Southern Baptist leaders for decades both ignored and covered up sex abuse allegations while claiming to have little power to address them, a shocking third-party investigation released Sunday found.
1. Top leaders repeatedly tried to bury sex abuse claims and lied about what they could do
The report describes how key Southern Baptist leaders engaged in a pattern of ignoring, stonewalling and even “vilifying” sex abuse survivors. The report details multiple instances when Southern Baptist leaders shot down requests by survivors and other concerned members to maintain a database of abusers. Publicly, the leaders said they couldn’t because of “church polity,” or the denomination’s decentralized structure. But the report found that their attorneys had advised them that they could keep such a list and that the leaders did so in secret.
The most recent list of sex abusers prepared by a staff member contained the names of 703 alleged abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC affiliated at some point, according to the report. Guidepost, the firm that conducted the investigation, found that nine people who were accused are still in ministry, two of whom are still associated with an SBC church. Despite collecting these reports for more than 10 years, the report said, “there is no indication leaders took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”
Debbie Vasquez, whose story of sexual abuse and rape by her pastor when she was a minor is included in the report, said she couldn’t sleep Sunday night after the report came out.
“To some people, this is an eye-opener. Survivors knew,” said Vasquez. “We’ve been at it for over a decade. We already knew they were covering this up. I have yet to come across a leader who was willing to do something about it.” She said her abuser is still a pastor at a church that is no longer affiliated with the SBC.
Sing Oldham, a former spokesman for the Executive Committee, which is the administrative arm the report focused on, said in an interview that he had set up a Google alert for “Baptist” and “arrested” and would forward news reports to Southern Baptist Executive Committee leader August Boto about anyone who might be connected to the SBC. But Oldham said in an interview he was not aware anyone was aggregating such reports and rejected the idea that he was involved in creating a secret database.
“I do wish that we as a convention and as an executive committee had been more open to hear [survivors’] concerns and to be more responsive to what they have to say,” Oldham said. “It was a whole new field of what are the legalities that we have to consider? What do we have authority to tell a church what to do?”
2. A former SBC president was considered “credibly accused” of sexual assault
Johnny Hunt was considered “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting a woman during a beach vacation in 2010, a month after his tenure as SBC president ended. After the report was published, Hunt, who resigned this month from his vice president position with the convention’s North American Mission Board, denied in a tweet that he had abused anyone.
Kevin Ezell, president of NAMB, said generally that the details in the report “are egregious and deeply disturbing,” though he did not speak to the accusations directed against Hunt specifically. A spokesman for NAMB did not respond to questions over what NAMB leaders knew about the woman’s accusations and whether Hunt was provided severance in his resignation.
Hunt, who was widely loved across the denomination and mentored young pastors, led something called the City of Refuge residential program that assisted “pastors in crisis,” many of whom had “moral failings.” The woman who accused Hunt of assaulting her told Guidepost that Hunt asked her if she was “wild growing up,” before he eventually “forced himself on her again by groping her, trying to pull her shirt down, and violently kissing her.” On Monday, Hunt did not respond to requests for further comment.
3. Unheeded warnings went on for decades
The report also described a series of instances when leaders ignored warnings by sex abuse survivors and advocates. In 2016, a person called to report a pastor’s involvement in abuse of her mother. According to the report, a staff member for the Executive Committee asked Boto, “Do I call this lady back? I suspect no.” No documents indicate a follow-up response, the report said.
A Catholic whistleblower tried to warn Southern Baptist leaders that they might be falling into the same pattern as Catholic leaders did in not dealing with clergy abuse. A Southern Baptist leader wrote back and said there was nothing they could do because, “Southern Baptist leaders truly have no authority over local churches.”
The report includes emails between leaders and employees of the SBC’s Executive Committee in which members of the survivor community were ignored or “shunned, shamed, and vilified.”
In an internal email in 2019, Boto equated the focus on sexual abuse with the work of the devil, saying, “It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” In an email, Oldham wrote to Boto, offering to bring him up to speed about the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Dealing with SNAP can be tricky,” Oldham wrote. “They have a way of twisting your words to suit their purposes.” Boto responded, “Good job.” Boto could not be reached for comment. Oldham said that at the time of the email he was new to his job and that he would not use those words today.
4. Leaders seemed to put concern over potential litigation over people’s safety
Southern Baptist leaders appeared to value avoiding lawsuits over preventing sexual abuse, according to the report, which stated, “it is striking that many reform efforts were met with resistance, typically due to concerns over incurring legal liability.” For example, based on outside counsel, leaders recommended removing the word “crisis” when referring to sex abuse.
Jim Guenther and Jaime Jordan, who were attorneys for the SBC until last fall when they resigned, said in a statement Monday that they believe the report contains “misstatements of fact and quotations” that were reported out of context.
“Understanding legal risks and how to mitigate those risks are primary reasons individuals and organizations hire legal counsel,” they said. “As lawyers we are bound by professional rules of conduct to zealously protect our clients’ legitimate interests and to discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct.”
Southern Baptists are expected to discuss the recommendations in the report at their annual gathering in Anaheim, Calif., next month. Many survivors are planning to travel there to stand outside in protest, Vasquez said. Grant Gaines, a Southern Baptist pastor in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said the denomination, as well as individual pastors, need to be thinking seriously through sexual abuse prevention steps.
Gaines said his own Belle Aire Baptist Church has had policies in place, such as having at least two adults in a nursery room and background checks for volunteers, but it has gone through extra steps this past year to work with a group called GRACE to add more training and awareness around sex abuse for his whole congregation.
“As painful as it might be,” he said of the Guidepost report, “it’s nothing like the pain survivors have felt, the resistance they have felt in getting things changed.”
Jules Woodson, whose 2018 allegation that her Southern Baptist youth pastor sexually assaulted her was viewed as a tipping point in leading the denomination to confront sex abuse, said the Guidepost investigation is historic for the denomination.
“This is going to need to be a cultural change,” Woodson said. “You don’t change a culture overnight. The first part of that is acknowledging what has happened. Nobody can naysay or deny or act ignorant anymore.”