ANAHEIM, Calif. — More than 8,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention met in Anaheim, Calif., on Tuesday and responded to the shocking findings of an independent investigation into the handling of sex abuse cases by passing a recommendation to create a database to track sex abusers and a formal group to handle sex abuse accusations going forward. Members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination also elected rural Texas pastor Bart Barber the next president of the convention.
In May, Southern Baptist leaders published a report detailing a years-long coverup of sex abuse within their denomination. For 15 years, the report alleged, leaders said they were not able to compile a database of sex abuse offenders — while they were secretly keeping a list of their own. The same week they released their report, they also released the list, which consisted of hundreds of names of alleged abusers, including many convicted of sex abuse crimes.
Before they discussed sex abuse proposals, however, a debate erupted over the role of women pastors, a topic that has caused some on the far right to fear a leftward drift. Like other conservative evangelical groups across the country, Southern Baptists have been divided in recent years over issues such as racial justice, abortion and the idea of liberalism overtaking the denomination.
Earlier in the day, Southern Baptists also released a list of nine resolutions, including two on sexual abuse and one on the topic of abortion, which will be considered and voted on Wednesday.
The SBC’s sexual abuse task force also contacted about a dozen sex abuse survivors who were mentioned in the report and asked them if they could be apologized to by name from the stage.
The denomination’s relief arm, Send Relief, announced it would designate $4 million in existing funding to back the recommendations, including $1 million in survivor care.
“Make no mistake, we’re in a Kairos moment, a seminal moment right now. Today we’ll choose between humility and hubris,” Bruce Frank, the pastor who has chaired the abuse task force, said as he opened the session on proposals before a rapt room of thousands.
For years, survivors of sexual assault in church settings have been calling on churches to admit the extent of abuse. It helped to generate a movement called #ChurchToo, a spinoff of the wider #MeToo movement, calling out not just sexual predators but also religious leaders involved in coverups or other mishandling of abuse claims.
Rachael Denhollander, an attorney, survivor and advocate who is advising the SBC on its abuse reform measures, said Tuesday the denomination has made progress but still has a long way to go.
“It’s 10 years behind everyone else on its understanding of abuse, of best standards,” she said. “I am seeing shifts but I don’t want to downplay the reality that they’re a decade behind.”
Brad Eubank, pastor of Petal First Baptist Church in Petal, Miss., who identified himself as a sex abuse survivor, stood at a microphone Tuesday evening and urged his fellow Southern Baptists to adopt the recommendations. “The world is watching,” he said. “This is not everything that needs to be done, but it is a starting spot. And I plead with you on behalf of survivors that I speak on behalf of who love our convention and love our churches. Please, let’s start the healing process today.”
Southern Baptists meet annually. The denomination, which shuns a hierarchical structure and is heavily democratic, passes resolutions every year that often signal the direction thousands of its members want to go. In 2021, the convention passed a resolution on abortion abolition, which called for ending abortion in all cases, with no exceptions. In previous years, there have been flash points over “alt-right white supremacy” and critical race theory.
One resolution that will be considered Wednesday on sex abuse states that Southern Baptists urge state politicians to pass laws that would provide consistent definitions of sexual abuse by pastors, and they also urge lawmakers to “empower churches by shielding them from civil liability when they share information about alleged abuse.” In another resolution, they focus on the failures of the Southern Baptist Convention around sex abuse, and name and apologize to specific survivors with their permission.
In a resolution on abortion, Southern Baptists urge the Supreme Court to overturn the abortion-related precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. They also passed a resolution noting a recent federal report on the troubled legacy of federal Native American boarding school policies, calling “atrocities done against these people in the name of religious ‘conversions’ … reprehensible.”
Southern Baptists at the meeting, who are called “messengers,” voted to elect their next leader, which was seen as shaping the direction of the 13.7 million-member denomination. Rural Texas pastor Bart Barber, who has been a vocal advocate of sex abuse reforms, won the presidency with about 60 percent of the vote in a runoff. While he is still theologically conservative, he is seen as more centrist within the denomination.
On Monday, Barber was pictured on Twitter speaking with sex abuse survivor Debbie Vasquez, who was named in the sex abuse report and was speaking to messengers at a booth within the convention halls. In 2019, some abuse survivors were asked to remain outside convention halls because they were no longer Southern Baptist.
Sex abuse survivors Jules Woodson and Tiffany Thigpen — two of the most outspoken survivors in the convention who were named in the sex abuse report — stood in bright colors on the path into the convention center, greeting people and handing out teal ribbons — the color for assault survivors — people could put inside the clear sleeve of their lanyards.
Thigpen said last year she remembered people glaring at her during the portion of the meeting dealing with sexual abuse. This year, she said, more than half of the Southern Baptists they asked to take a ribbon did. The convention provided for them a private room with gifts of lotion and tissues and the presence of trauma counselors.
“This year we got lots of smiles. It feels a little different,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen and Woodson talked about how during check-in, they saw Paige Patterson, a giant of the far-right who was fired in 2018 after his own mishandling of sex abuse was revealed.
“He’s always been a giant in my world, so intimidating,” said Thigpen. “When I saw him, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think.” Later, before sleep, she berated herself for not speaking to him.
The two saw Patterson the next day on a path to the convention center, where food trucks are parked and praise bands played uplifting songs. Thigpen said she named her abuser to him and told Patterson he failed to protect her from the man when he had the chance.
“He didn’t say anything,” she said. He just looked down, shook his head and walked away, she said. “For the first time he seemed so little,” Woodson said with a smile to her fellow survivor. “So small,” Thigpen said.
Patterson did not return a request for comment.
Christa Brown, a sex abuse survivor who has long fought for sex abuse reforms in the SBC, said from her home in Colorado that she was watching the live stream of the meeting but didn’t feel comfortable coming, knowing when she looked into people’s faces, what she’d see.
“It would feel like standing waiting for a shiv,” she said. She said after the sex abuse proposals were passed that she had hoped they would be more muscular.
“I don’t have it in me to cheer for this,” she said.
Some of the sex abuse survivors recently released their own list of recommendations, including creating a compensation fund for survivors, an independent commission to receive abuse reports and a monument to abuse survivors outside SBC offices in Nashville.
Presidential candidate Florida pastor Tom Ascol, who won about 38 percent of the vote in the runoff against Barber, attacked the third-party investigation after the firm Guidepost Solutions earlier this month tweeted in support of the LGBTQ community.
Frank addressed the LGBTQ-related tweet from the convention platform.
Frank said he didn’t like the Guidepost tweet, but he said the issue is not what Guidepost thinks of LGBTQ matters, the issue is what Southern Baptists think of sex abuse.
Ascol had the backing of the far-right wing of the denomination, called the Conservative Baptist Network, and if he were elected or received a substantial number of votes, it could indicate the future direction of the SBC. Ascol is part of a movement of abortion abolitionists who believe the procedure should be illegal without exceptions.
Southern Baptists were also expected to decide whether to cut ties with California megachurch Saddleback Church, one of the largest in the denomination, over plans to hire a female teaching pastor. The church has three female pastors who were ordained last year. The ordinations renewed a battle among Southern Baptists over whether women can be considered pastors, as opposed to having them serve as preachers or Bible teachers.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, said from the floor Tuesday that he thinks the confessional statement Baptists agree on is clear that women should not be considered pastors.
Saddleback founder Rick Warren, author of best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life” who recently announced plans to retire this fall, also addressed his fellow Southern Baptists from the floor, shaking as he read them a “love letter” and said it was likely his last convention.
As Western culture grows more secular, Warren said, Southern Baptists have to decide, “Are we going to treat each other as allies or adversaries?” Warren is a fourth-generation SBC pastor who was mentored by famed evangelist Billy Graham.
Referring to female pastors, he asked, “Are we going to keep bickering over secondary issues or keep the main thing the main thing?”
Boorstein reported from Anaheim. Bailey reported from New York.