BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Southern Baptist leaders on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to adopt two proposals they hope will help to prevent sex abuse in their churches in the future.
About about 8,000 church representatives — or “messengers” — who attended the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention voted to pass an amendment to the faith group’s constitution that would allow the convention to “disfellowship,” or distance itself from, churches that cover up abuse. The same proportion also voted to set up a committee to review complaints about how abuse allegations are handled in their churches.
On Tuesday ahead of the vote, Ronnie Floyd, the new president of the SBC’s executive committee who also served on President Trump’s evangelical advisory council during his 2016 campaign, urged messengers to approve the measures, calling the move “historic.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention stands against all forms and actions of sexual abuse, viewing it as a horrific evil,” Floyd said. “Southern Baptists, we must address this comprehensively and correctly.”
Southern Baptist leaders believe the new actions will provide a more coordinated way for the denomination to review abuse claims. Southern Baptists are expected to consider the issue of abuse again on Wednesday, though proposed resolutions will not be made public until Wednesday morning.
The issue of sexual abuse came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after the Houston Chronicle began a six-part series uncovering sex abuse allegations in Southern Baptist churches. The newspaper’s joint investigation with the San Antonio Express-News found about 700 victims and credible accusations against 380 people.
Southern Baptist leaders responded to those stories with a plea for change, and earlier this year J.D. Greear, the SBC president, gave an address to the SBC executive committee in which he thanked journalists for “shining light on this evil,” saying, “you are not our enemy.”
Ahead of the vote, some were worried the proposals would not pass, as past resolutions condemning white supremacy and the Confederate flag struggled to pass. There was also concern that the vote could fail over a desire to maintain “church autonomy,” an argument that has shut down proposals in the past. The SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, does not have a top-down structure; instead, churches must agree to cooperate with one another.
After the vote, a small group of victims and their allies prepared to rally on the issue of abuse. The rally included David Clohessy, the president of Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, a group that advocates on behalf of victims of clergy sex abuse. He said Baptists could learn from Catholics, who have been working on this issue for decades, though he called the Catholic Church’s policies “sporadically implemented.”
Clohessy said Catholics and Baptists both refer to their systems of governance when they want to avoid taking responsibility for failing to stop predators.
“Baptist churches collaborate on all kinds of things, whether it’s buying insurance and office supplies,” he said. “For them to claim they’re autonomous and can’t work together is balderdash.”
In 2002, U.S. Catholic bishops introduced a “zero tolerance” policy for priests found guilty by the church of abuse, which means permanent removal from ministry after a single act of abuse. Pope Francis last month made it mandatory for church authorities to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to their superiors, including abuse committed by bishops or cardinals. U.S. bishops are expected to consider sex abuse policies this week during a meeting in Baltimore.
Last week, SBC leaders released an internal report on sex abuse, saying that “all too often it has not been handled justly” and that it was “rooted in our culture of casual indifference to predatory sexual behavior."
“We lament the fact that it took a national movement of reckoning for abuse to force us to take this issue seriously in our own convention,” the report said, appearing to nod to the Me Too movement without mentioning it.