BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Southern Baptist Convention begins its annual national meeting Tuesday with a dark and difficult issue on the table: sex abuse allegations in its churches.
In recent years, Southern Baptists considered resolutions on what many thought would be no-brainer condemnations of white supremacy and the Confederate flag, but those proposals struggled to pass. Ahead of the big meeting, some said they were privately worried that the convention would have trouble creating meaningful change on the issue of sex abuse because Southern Baptists can be difficult to predict.
Some Southern Baptists have said in the past that sex abuse is not an issue for the wider convention and should be left up to each church. But leaders such as Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear have sought to put the issue front and center at this meeting.
“This is not a distraction from the mission. This is the mission,” Greear said Monday before the official meeting began. This week, many are wondering whether the convention will put any teeth behind the talk.
Southern Baptist voting “messengers” are expected to consider an amendment to their constitution that would allow the convention to remove from its ranks a church that mishandles abuse allegations. The SBC is also considering creating a “credentials committee” that would review complaints about how abuse allegations are handled. Both actions would need a two-thirds vote from the roughly 8,500 Baptists who are anticipated here, and the constitutional amendment would have to be voted on again next year for the changes to take place.
The Southern Baptist Convention has 14.8 million members, making it the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and it does not function like top-down denominations that have an established hierarchy and perhaps a pope. The SBC works as a fellowship of congregations that agree to cooperate with one another, pooling their resources so they can fund the budgets of seminaries, missions and other ministries.
In recent weeks, the sex abuse issue has been swept up in a larger conversation about the role of women after author Beth Moore delivered a Mother’s Day sermon at her church.
The debate has focused on complementarianism, which argues that women should submit to the authority of their husbands and not seek to become pastors. Many also believe that women should not preach to or teach men, especially during a Sunday sermon.
“A Southern Baptist Convention that doesn’t have a place for Beth Moore doesn’t have a place for a lot of us,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission that hosted a panel Monday night, told a crowd gathered here. “In the moment we are in right now, to suggest that the problem that we have is that women are speaking too much, I think would be crazy.”
Abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with allegations against sports doctor Larry Nassar, decried what she considers incoherence in what is considered a crisis.
“We are not willing to extend grace to those with differing opinions about complementarianism, but we are willing to extend grace to pedophiles,” she said. “That speaks volumes about what we value.”
Beth Moore, who is not related to Russell Moore and has long told her story of being a victim of child abuse, said she was relieved to be having the discussion at all.
“What I want so much to reckon with is, our culture makes us vulnerable because there’s a disparity between how we value men and women,” she said.
On Monday across the street from the convention center, Founders Ministry, which advocates a very conservative theology, held a debate about whether women should preach. The Rev. Dwight McKissic, who is black, compared the way the SBC treated women to the way it treated African Americans. The SBC was founded over the issue of slavery, and many of its leaders were proponents of segregation. Its members publicly repented in 1995 from their role in individual and institutional racism.
“We apologized to blacks — we really owe women an apology,” McKissic said. “This sexual abuse thing is a judgment from God.”
Nathan Finn, a Southern Baptist historian and provost at North Greenville University, said that the convention has considered proposals on sex abuse throughout the past 10 years but that the issue became front and center on leaders’ radar over the past 18 months.
One of the turning points, he said, came from Jules Woodson, who has said that her Southern Baptist youth pastor, Andy Savage, sexually assaulted her at Highpoint Church in Memphis when she was 17. When Savage disclosed the decades-old assault to an applauding congregation last year, it made national headlines.
Southern Baptists were also shaken by the termination last year of the seminary president, Paige Patterson, one of the leaders of the convention’s so-called conservative resurgence in the 1980s. Patterson was found to have mishandled students’ reports of abuse.
And this year, the Houston Chronicle began a six-part series uncovering sex abuse allegations associated with Southern Baptist churches; its joint investigation with the San Antonio Express-News found about 700 victims and credible accusations against 380 people.
The newspapers’ reporting “reinforced and drove home in a horrific way more than what was on the radar 10 years ago,” Finn said. “Until relatively recently, it was considered a local issue.”
Southern Baptists are sensitive to any outside oversight and often cite “church autonomy,” meaning that each church within the convention agrees on core doctrines but decides for itself how to handle personnel matters.
On Tuesday, a few dozen women are expected to join a rally outside the convention calling for SBC leaders to receive mandatory training about sex abuse issues and for a clergy sex offender database. The convention has considered a database of registered sex offenders in the past, but the proposal was knocked down in deference to individual churches’ “autonomy.”
Ahead of the meeting, Southern Baptist leaders said it was unlikely for such a database to be considered this week. And Christa Brown, who has said that she was abused by her youth pastor and that she has tried to put the issue in front of Southern Baptist leaders before, said her expectations for meaningful change are pretty low.
“I expect there will be a lot of talk — probably very fine-sounding talk — but real action toward making kids safer will be minimal,” Brown said. “I think their proposals are more oriented toward SBC image-polishing than toward genuinely protecting kids.”
During Monday night’s panel, Greear said the critique that Southern Baptists have been talking with little action is fair.
“This is not an hour that needs better pronouncements; it’s an hour that needs better action,” he said.
Monday night’s panel included an emotional story from Susan Codone, who said that she was abused by her youth pastor in the mid-1980s when she was a 14-year-old attending a Southern Baptist church in Birmingham. When she told her pastor, she said, he fired the youth pastor and then the pastor began abusing her. A few months later, she said, someone caught the pastor in an affair with a Sunday school teacher and he was fired.
Codone’s youth pastor has since died and her pastor is retired, she said. She said in an interview that she has not gone to police with her story because so much time has passed.
“When I was growing up in that age, abuse was described in different words as bad judgment or bad behavior,” said Codone, who is now a professor of technical communication at Mercer University in Georgia. “I’ve waited 35 years to see the church begin to pay attention to sex abuse as a crime.”
During Monday’s panel, she decried Southern Baptists’ “catch and release” policy where predators have been caught and then released to go to another church. A small group of abuse victims sitting in the front row passed a Kleenex box to one another. One victim whispered that she was taking Xanax, a drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.
“We’ve extended mercy far too quickly when justice is what all of these individuals deserve,” Codone said to a standing ovation.