Southern Baptist leaders react swiftly to ‘devastating’ news
Editor’s Note: The Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force released the results of an independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions on Sunday, May 22, at 3 p.m. CST. The following story contains a synopsis of the results of the nearly 300-page report which can be read in its entirety at sataskforce.net.
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Southern Baptists are still digesting the enormity of an independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions on behalf of the Sexual Abuse Task Force that investigated how the Southern Baptist Executive Committee handled sexual abuse cases within a 21-year time frame from 2000 to mid-2021.
The task force and resulting investigation were authorized by messengers to the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville after a recommendation made by Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines of Murfreesboro and North Carolina pastor Ronnie Parrott.
As stated in an introduction on the task force’s website:
“We grieve for what has been revealed in this report. We lament on behalf of survivors for how they have not been protected and cared for as they deserve and as God demands. With broken hearts, we want to lead the way by publicly repenting for what has happened in our convention. We implore our Southern Baptist family to respond to this report with deep repentance and a commitment to the ongoing moral demands of the gospel as it relates to sexual abuse. We must resolve to give of our time and resources to not only care well for survivors of sexual abuse, but to provide a culture of accountability, transparency and safety as we move forward. We acknowledge that any act of repentance requires ongoing, deliberate, dedicated obedience and sacrifice. This is the calling of our Savior to unite as a body in following Him.
“As we are brought face to face with the sin that has been done, especially in the name of Christ and in our own community, we can be tempted to want to minimize what has happened or to look only at the most obvious wrong actors. We must resist the temptation to minimize, to look away, to find the easy “scapegoats” for what was uncovered in this report, and instead ask “What could we have done better?” and “What should we do now?” As a Convention, we did not hold our own leaders accountable, and we did not listen to the warnings. Leaders had access to expertise but chose not to seek assistance, and in some cases, rejected any assistance that was offered.”
The report revealed that “for almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) Executive Committee (“EC”) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff. They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent e-mails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies and contacted the press … only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC.”
In its executive summary of the report, Guidepost Solutions noted their investigation revealed that “for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations. In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
The report revealed names of several prominent Southern Baptists either accused of sexual abuse or who were involved in covering it up. One of those accused in the report was former SBC president Johnny Hunt who has denied the allegations. Hunt, who has been serving as the North American Mission Board’s senior vice president of evangelism and leadership, resigned his position May 13, the week prior to the report’s release.
The report includes a comprehensive list of proposed recommendations intended to provide a pathway for the SBC to improve its response to sexual abuse and misconduct allegations in the future. The recommendations set out voluntary minimum standards that churches, local associations, state conventions and all SBC entities can implement for the prevention, recognition and the appropriate handling of sexual abuse and related misconduct allegations.
The recommendations address systemic and cultural issues from bottom to top, taking into consideration polity, autonomy and the reality that this issue needs to be resolved through a willing and voluntary cooperation. Some recommendations will require a significant amount of work, while other elements recognize the need for education and cultural change. A comprehensive implementation of these recommendations should help to create safe spaces for children and all members of the Convention. See page 6 for key recommendations.
Baptist leaders have responded swiftly to the report.
“I am still trying to digest the information disclosed in the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force report,” said Randy C. Davis, TBMB president and executive director. “It’s overwhelming, and like everyone, I am devastated by the findings and could not be more grieved for abuse victims, for the Southern Baptist Convention and for the repute we may have brought to the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I believe we have some serious and difficult decisions ahead of us as a people. Many of those decisions are going to hurt, but I don’t see any way forward unless we address what’s been disclosed. I am still trying to process the recommendations, but those need to be looked at closely for how we can ensure that every Southern Baptist church is a safe place for every woman, man, girl and boy to come and focus on worshipping the Lord.”
Davis said the SBC report “affirms the action taken last November by Bruce Chesser, our recent outgoing TBC president, to appoint a task force independent of TBMB staff and reporting to current TBC president Clay Hallmark to study where we are with this in Tennessee (See the Tennessee task force report in this issue as well) and to develop resources for our churches. I’m thankful that TBMB staff began addressing many of these issues more than 20 years ago and continue with training and resources to help churches protect children and others.”
Willie McLaurin, interim president/CEO of the SBC Executive Committee and Roland Slade, chairman of the Executive Committee released the following statement after the report went public.
“This afternoon we received — and are reviewing — the report from the Sexual Abuse Task Force.
“To the members of the survivor community, we are grieved by the findings of this investigation. We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks and to respond to the will of the messengers in Anaheim next month.”
“This important report reflects months of thoughtful, careful, and diligent work by chairman Bruce Frank, task force members and Guidepost Solutions. We sincerely express our heartfelt appreciation for their diligent and thorough work.”
Slade and McLaurin observed that the report “is the beginning of a season of listening, lamenting and learning how to address sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The report contains recommendations to guide in how to appropriately respond to:
• Allegations of abuse.
• Mishandling of abuse.
• Mistreatment of victims.
• Patterns of intimidation of victims or advocates.
• Resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.
“God has blessed the Sexual Abuse Task Force and Guidepost with His wisdom in developing this report and offering insight into how we all can take steps to eliminate sexual abuse within the Convention. In striving for this goal, we recognize there are no shortcuts. We must all meet this challenge through prudent and prayerful application, and we must do so with Christ-like compassion,” the two men stated.
The SBC Executive Committee called a special meeting on May 24 to discuss and process the report and “to closely examine the findings and recommendations of this report and begin formulating how they might be incorporated into Southern Baptist Convention polity and structure.”
Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, released the following statement after the report which brought the allegations against Hunt.
“The work of the Task Force is important for our convention and for the healing of survivors. The details in the report, which we are just now beginning to process, are egregious and deeply disturbing. We honor the courage of the survivors who came forward. We are praying for survivors and their families, for our churches, for wisdom, for discernment and for the humility to use this report for God’s glory.”
Regarding Hunt’s resignation in advance of the report, Ezell said, “Out of respect for the investigation of the SBC Executive Committee, we chose not to speak publicly about this resignation until after the Task Force report was released. Prior to May 13, I was not aware of any alleged misconduct on the part of Johnny Hunt. I learned the details of the report today along with the rest of our Southern Baptist family.”
The SBC Credentials Committee also released a statement. “We receive this report with open minds and heavy hearts. We grieve for those impacted by abuse, and we are prepared to repent for anything the Credentials Committee inadvertently failed to do to alleviate the suffering of survivors. We are committed to listening and learning from this extensive report and its recommendations. We look forward to implementing recommendations and strengthening the Credentials Committee’s work.”
Guidepost did extensive research, interviewing about 330 people and collecting five terabytes of data from all sources that were uploaded to a secure e-discovery platform for document storage and review, according to the published report. B&R — This article includes reporting from The Baptist Paper and Chris Turner of the TBMB staff.
SBC TASK FORCE: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
• Upon completion of the SATF duties, first form an Independent Commission and later establish a permanent Administrative Entity to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct within the SBC;
• Create and maintain an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders. Make the OIS available to churches on a voluntary basis;
• Provide a comprehensive Resource Toolbox including protocols, training, education and practical information;
• Create a voluntary self-certification program for churches, local associations, state conventions and entities based on implementation of “best practices” to bring awareness to, and enhance prevention of, sexual abuse;
• Improve governance controls, including the use of enhanced background checks, Letters of Good Standing and Codes of Conduct to voluntarily strengthen hiring standards and improve governance;
• Restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements which bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters, unless requested by the survivor;
• Adopt a “Declaration of Principles” setting out fundamental standards regarding how sexual abuse allegations will be handled at every level of the SBC, and how those who report will be treated going forward. These Principles may provide a model for SBC entities, state conventions, local associations, and local churches to adopt and follow; and
• Acknowledge those who have been affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, through both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritize the provision of compassionate care to survivors through providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.
With respect to our Credentials Committee Audit, we propose the following key recommendations to ensure that the Credentials Committee effectively and transparently handles submissions relating to sexual abuse:
• Formalize and improve the CC’s processes and procedures, adopt standards for CC determinations and establish standard process timelines in order to provide timely and transparent decisions;
• Empower the CC to better communicate with survivors and churches by providing trauma and sexual abuse training for CC members, and hiring a trauma-informed Survivor Care Support Specialist to provide care and open communication to submitters/survivors;
• Improve the online Reporting Portal to be survivor-care focused and assess the technology applications to improve CC functionality, auditability and response;
• If necessary, allow the CC the ability to engage and consult with experts on an extensive inquiry for a submission. B&R