex crimes, Hamilton said. Neither state has a large Catholic population, so the Southern Baptist investigation may bring more pressure to change those laws, as New York recently did when authorities stepped up their inquiries.

“These states have very large Baptist populations. I think you’re going to see an uptick in interest in creating justice for the victims,” she said.

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Many of the state attorneys general who are investigating the Catholic Church did not immediately respond on Monday as to whether they would open investigations into Southern Baptist clergy. Most of the instances of abuse identified by the Texas newspapers involve pastors and volunteers who have already been charged with sex crimes. None of the leaders of the denomination have been charged with covering up such crimes.

New Jersey’s attorney general’s office said that it encouraged any victim to come forward. In Pennsylvania, which started the wave of investigations into the Catholic Church’s handling of sex abuse complaints, attorney general’s office spokesman Joe Grace said he could not comment on any investigation that may or may not be underway. “Our prosecutors will investigate and prosecute child sexual abuse wherever they find it,” he said. “Whether that is in a large institution like Penn State University or a law enforcement agency like a small town police chief — or a church. Wherever we find it, our prosecutors will investigate and file charges where appropriate.”

Within the Southern Baptist Convention, however, some had already began the call for a wider investigation.

“When we learn of any information that provides evidence that anyone has committed this type of crime or has attempted to cover it up, it should be investigated by the criminal authorities,” said Boz Tchividjian, the grandson of evangelical leader Billy Graham and founder of GRACE, an organization that fights child abuse. “I don’t care where it is.”

Tchividjian, a former sex-crimes prosecutor, said there are important differences between investigating Catholics and investigating Baptists. The Catholic Church is hierarchical and keeps extensive written records. It’s easier for a prosecutor to know who is in charge and to find evidence of a coverup. In the Southern Baptist Convention, each church is independent, something the hierarchy-averse Baptists pride themselves on.

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He said that lawyers for the church have seen that independence as an advantage in the past, fearing that if the local churches were more closely linked to the denomination as a whole, it could put the entire denomination at risk of lawsuits that otherwise would target just one church.

But Tchividjian said the denomination ought to relinquish some of that independent spirit to more closely exert control over churches to prevent abuse. The denomination could require, for instance, that any church that wants to remain in the fellowship must agree to mandatory anti-abuse training and must participate in a shared database that would warn churches not to hire pastors let go from other churches amid accusations of sexual misconduct.

“What’s most important?” Tchividjian asked. “Protecting the reputation of the Southern Baptist Convention, or protecting kids in the thousands of churches that are part of the denomination? … Maybe it’s time for the Southern Baptists to step outside their cultural paradigm and say, ‘Yes, we’re independent churches. But if you want to be a part of a Southern Baptist community, if you want to be called a Southern Baptist church, you’re going to have to voluntarily participate in child-protection policies.’ ”

The denomination similarly requires that member churches adopt other policies, he noted, like mandatory stances on gender and homosexuality.

In an essay published on his personal website Monday, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the leading voices in the denomination, agreed. He called for an independent, third-party inquiry into sexual abuse within the convention. He said any church that knowingly protects sexual abusers should no longer be considered “in friendly cooperation” with the convention and should be stripped of its membership.

Mohler also said ministers should be subject to a background check before they move from one church to another. Each congregation ordains its own ministers without any credentialing system from the convention, Mohler wrote. In the past, he said, Southern Baptists have approached sexual abuse as isolated events, causing “an avalanche of destruction.”

J.D. Greear, the convention’s president, and Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at the Summit Church in Durham, N.C., said in a blog post published Monday that the church had failed victims of abuse. “The appropriate response of anyone who is representing Jesus to you should be care and compassion,” they wrote.

The pastors encouraged abuse victims to involve their current church in their recovery if the abuser is not in leadership there. They also urged church leaders to share the blog post’s list of resources with their communities and to avoid becoming defensive. “The way we respond in this moment — either in protecting and caring for victims, or defending ourselves and our institutions — will either obscure or adorn the gospel we claim to preach,” Greear and Hambrick wrote.

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.