Two days after an explosive report concluded that its leaders mishandled and covered up sex abuse claims, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention said at a public meeting Tuesday that they would release names from a list of alleged abusers they kept secretly for years. They also said that they owe abuse survivors an apology and that the huge denomination must fundamentally change its culture.
The report released Sunday sent shock waves through the country’s largest Protestant denomination. It said leaders maintained a secret database of alleged sexual abusers and found that a top leader was credibly accused of assaulting a woman a month after leaving the presidency of the 13 million-member convention.
An attorney for the SBC’s administrative arm, the Executive Committee, said it is working on making the list of sex abusers available to the public Thursday once the committee makes sure the names of survivors are not disclosed and ensures the names of abusers are substantiated.
The report and Southern Baptist leaders’ response comes after nearly 15 years of debates over how to handle sex abuse claims within the denomination. It took years of several sex abuse survivors sharing their stories with national media outlets, blogs and on social media before Southern Baptists requested a third-party investigation into how it was being handled.
A 2007 investigation by the ABC News show “20/20” documented abuse in Protestant churches included the SBC, which led to a resolution on protecting children from abuse and a motion to consider building a database of accused abusers. Although lawyers told convention leaders they could pursue such a database, leaders told Southern Baptists for decades that they couldn’t due to the denomination’s non-hierarchical structure. Churches that belong to the Southern Baptist Convention are considered autonomous from one another.
Several sex abuse allegations in 2018 brought more attention to the issue, including the firing of former SBC president Paige Patterson from his seminary position over how he handled two women’s claims. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle released an investigative report revealing 700 sex abuse victims over 20 years, which led to a convention-wide focus on sex abuse with calls for reform and a conference focused on sex abuse. In 2021, a leaked letter alleging leaders mishandled sex abuse claims sparked a convention-wide call for an investigation, which led to the report, prepared by Guidepost Solutions.
Christa Brown, a sex abuse survivor who has worked on the issue for nearly two decades, said Tuesday that she was “breathless” after watching the meeting online and seeing leaders discuss publishing their secret database. In the years after she told SBC leaders that she was abused by a youth pastor who went on to serve in other Southern Baptist churches in multiple states, she was met with hostility when she would call for reform. She renewed her longtime call for a churchwide database Monday when she proposed that the Executive Committee make its existing private list public.
“I think that is a good first step. I’m glad for it,” she said.
Still, she said, she’s waiting to see what else SBC leaders do.
“I’m grateful for what we saw today, truly. I am also waiting and hoping for real action and not just words,” Brown said. “Not words, not lament, not thoughts and prayers — real meaningful action that will help survivors.”
The 68-member board met over Zoom to discuss the findings ahead of the convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., next month. Willie McLaurin, interim president of the Executive Committee, offered an apology to sexual abuse survivors.
“I want to say to us: Now is the time to change the culture,” he said. “We need to be proactive in our openness, in our transparency from this moment forward. That’s the absolute bare minimum we must do.”
California pastor Rolland Slade, chair of the Executive Committee’s board said: “For the survivor community, I can’t imagine the pain that you’re going through, and the pain that you have endured for decades, but I ask you to please be patient with us as we try to grasp what’s going on, what has happened.”
A lawyer for the Executive Committee, Gene Besen, said it was important to acknowledge the survivors named in the report. “This morning as we meet for the first time, I want to emulate their courage and their strength,” he said.
Besen emphasized a particular moment, in September 2006, when a Convention leader wrote to Brown, saying continued communications between the Executive Committee and survivors “will not be positive or fruitful.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing could be more responsible for the cultural rot for this moment,” Besen said.
The board then put forward an apology statement. It referenced the Sept. 29, 2006, letter sent by August Boto, then the Executive Committee’s vice president, to Brown. The statement says the current SBC leadership rejects that dismissive sentiment “in its entirety and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors.” Engaging with abuse survivors is a “critical step toward healing our Convention.”
There was also discussion of revoking some retirement benefits for Boto, who is named throughout the report.
Some members of the Executive Committee objected to the statement being approved so quickly. “The problem in the past is that we rubber-stamped everything,” said Mike Holloway, a board member from Louisiana, as he urged members to not move quickly on something without understanding all the implications. But members voted to approve the apology statement anyway. Brown said she was grateful.
“It is emotionally hard to instantaneously erase many, many years of raw meanness and incivility,” Brown said. “I hope this will be a first step, a beginning step that will truly reflect a change in how survivors will be treated in the future.”
The Guidepost report was narrowly focused on the Executive Committee, just one of the many institutions under the Southern Baptist umbrella. The committee distributes more than $190 million annually in a cooperative program that funds its missions agencies, seminaries and other ministries.
Top denominational leaders, including presidents of the SBC, serve on the Executive Committee’s board. But the committee doesn’t have authority over individual churches or other institutions within the SBC, and each have their own boards of trustees. According to the report, Executive Committee board members were kept in the dark while a handful of leaders misled Southern Baptists, suggesting for decades that they could not create a database of sex abusers despite being advised by legal counsel that they could.
The board of the Executive Committee, which is supposed to be made up of 86 clergy and lay members from across the country, is responsible for putting on the big annual meeting. More than a dozen board members resigned last fall after members voted to waive attorney-client privilege, which gave investigators access to records of conversations on legal matters among committee members and staff.
Guidepost’s report includes emails between Executive Committee leaders and employees in which members of the survivor community were ignored or “shunned, shamed, and vilified.” Emails showed how leaders were concerned more with the liability the institution could face than about protecting people from sexual abusers.
Patterson, who is named throughout the report as someone who mishandled sex abuse claims, declined to comment on it.
The report also found that a former SBC president once delayed reporting allegations of child sex abuse out of “heartfelt concern and compassion” for the accused minister, while another former SBC president allowed a pastor accused of abusing young boys to be dismissed without reporting the abuse to police.
Brown said she hopes the SBC will develop a safe place where Southern Baptists can report clergy sex abuse and obtain independent investigations. The Executive Committee is working with Guidepost to create a hotline for victims to be able to share what happened to them and receive care.
“There’s a long, long history of the SBC saying to report abuse, they have to go to the local church of the accused pastor,” Brown said. “Going to the church in which it happened will never work. It’s inflicted enormous, egregious harm on the already wounded. It’s like sending already bloody sheep back to the den of the wolf who savaged them.”
Brown hopes that there will be more discussion about how the SBC can repair damage it has done to survivors.
“Repentance requires restitution,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk now about what the SBC may do moving forward to do better in the future. That is all well and good. But in addition to that, there must be a reckoning with the past and the harm that has been done — not only the harm from the abuse but the harm from the whole institutional failure.”