By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
My reactions were heartbreak, appall, grief and sadness at what has happened over the past 20 years, but sexual abuse in the SBC goes back even further than that. I had a voicemail from a lady who is nearly 70 years old who shared how her cousin was abused in a local Baptist church more than 50 years ago. No one responded to his cries for help.
We’re reacting to the report like sexual abuse is a new phenomenon. It is not.
We are appalled – and rightfully so – that children, youth and even adults have endured sexual abuse in what should be the safest of places: our churches. We lament the occurrence of sexual abuse in God’s church. Jesus drove the moneylenders of His day out of the temple. I can only imagine how He would deal with sexual molesters.
And so the events of the past year have given us a report that details the activities of the SBC Executive Committee for the past 20 years. As with any report written by humans, read it with a discerning eye. The fallout has only just begun.
In the wake of the report’s release, numerous Southern Baptist leaders named in the report have issued statements disputing some of the allegations. Many stories on the issue have been published at baptistandreflector.org, and many more probably will be in the days ahead.
One of the prevailing issues in the SATF report was the EC’s lack of response to establishing a database to identify those guilty of sexual abuse.
In response to the SATF report, the EC last week released through Baptist Press the “secret list” the EC had compiled and that was mentioned in the report. In some cases, the amount of information given was “sketchy” at best.
Example: A well-known and respected Alabama pastor, Charles Brown, was falsely cited and identified as an abuser by a Mobile television station, which also included a photo in their report.
There was a Charles Brown on the EC’s list, but it was not the Charles Brown who retired earlier this year as pastor of Government Street Baptist Church in Mobile after nearly 45 years. The station used the wrong photo. The station issued a correction, but it was too little, too late for the 79-year-old minister who had done nothing wrong.
As we should address sexual abuse openly, we should also learn a lesson from what happened in Mobile. Innocent people may have the same name as an abuser. Imagine the impact this may have on a man who faithfully served 45 years and whose reputation is potentially destroyed in a moment.
If we are going to have a database, then we must exercise responsibility with its information. Lack of due diligence and quick assumptions with no verification is irresponsible, and we must guard against that as diligently as we support those who have suffered from sexual abuse.
Also central to the SATF report is autonomy of the local church. We proudly proclaim the autonomy of the local church, and that is an important distinctive/tenet for Southern Baptists.
The Southern Baptist Convention, state conventions or local associations have no authority to “tell” a Baptist church what it can or cannot do.
While I agree that some SBC leaders did not do enough to help victims, the bottom line is that sexual abuse in churches will never end until leaders of local churches decide enough is enough.
Should SBC entities do more regarding sexual abuse? Definitely, but sexual abuse must be stopped where and when it occurs. Church leaders must respond immediately and legally when an allegation of sexual abuse is made. Ignoring the problem in hope that it will go away is not only a sin, it is illegal.
With virtually every state having mandatory reporting laws, every Southern Baptist minister should assume they have a legal responsibility to immediately report a sexual abuse allegation. (Frankly the first step in solving this problem should be to require every minister in every church to understand the mandatory reporting laws for their state.)
The attention is currently and rightfully directed toward the SBC’s EC and its lack of action in supporting those who received no resolution from their local church. However, let’s not overlook the responsibility the local church has to biblically govern itself, and a massive part of that responsibility is to protect people and resolve issues when they arise, not cover them up as happened in the case of many of the victims who sought resolution from the EC.
When the annual meeting of Southern Baptists convenes next week in Anaheim, Calif., hopefully messengers will approve recommendations that will help our churches combat this evil in our world. Hopefully churches will take responsibility to embrace those recommendations and add their own measures to eliminate the possibility of sexual abuse among their local congregations.
After all, responsibility and autonomy go hand-in-hand. B&R