Southern Baptist leaders on Thursday evening released a list of alleged church-related sexual abuse offenders that denomination heads had kept secret for more than a decade. The Executive Committee for the Southern Baptist Convention said earlier this week it would publish the names after it issued a third-party investigation that suggested a widespread coverup by top leaders who ignored and even “vilified” people who came forward with stories of abuse.
The database, which an SBC attorney said includes people who have been criminally convicted of abuse and those who have confessed to abuse, is expected to show what top leaders knew behind the scenes while telling Southern Baptists they could not create a list of accused abusers because the denomination is not hierarchical and churches operate independently from one another.
A description at the top of the document reads: “This is a fluid, working document." It consists of more than 600 entries, the date the person was reported and information largely pulled from news articles, compiled from 2007 until 2022. “It is incomplete. It has not been proofed. It has not been adequately researched. It is not Southern Baptist specific," the document reads. It notes that, after June 2008, “only alleged/convicted names of abusers and [titles] of articles were catalogued.”
The release of the database comes 15 years after Christa Brown began sounding the alarm that Southern Baptists needed to keep such a list to prevent abusers from transferring from church to church. She first told SBC leaders in 2004 that she had been abused by a youth pastor who went on to serve in other Southern Baptist churches in multiple states. But the report published Sunday by the SBC said she was met with hostility when she suggested the idea in 2007.
Brown, 68, was emotional Thursday when she learned that the man she alleges abused her was listed in the database — an official acknowledgment by the Southern Baptist Convention.
“This means so much to us survivors,” she said. “It’s a reflection of how cruel it was to stonewall any kind of validation for decades. For survivors to heal, this kind of validation is an acknowledgment of the truth of the horror of what was done to us.”
The man she alleges abused her, who has not been charged or convicted, hung up the phone in response to a Washington Post request for comment. She said the man began to abuse her in 1968 and that when she initially pursued a civil case against him in 2005, the statute of limitations had expired.
But, Brown said, the list is also a “very small measure of justice.”
“They don’t get to pat themselves on the back for this,” Brown added. “I’m sorry. God only knows why they were keeping it secret. It’s the very tiniest thing of what needs to be done.”
Before releasing the list, attorneys for the SBC said they would redact survivors’ names and try to ensure that they only include names of people who were “credibly accused.” That includes pastors, denominational workers, ministry employees or volunteers who have confessed to abuse, been convicted in a court of law, or had a civil judgment rendered against them. Also, an independent third party could determine that someone was “credibly accused” by a “preponderance of the evidence.”
“This is a critical first step,” said Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and former gymnast who outed former USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar over his serial sexual assaults and is now an adviser on a Southern Baptist task force on the issue. “It at least begins to demonstrate a level of transparency and accountability.”
The SBC has long sought to distinguish itself from the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal by saying its churches were independent from one another. But University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton, an expert on laws aimed at preventing child abuse, said the SBC has no standing in distinguishing itself legally from the Catholic Church in terms of its responsibility to victims, be they minors or adults when incidents happen. The SBC, she said, is the “governing body of the whole church, so they are responsible for the policies and for the coverup, which is evident.”
As penalties including billions of dollars have been levied in the past 20 years against the Catholic Church, Hamilton said, other non-Catholic religious groups have argued that their structure and beliefs make them different when it comes to liability. Southern Baptist and nondenominational groups have said they are too loosely affiliated to be liable, but she said courts have found otherwise when they have looked at other faith groups.
“The question is: Did they act recklessly, endangering children and adults? And the answer is yes,” Hamilton said. “They took unreasonable risks, lacked effective prevention policies, and put individuals in their flocks at risk of being sexually assaulted and abused, by leaving the abusers in positions of authority and not alerting the public and by bypassing going to the authorities. This defense they’ve been saying — ‘We’re organized differently’ — is full of holes. That is no defense.”
Hamilton said victims who were minors at the time of the abuse and came forward as adults can have a harder time because of slowly changing statutes of limitations. However, more states are extending deadlines for people to bring civil cases.
The third-party investigation by Guidepost Solutions, commissioned by Southern Baptists at their annual convention last year and released Sunday, focused narrowly on the SBC’s Nashville-based Executive Committee, the second-smallest organization within the SBC that handles the finances and administration, including distributing funds that come in from churches around the country to its other organizations.
Two Southern Baptist leaders, Kevin Ezell of the North American Mission Board and Danny Akin of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said this week that they would invite Guidepost to investigate allegations in their organizations.
Akin said in an interview that he knew of maybe three or four instances of alleged sexual abuse in his 19 years at Southeastern, including one that ultimately led to the firing of former Southeastern president Paige Patterson, who was named in the Guidepost report.
Akin said he is recommending to his board of trustees that Patterson’s name be removed from one of the seminary’s buildings. Patterson was fired from another seminary in 2018 after his board of trustees said he had mishandled two women’s cases of sexual abuse, including one at Southeastern.
The Guidepost report also alleged that Johnny Hunt, a former North American Mission Board vice president and longtime pastor, sexually assaulted a woman, which he has denied on Twitter. (Hunt in a subsequent statement issued Friday said his interaction with the woman was “an awful sin but it was a consensual encounter” and called the assault allegation “absurd.”) Akin said the seminary has already removed his name from programs and facilities.
Akin said he was close to both Patterson and Hunt and called the last several days “some of the saddest of my life.”
“My heart’s just crushed, but that has not changed my love for [Johnny], and I’m praying he’ll respond appropriately and know Southern Baptists are forgiving people,” Akin said. “I think if he tells us what is right, he will receive that forgiveness. Doesn’t mean he’ll be a pastor or anything, but I believe he could serve significantly. But we’ll see.”
Several sexual abuse survivors have said they plan to fly to Anaheim, Calif., for the SBC’s annual meeting next month because they see momentum for potential change. Among them is Jules Woodson, whose 2018 allegation that her Southern Baptist youth pastor sexually assaulted her was viewed as one of the major points that led the denomination to confront sex abuse.
On Thursday night, Woodson sobbed when she knew that Andy Savage, whom she says abused her when she was 17, was listed in the database. In 2018, Savage, who has not been charged or convicted, publicly admitted to “a sexual incident,” said he was “deeply sorry” and received a standing ovation from his congregation.
“I feel acknowledged for the first time in a long time,” Woodson said. “They knew. They knew, and they did nothing.”
Savage, who is a pastor at a non-SBC church in Tennessee, could not be reached for comment.
Woodson said leaders of the SBC church she was attending when she was abused in 1998 had told her to remain quiet, and by the time she decided to speak out, the statute of limitations had expired. Her story went viral in 2018, and this is the first time the SBC has acknowledged Savage’s name publicly.
Woodson said she was later committed to a psychiatric ward because she was depressed and had PTSD, lost her college degree and the career that she wanted, as a pilot (she is now a flight attendant).
“I’ve lost so much,” she said while sobbing.
Her mother said she would lose her children if she came forward with the story of her abuse.
Woodson, said she hopes the SBC will pursue more action than releasing the database Thursday, including establishing a survivor compensation fund and a memorial for survivors in Nashville.
“Am I glad for the database?" said Woodson, 41. "Yes. It’s one piece of the puzzle.”
The SBC’s Executive Committee issued an apology to sex abuse survivors after the release of an explosive report
In 2019, Woodson wrote to the leaders of Germantown Baptist Church in Tennessee to see if they would revoke the ordination of the man who confessed to his congregation that he had “a sexual incident” with Woodson when she was a teenager. According to Woodson, a church leader wrote back to her to say that the church had no comment. It did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for further comment.
The Executive Committee on Wednesday set up a third-party hotline for sexual abuse survivors, run by Guidepost. The hotline may be reached at (202) 864-5578 or SBChotline@guidepostsolutions.com.
Mike Holloway, pastor of Ouachita Baptist Church in Louisiana and a board member on the Executive Committee, said while he is in favor of releasing the names to the public, he’s nervous about the list including anyone who has denied abusing someone.
“My fear is that we crucify and then we find out six months later we were wrong,” Holloway said. “There may need to be reparations made … I’m all for that, that’s where the churches have to step in.”
Holloway was also nervous about the idea floated earlier this week that the Executive Committee could take retirement benefits from longtime SBC leader August Boto, one of the leaders named throughout Guidepost’s report who told members they couldn’t develop a database. Guidepost’s report revealed that a staff member working him was maintaining a secret list of accused ministers, including the minister’s name, year the accusation was reported, relevant news articles, state and denomination. Boto could not be reached for comment.
“Are we saying a person has to live a perfect life and makes a mistake in judgment, we’re going to do everything we can to punish him and take his retirement?” Holloway said. “There’s not much grace in that.”
Magda Jean-Louis and Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.