Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention on Sunday released a major third-party investigation that found that sex abuse survivors were often ignored, minimized and “even vilified” by top clergy in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
The report — the first investigation of its kind in a massive Protestant denomination like the SBC — is expected to send shock waves throughout a conservative Christian community that has had intense internal battles over how to handle sex abuse. The 13 million-member denomination, along with other religious institutions in the United States, has struggled with declining membership for the past 15 years. Its leaders have long resisted comparisons between its sexual abuse crisis and that of the Catholic Church, saying the total number of abuse cases among Southern Baptists was small.
The investigation finds that for almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention’s administrative arm to report alleged child molesters and other accused abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff members. Many of the cases referred to in the report were considered outside the statute of limitations, the time survivors can report sex abuse, so it’s unclear how many abusers were criminally charged.
The report, compiled by an organization called Guidepost Solutions at the request of Southern Baptists, states that abuse survivors’ calls and emails were “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” by leaders who were concerned more with protecting the institution from liability than from protecting Southern Baptists from further abuse.
“While stories of abuse were minimized, and survivors were ignored or even vilified, revelations came to light in recent years that some senior SBC leaders had protected or even supported alleged abusers, the report states.
While the report focuses primarily on how leaders handled abuse issues when survivors came forward, it also states that a major Southern Baptist leader was credibly accused of sexually assaulting a woman just one month after he completed his two-year tenure as president of the convention. The report finds that Johnny Hunt, a beloved Georgia-based Southern Baptist pastor who has been a senior vice president at the SBC’s missions arm, was credibly accused of assaulting a woman during a Panama City Beach, Fla., vacation in 2010.
The report states that Hunt, in an interview with investigators, denied any physical contact with the woman but acknowledged that he had interactions with her. After the report was released, Hunt, who has not been charged over the alleged incident, posted a statement on Twitter, saying, “I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report. I have never abused anybody.”
Hunt resigned on May 13 from the North American Mission Board, according to a statement by NAMB President Kevin Ezell. Ezell said that before May 13, he was not aware of alleged misconduct by Hunt. Generally, he called the details of the report “egregious and deeply disturbing.”
Southern Baptists have been immersed in their own sex abuse scandals. Now, they’re debating their response.
Sex abuse survivors, many of whom have been sharing their stories for years, anticipated Sunday’s release would confirm the facts around many of the stories they have already shared, but many were still surprised to see the pattern of coverups by the highest levels of leadership.
“I knew it was rotten, but it’s astonishing and infuriating,” said Jennifer Lyell, a survivor who was once the highest-paid female executive at the SBC and whose story of sexual abuse at a Southern Baptist seminary is detailed in the report. “This is a denomination that is through and through about power. It is misappropriated power. It does not in any way reflect the Jesus I see in the scriptures. I am so gutted.”
The report also names several senior SBC leaders who protected and even supported alleged abusers, including three past presidents of the convention, a former vice president and the former head of the SBC’s administrative arm.
The third-party investigation into actions between 2000 and 2021 focused on actions by the SBC’s Executive Committee, which handles financial and administrative duties. Although Southern Baptist churches operate independently from one another, the Nashville-based Executive Committee distributes more than $190 million cooperative program in its annual budget that funds its missions, seminaries and ministries.
For decades, the findings show, Southern Baptists were told the denomination could not put together a registry of sex offenders because it would go against the denomination’s polity — or how it functions. What the report reveals is that leaders maintained a list of offenders while keeping it a secret to avoid the possibility of getting sued. The report also includes private emails showing how longtime leaders such as August Boto were dismissive about sexual abuse concerns, calling them “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”
In an April 2007 email, the convention’s attorney sent Boto a memo explaining how a SBC database could be implemented consistent with SBC polity, saying “it would fit our polity and present ministries to help churches in this area of child abuse and sexual misconduct.” The report states that he recommended “immediate action to signal the Convention’s desire that the [executive committee] and the entities begin a more aggressive effort in this area.” That same year, after a Southern Baptist pastor made a motion for a database, Boto rejected the idea.
For a denomination designed to give more democratic power to its lay leaders or “messengers” who voted to commission the third-party investigation, the report shows how lay Southern Baptists allowed a few key leaders, including Boto and the convention’s longtime lawyer, James Guenther, to control the national institutional response to sex abuse for decades. Guenther, the longtime lawyer for the SBC, said he had not read the report yet. Attempts to reach Boto on Sunday were unsuccessful.
“The report is going to validate so much about how they really blindly chose to stay on the same path all these years,” said Tiffany Thigpen, whose story of sexual abuse in a Southern Baptist church is detailed in the report. “It buoys what we’ve been saying all along. Now Southern Baptists have to carry the weight.”
During Executive Committee meetings in 2021, some members argued against waiving attorney-client privilege, which would give investigators access to records of conversations on legal matters among the committee’s members and staffers. They said doing so went against the advice of convention lawyers and could bankrupt the SBC by exposing it to lawsuits.
The debate over waiving privilege upset a large swath of Southern Baptists, causing some to believe the Executive Committee was not doing the “will of the messengers,” or following the lead of lay leaders who had already voted in favor of doing so. It also led to the resignation of the Executive Committee’s head, Ronnie Floyd, who also once served as SBC president and was on President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council. The decision over attorney-client privilege also led to the resignation of the convention’s attorneys, who are named throughout the report.
According to the report, Floyd told SBC leaders in a 2019 email that he had received “some calls” from “key SBC pastors and leaders” expressing “growing concern about all the emphasis on the sexual abuse crisis.” He then stated: “Our priority cannot be the latest cultural crisis.” Floyd did not immediately return a request for comment.
Christa Brown, who told SBC leaders that she was abused by a youth pastor who went on to serve in other Southern Baptist churches in multiple states, has long advocated a churchwide database and was met with hostility. The report states that when she met with SBC leaders in 2007, a member of the Executive Committee “turned his back to her during her speech and another chortled.”
“The Executive Committee betrayed not only survivors who worked hard to try to make something happen, but betrayed the whole Southern Baptist Convention,” said Brown, who is a retired appellate attorney in Colorado. “They’ve made their own faith into a complicit partner for their own decision to choose institutional protection over the protection of kids and congregants.”
The report, which was requested by Southern Baptists during its last annual meeting, comes just weeks before its next gathering in Anaheim, Calif., where members are expected discuss next steps. Recommendations by Guidepost include providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.
“We must be ready to take meaningful steps to change our culture as it relates to sexual abuse,” Ed Litton, the current SBC president, said in a statement.
Since decades of sex abuse and coverups in the Catholic Church were reported by the Boston Globe in 2002, some U.S. dioceses have published lists of priests they say have been credibly accused of sexual abuse to prevent the transfer of abusers to other churches. Unlike the Catholic Church, the SBC has a non-hierarchical structure.
In March 2007, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who first warned of the looming Catholic sex abuse crisis, wrote to the SBC and Executive Committee presidents, according to the report. He expressed his concerns that SBC leaders could be falling into some of the same patterns as Catholic leaders in not dealing with clergy sex abuse, and he urged that Southern Baptists should learn from Catholic mistakes and take action early on to implement structural reforms so as to make children safer.
The report states that Frank Page, who was leading the Executive Committee at the time, responded to Doyle in a short letter that “Southern Baptist leaders truly have no authority over local churches” but that they would attempt to use their “influence” to provide protections. In an article, Page accused a survivor group of having a hidden agenda of setting up the nation’s largest Protestant body for lawsuits. Page later resigned from his position in 2018 over having a “morally inappropriate relationship.” Page did not immediately return a request for comment.
Rachael Denhollander, a former USA gymnast who outed Larry Nassar’s serial sexual assaults, is an adviser on a Southern Baptist task force on the issue and said that the report shows a need for institutions like the SBC to seek outside expertise on sex abuse.
“It shows a level of coverup and harassment and resistance to reforms on an institutional level that has led to decades of survivors being victimized and hurt,” Denhollander said. “The question Southern Baptists have to ask is, ‘How could this happen?’”
The issue of sex abuse was a prominent theme in leaked private letters written by Russell Moore, who left his position in 2021 as head of the SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Moore said he expects Southern Baptists to receive Sunday’s report in a similar way to how Nikita Khrushchev shocked the Soviet Union when he detailed Joseph Stalin’s crimes in a speech in 1956.
“The depths of wickedness and inhumanity in this report are breathtaking,” Moore said. “People will say, ‘This is not all Southern Baptists, look at all the good we do.’ The report demonstrates a pattern of stonewalling, coverup, intimidation and retaliation.”
Moore said he hopes the SBC will consider replacing a statue of evangelist Billy Graham, which was moved from Nashville to Graham’s home state in 2016, with a statue of Christa Brown, the abuse survivor who spent the past two decades fighting for reform.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.