The Houston Chronicle is running a multi-part expose on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s a massive scandal.
It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.
They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.
About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.
Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a kind of umbrella organization for the diverse churches that consider themselves to be part of the Southern Baptist tradition. The Southern Baptists, you might recall, are a vestige of the antebellum South, the part of the national Baptist convention that broke away in 1845 in support of slavery. Evangelicals in the northern states were leaders of the abolition movement. Today the Southern Baptists are the second largest denomination in the U.S., after the Roman Catholics, who have their own problems.
The Southern Baptists have a very loose administrative structure that gives local congregations a huge amount of autonomy. This is the excuse they are using for ignoring reports of abuse.
At the core of Southern Baptist doctrine is local church autonomy, the idea that each church is independent and self-governing. It’s one of the main reasons that Boto [August “Augie” Boto, interim president of the SBC’s Executive Committee] said most of the proposals a decade ago were viewed as flawed by the executive committee because the committee doesn’t have the authority to force churches to report sexual abuse to a central registry.
Because of that, Boto said, the committee “realized that lifting up a model that could not be enforced was an exercise in futility,” and so instead drafted a report that “accepted the existence of the problem rather than attempting to define its magnitude.”…
… Even so, the SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.
Yeah, funny how that works.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, had some words for his fellow Southern Baptists.
The first is to see with clear eyes what is before us. Some have ridiculed this concern as being some irrational sweep into a secular #MeToo moment, implying that the problem is “political correctness” over an issue that is no real problem within church life. Others have suggested that the church should not concern itself with questions of “justice” and that preaching the gospel itself will resolve matters of injustice. Others have implied that the horrific scandals we have seen in the Roman Catholic church are due to the theology of Catholicism, the nature of a celibate priesthood and so forth. All of these are not only wrongheaded responses, but are deadly dangerous both to the lives of present and future survivors of these horrors and to the witness of the church itself.
All rape and sexual exploitation is evil and unjust. Sexual abuse is not only sin but also a crime. All of it should be prosecuted in the civil arena, and all of it will be brought before the tribunal of the Judgment Seat of Christ. But nothing is worse than the use of the name of Jesus to prey on the vulnerable, or to use the name of Jesus to cover up such crimes. The issue of predators in the church is not a secondary issue, on which churches should brush up merely because of the cultural moment. This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning. The church is a flock, he told us, vulnerable to prey.
People often grumble about the evils of organized religion, but unorganized religion is just as bad. Some of the worst religion horror stories I know of were perpetrated by people unaffiliated with any organized religion.
But what we see from the Southern Baptists is the pure reflection of their values. Keeping women out of leadership positions is an important value. Opposing homosexuality is an important value. Protecting women and children from sexual predators is not an important value.
And notice I’ve gotten this far into this post without mentioning evangelical support for Donald Trump.
We are living in a time in of small-r revelations. Long-festering sexual abuse going on in many organizations, and not just Christian ones, are among those revelations. This sort of thing seems to go on everywhere that men are given exclusive, unquestioned authority. And when the predation begins to come to light, the organization first denies it, then covers it up rather than address it. But it seems the patriarchy is finally weak enough that the revelations are breaking through.
I see the messiness going on in Virginia in a similar light. The truth is that, probably, there are very few white southern politicians of either party who didn’t participate in some sort of racist expression in their wayward youth; there just isn’t always a photographic record of it. And I’m not making excuses for Ralph Northam, who ought to resign. White culture has winked at racist expression for way too long. And for too long, white liberal politicians have paid lip service to ending racial injustice without lifting a finger to dismantle the white power structure that perpetrates it. Karma will not be denied, however.
What’s next, I wonder?