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Justice Dept. investigating Southern Baptist Convention handling of sex abuse

Choir members are silhouetted as they get ready for a worship service at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., on June 14, 2022. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The Southern Baptist Convention, the second-largest faith group in the country, said Friday that the Justice Department is investigating multiple arms of the denomination following an internal report that showed mishandling of sexual abuse cases.

The investigation is related to a recent bombshell third-party report commissioned by the SBC, a spokesman said late Friday. The report concluded that sex abuse survivors were often ignored, minimized and “even vilified” by top clergy in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Southern Baptist leaders covered up sex abuse, kept secret database, report says

“The SBC Executive Committee recently became aware that the Department of Justice has initiated an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, and that the investigation will include multiple SBC entities,” the statement issued Friday by 14 SBC leaders from multiple top entities said. “Individually and collectively each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation.”

The third-party report, which involved an examination of the period from 2000 to 2021, focused on actions by the executive committee, which handles financial and administrative duties. Southern Baptist churches operate independently from one another, but the Nashville-based Executive Committee distributes more than $190 million through its cooperative program in its annual budget that funds its missions, seminaries and ministries.

The 300-page report, the first of its kind in a massive Protestant denomination like the SBC, showed how denominational leaders for decades actively resisted calls for abuse prevention and reform. Evidence in the report suggests leaders also told Southern Baptists they could not maintain a database of offenders to prevent more abuse while secretly keeping such a list for years.

Anger over the report in June led the SBC’s huge annual meeting to pass a recommendation to create a database to track sex abusers and a formal group to handle sex abuse accusations going forward.

Southern Baptists vote on sex abuse proposals, debate female pastors

The Justice Department declined to comment.

“While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future. The fact that the SBC Executive Committee recently completed a fully transparent investigation is evidence of this commitment,” the statement read. “We recognize our reform efforts are not finished.”

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.

Lawyers for the SBC Executive Committee said in a Friday night statement that the committee has received a subpoena, but “no individuals have been subpoenaed at this point.”

The statement announcing the Justice Department probe was signed by leaders including SBC seminary heads, the top official at its huge missionary body and newly elected President Bart Barber.

“While so many things in the world are uncertain, we can be certain that we serve a mighty God. Nothing, including this investigation, takes Him by surprise,” the statement said. “We take comfort in that and humbly ask you be in prayer in the days and weeks ahead. Specifically, we ask God to grant wisdom and discernment to each person dealing with the investigation.”

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