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Massive Southern Baptist Abuse Scandal

As if anybody needed convincing by now, it’s not just the Catholic Church. The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News blow the roof off of sex abuse within churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. [1] Excerpts:

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

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.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.

• Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms. A few were adults — women and men who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.

The story explains that SBC leaders declined act against sex offenders in local churches because the denomination’s structure grants full autonomy to local congregations. But:

Other leaders have acknowledged that Baptist churches are troubled by predators but that they could not interfere in local church affairs. 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.

Look at this instance:

In Illinois, Leslie Mason returned to the pulpit a few years after he was convicted in 2003 on two counts of criminal sexual assault. Mason had been a rising star in local Southern Baptist circles until the charges were publicized by Michael Leathers, who was then editor of the state’s Baptist newspaper.

Letters from angry readers poured in. Among those upset by Leathers’ decision to publish the story was Glenn Akins, the interim executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

“To have singled Les out in such a sensationalistic manner ignores many others who have done the same thing,” Akins wrote in a memo, a copy of which Leathers provided. “You could have asked nearly any staff member and gotten the names of several other prominent churches where the same sort of sexual misconduct has occurred recently in our state.”

Akins, now the assistant executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, declined an interview request.

Leathers resigned after state Baptist convention leaders told him he might be fired and lose his severance pay, he said. Mason, meanwhile, admitted to investigators that he had relationships with four different girls, records show.

Mason received a seven-year prison sentence under a plea deal in which investigators dropped all but two of his charges. After his release, he returned to the pulpit of a different SBC church a few miles away.

“That just appalled me,” Leathers said. “They had to have known they put a convicted sex offender behind the pulpit. … If a church calls a woman to pastor their church, there are a lot of Southern Baptist organizations that, sadly, would disassociate with them immediately. Why wouldn’t they do the same for convicted sex offenders?”

The story quotes Southern Baptist leader Wade Burleson saying that in the past, when he brought up to denominational leadership the urgent need to do something to police their own ranks better, they always found reasons not to do it. Burleson says they cited rules of the church’s polity, and other things — but he sensed there was something else going on. The legendary Catholic victim’s advocate Father Tom Doyle says he has seen this before:

Doyle, the Catholic whistleblower, was similarly suspicious, if more blunt: “I understand the fear, because it’s going to make the leadership look bad,” he said. “Well, they are bad, and they should look bad. Because they have ignored this issue. They have demonized the victims.”

Read the whole thing.  [1] There is so much more. It is all crushingly familiar to anyone who knows anything about the Catholic scandal. To borrow a line from Solzhenitsyn, the line between pastors and sex abusers does not run between denominations, but right down the middle of each and every one. There is no place to hide from sin, including the sins of covering up and suppressing evil for the sake of protecting those in power.

Let us Christians sincerely thank God for journalism like what the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News have done here. The series continues on Monday.

UPDATE: Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore offers a powerful response. [2]Excerpts:

So how should Christians think about this latest revelation?

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.

More:

Moreover, church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability. Yes, in a Baptist ecclesiology each congregation governs its own affairs, and is not accountable to anyone “higher up” in a church system. And yet, the decisions a church makes autonomously determine whether that church is in good fellowship with others. A church that excuses, say, sexual immorality or that opposes missions is deemed out of fellowship with other churches. The same must be true of churches that cover up rape or sexual abuse.

Read it all. [2]

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107 Comments To "Massive Southern Baptist Abuse Scandal"

#1 Comment By Theresa On February 12, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

Dukeboy01: “It averages out to SBC sex crimes of 19 a year. How many Catholic clergy were even reported to law enforcement, much less charged or convicted? I suspect that the SBC will be found to have a much better track record than the Catholics when it comes to involving the authorities.”

You’re making a lot of assumptions, not the least of which is that the SBC leaders were the ones who reported the allegations to law enforcement. If you actually read the article, it makes it pretty clear that the SBC leaders rejected nearly every reform proposed by Vasquez, who, “by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.”

Which leads to your second wrong assumption: that Catholic bishops don’t report allegations to law enforcement. In fact, despite what the MSM attempts to cover up, the problem in the Catholic Church is largely an historical one. That is, according to both the John Jay study and the PA grand jury report, the overwhelming majority of alleged abuse in the Catholic Church peaked in the 1960s-1980s – but was not reported to the dioceses until after 2002! Bishops couldn’t report alleged abusers to law enforcement WHEN THE ABUSE WAS ALLEGED TO HAVE OCCURRED if they didn’t even know about it until decades later.

And according to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children, ALL allegations are reported to law enforcement, even when the alleged offender is long dead or no longer in ministry. Allegations are still coming in alleging abuse from decades ago, and those are reported as soon as they are received.

In fact, about 74% of all allegations made in the last 20 years are for those peak years. As for CURRENT allegations (of current abuse), there have been an average of 7 over the last 5 years.

In 2015, there were 4.

4 too many, but hardly the hotbed of “pedophiles” the MSM
wants people to believe are lurking around every corner in the
Catholic Church, but the stats (which are published every year
by the bishops), simply don’t support this.

Here’s the 2016 report from the bishops:

[3]

And here’s a breakdown of the CURRENT problem in the Catholic Church:

[4]

#2 Comment By Theresa On February 12, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

RR: “But 380 abusers in a denomination of 15 million is not massive or systematic. By way of comparison, and with the caveat that the time frames aren’t exactly the same, the number of priests who were abusers that the “Boston Globe” reported on the Boston archdiocese was over 300. The Pennsylvania grand jury report also listed over 300 priests who were abusers in Pennsylvania. The number of Catholics in Boston and Pennsylvania together are around 5 million, or one-third of the SBC. If the numbers in Boston and Pennsylvania are representative of the Catholic Church nationwide, abuse problems were simply more systematic in the Catholic Church than it is in the SBC.”

When one is making comparisons, it’s generally thought a good idea to compare apples to apples. Your apples to eggs comparison simply doesn’t fly.

The 380 SB abusers were over a 20 year period – and those were actual convictions so they fell under the statute of limitations.

Of the 300 priests in Boston and PA, these were ALLEGATIONS (ie, not actual convictions) of abuse spanning over 70 years. To put that in perspective, of the 300 in PA, only TWO were current enough to be charged.

I’m sure you will try to say that those priests couldn’t be convicted because the Catholic Church “covered up” the allegations, but as even the PA grand jury report shows (if one bothers to read it), well over 80% of those allegations claiming abuse in the 1940’s through the 1980’s did not come forward until AFTER 2002 (with some in the 1990’s) – long after the statute of limitations had expired. So they couldn’t be prosecuted.

So, to compare apples to apples, you need to add in all the allegations of abuse against SB personnel going back 70 years, (which you will never be able to do). Then take the
number of Catholic priests who have actually been convicted in a court of law because the alleged abuse and the allegations against them fell within the SOL.

But even that’s not going to cut it, really, when you’re comparing a nationwide phenomenon in the SB Church with local areas of the Catholic Church. You might think that by broadening the scope on the Catholic Church to national, it’s going to show even more convictions, but that is highly doubtful since the vast majority of Catholic dioceses simply haven’t had the same experience as the massive dioceses we hear so much about – LA, Boston, NY, Milwaukee, etc. in fact, adding in all the smaller dioceses that have never had a priest convicted is likely to lower the average considerably.

In any case, such comparisons are missing the point: sexual abuse is ubiquitous in ALL institutions, public and private, where adults interact with minors and/or vulnerable adults. That should be our concern, not “who” has the greater problem.

#3 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On February 12, 2019 @ 2:57 pm

It’s a rare occasion, I agree with Ryan Booth at February 12, 2019 at 12:06 pm.

I think the number of reports will increase significantly in coming months, with some stories as equally horrifying as stories of priestly abuse in the Catholic Church. I expect overall per capita rates of abuse to be similar. Yet, already it is obvious just how many SBC cases had police involvement (a few hundred documented so far). While this is awful it is not really a cover-up**, which is what has truly compounded the Catholic scandal for all these years.

I’m still curious about whether there are liability issues involving a database that tracks anything besides convictions. If I was an innocent person that ended up in that database due to a supposedly credible accusation, I would sue the SBC into oblivion. Now, maybe tracking convictions is enough? Anyway, a database seems easier said than done.

Non-SBC people really struggle appreciating the lack of hierarchy and degree of autonomy. While this is not technically accurate, it is closer to the truth to say that the convention works for the churches than that the churches report to the convention. Again, not technically accurate, but a closer picture of the situation for someone unfamiliar with the SBC. We do not work for or answer to the suits playing politics at the convention every year. This makes the database question and centralized handling of the problem truly challenging for them. Not to mention, centralized solutions often result in suppressing the truth further.

I fully support the reporting, and hope they help identify patterns.

*I do expect some small scale cover-ups to emerge, typically in mega church settings or other ministries with lots of money at stake.

#4 Comment By Theresa On February 12, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

Isidore: “Yet, already it is obvious just how many SBC cases had police involvement (a few hundred documented so far). While this is awful it is not really a cover-up**, which is what has truly compounded the Catholic scandal for all these years.”

It’s “not really a cover-up” only if you assume that it was the SB leadership, and not the victims themselves, that reported these to law enforcement. As I stated in a previous post, though the article doesn’t specify exactly who reported these allegations, my impression is that the SB leadership has rejected pleas from victims to implement reforms that have been “adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.” Since at least 2002 (some dioceses earlier), Catholic dioceses report all allegations to law enforcement, regardless of whether the alleged abuse occurred in 1945 or 2015.

So it would seem that it was the victims themselves, and not the SB leadership, who have been doing the reporting.

Isidore: “I’m still curious about whether there are liability issues involving a database that tracks anything besides convictions. If I was an innocent person that ended up in that database due to a supposedly credible accusation, I would sue the SBC into oblivion. Now, maybe tracking convictions is enough?“

This is a concern, and one that explains why some Catholic bishops (though not all) didn’t always report allegations they became aware of prior to 2002. Legally, you can’t publicly label someone a child molester when he/she has never even had the benefit of due process. It’s a sad reality that most victims don’t report their abuse until many years later – often, long after the statute of limitations has run out. How could the Catholic Church publicize the names of accused priests who could not even be given their due process because of the SOLs?

The statutes of limitations were a problem both in the Catholic
Church’s Canon law and in State’s civil law. Though the Pope fixed that problem in canon law (in 2001) by removing the SOLs, it still remains that prior to 2001, the vast majority of those accused could not be prosecuted, or convicted, and thus their names could not be publicized.

It seems that, today, Catholic Priests especially have no right to due process – if they are merely accused, the Media and even law enforcement demand their names be published. That’s why about 24 accused priests named in the PA grand jury report had their names redacted – and the PA Supreme Court agreed with them. (The vast majority of priests named in that grand jury report are dead, and can’t defend themselves).

“”We acknowledge that this outcome may be unsatisfying to the public and to the victims of the abuse detailed in the report,” Todd said. “While we understand and empathize with these perspectives, constitutional rights are of the highest order, and even alleged sexual abusers, or those abetting them, are guaranteed by our commonwealth’s Constitution the right of due process.”

As you have well attested, a conviction is one thing. An allegation – where the accused has not even been given their right to due process – is quite another. We need to remember that in our country, their is still a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, in a court of law.

#5 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On February 13, 2019 @ 10:50 am

“It’s “not really a cover-up” only if you assume that it was the SB leadership, and not the victims themselves, that reported these to law enforcement.”

I agree that most reports to police were filed by victims (this is true across all crime). And, within individual churches, you will likely find a range of responses from horribly handled to handled as well as could be expected under the circumstances of an awful crime. Probably more of the former, sure.

My hypothesis about the lack of a massive cover-up comes from a different angle. No massive cover-up will be discovered for the simple reason that there is no hierarchy that existed to cover something up of this scale. I’m not saying SBC leaders were more virtuous than Catholic leaders. I’m only saying that the very different organizational reporting structure (silo’d and horizontal) will produce a very different pattern of results: hundreds or thousands of individual cases.

A cover up implies a coordinated conspiracy to suppress the truth about crimes you know were committed by people under your authority. That structure simply doesn’t exist in the SBC. I suspect that most SBC leaders have never heard of most of the pastors or even churches in the Chronicle database. I would be willing to bet money on it.

People have made the valid point that even most SBC members have never heard of the Russell Moore types of the SBC. The reverse is also true: Russell Moore types have likely never heard of the vast majority of SBC churches.

#6 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On February 13, 2019 @ 11:09 am

Also, the thrust of the story so far is that if the SBC hierarchy (that doesn’t exist) would have done more, they likely could have prevented at least some of this abuse, even though they have ZERO power to remove a single pastor from the pulpit (at most they can disassociate with a church).

Why do we think this is true? If a hierarchy had existed, there is at least a 50/50 chance (probably higher) they would have used their organizational structure and power to suppress the truth. My assumption is that so many police records exist precisely because there was no powerful institution to run interference against victims. After all, isn’t this what we have seen in the Catholic Church and corporations, where formal hierarchies exist? “How about we give you money in exchange for a non-disclosure,” seems to be the normal course of action by hierarchies, both religious and secular. I simply do not believe that SBC leaders would have been immune to that temptation.

We are both holding SBC leaders responsible for not exercising power they don’t have and assigning them virtue I doubt they possess.

Instead, it would be more insightful to take the nature of the scandals at face value and study how very different organizational structures resulted in sin being exhibited and responded to in different ways.

I suspect the Catholic scandal is heavily homosexual whereas the SBC scandal will be heavily heterosexual. I suspect the resulting aftermath in SBC churches where scandal occurred will be more varied than in the more uniform aftermath in Catholic parishes. I suspect there will be a dozen key parrallels and differences. Studying them would be worthwhile.

I also suspect the patterns in schools will more closely resemble the patterns discovered in the SBC.

These things are worth knowing.

#7 Comment By Jhon On February 13, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

It’s a global problem, from government officials, magistrates, District attorneys, police officers, people in the military, teachers, priests, pastors, you name it. Sexual deviance that ultimately translate into crimes are a big problem that goes beyond SBC or the Catholic church. Many people, maybe millions need treatment from mental health professionals, but they live their daily lives without even recognizing that they have a problem, until an offense happens. They come from all walk of life and are part of any organization. Most people think that just jail, labeling, stigmatizing, and procrastinating people will solve the problem. But we need more than that. I think that as a society we are afraid to have an honest discussion on how to help those with sexual-deviant problems to come forward and get help. While victims must be our first priority and everybody is outraged with all this, a solution is far from happening if those who need treatment don’t get it, preferably before committing a crime. There are predators and even people who need to be confined due to his mental state, but not all sexual offenders and offenses are the same and they shouldn’t be treated equally. Treatment and counseling work in most cases, but only mental health professionals can evaluate and conclude when someone is ready. My heart cries for the victims, but I also believe that many who repent, undergo treatment an pay their debt to society and the victims must be offered a second chance.