Investigation finds Southern Baptist Convention leaders regularly silenced sexual abuse survivors

The Houston Chronicle has published an article reporting that for over 20 years, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention – including a former president now accused of sexual assault – routinely silenced and trivialized sexual abuse survivors, ignored pleas to enact systems to stop predators, and disregarded reforms that they privately acknowledged could protect children but, in doing so may cost the Southern Baptist Convention money if abuse victims later sued.

These are just a sample of the findings unearthed during a shocking, third-party investigation into decades of alleged misconduct by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. This report comes nearly a year after 15,000 delegates of the SBC church demanded their executive committee turn over confidential documents and communications as part of an independent review of abuse reports that were seemingly mishandled or outright concealed since 2000.

The report, published by an independent firm Guidepost Solutions, conducted over 300 interviews, and reviewed twenty years of internal SBC files during the seven month investigation. Over its nearly 400-pages, the report reveals how under the guise of preventing abuse, a small, isolated, and influential group of church leaders, “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the Southern Baptist Convention to the exclusion of other considerations.”

The conclusion of the report states, “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 (structure) — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

The Guidepost investigation focused on the Southern Baptist Convention’s the highest governing entity with in the organization, the 86-member executive committee. Investigators with Guidepost had unprecedented access to the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership and reviewed thousands of internal documents, including previously confidential communications between SBC lawyers.

The report sheds new and unprecedented light on the outright deceit and backroom politicking within the SBC organization that has impeded attempts at internal reforms and allowed for widespread mistreatment of child sexual abuse victims. It also fully corroborates what many survivors have said for decades: that leaders at Southern Baptist significantly downplayed their own abuse crisis in order to shield the SBC’s hundreds of millions of dollars in annual donations from lawsuits by abuse victims.

According to the investigation, a small group of SBC leaders routinely misled other members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee on abuse issues. These same leaders rarely mentioned the frequent and continuing warnings and pleas for help made by survivors. Fearing lawsuits, SBC leaders similarly failed to inform the church’s 15 million members that pedophiles and sexual predators were targeting churches.

The report reveals that long serving Southern Baptist Convention leaders held a private list of abusive ministers and pastors despite making claims for years that such an idea was impractical for stopping predators and impractical to adopt due to the SBC’s decentralized structure. The roster, which was started in 2007, contained the names of 703 offenders. Most of the names had a connection with the Southern Baptist Convention and a few still work at churches either with the SBC or other denominations.

Johnny Hunt, the former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, is accused of sexually assaulting a woman weeks after his presidential tenure ended in 2010. According to the woman, Hunt manipulated her into silence by saying a disclosure of the incident would harm church. Guidepost corroborated much of the woman’s allegations with four other people. While Hunt denied the allegations, he did resign from the SBC’s North American Mission Board just days before the report was published.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Chronicle, “We’ve been silent for 12 years, and that is what trauma does – it takes your voice.”She said she is still working through trauma from the incident and the ensuing years of mental, emotional and spiritual abuse she said she endured from Hunt and others within the organization.

The report shows that the church’s extensive opposition to reforms was largely driven by three longtime lawyers for the SBC. August “Augie” Boto, who retired in 2019; and two law partners who resigned after decades of service to the Southern Baptist Convention in October, following the launch of the Guidepost’s investigation, James Guenther and James Jordan. For years, under the guidance of these attorneys, anyone who contacted the national office to report a suspected case of sexual abuse at a Southern Baptist church was ignored or informed that the SBC did not have the power to take any action against congregations that concealed abuse.

While governing documents of the SBC allowed for the removal of churches that ordained women or “endorse” homosexuality, leaders within the organization said they had no such oversight when it came to churches led by convicted sex offenders. Findings in Guidepost report illustrate, “Behind the curtain, the lawyers were advising to say nothing and do nothing, even when the callers were identifying predators still in SBC pulpits.”

Leaders insisted they were constrained by the SBC structure, as unlike the Catholic Church, there’s no Pope or bishops in the Southern Baptist Church. There are also no uniform requirements or processes for ordinations or hiring processes. Each SBC church is a singular entity that makes its own decisions. The report also found that when the Southern Baptist Convention received a tip about a possible predator, there was no effort made by leadership to contact authorities or learn if the accused perpetrator was still active within ministry.

Southern Baptist Convention church delegates will meet for their annual meeting in June 2022. During the meeting, delegates will discuss the findings of the report, as well as a slew of recommendations from Guidepost and the SBC Task Force that assisted them. One of the proposals is for the SBC to establish a permanent administrative entity to oversee training and comprehensive sexual-abuse reforms. This administrative division could then create a website where church members could voluntarily submit details and images of sexual offenders as a resource for fellow congregations within the SBC.

Jennifer Lyell, an abuse survivor and former SBC employee, says such reforms won’t be possible if the culture of silence continues to pervade the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptist Press, the SBC’s publishing arm, posted an online article in 2019 that mischaracterized Lyell’s allegations of abuse against a seminary professor. The SBC edited Lyell’s story to read as if she was consensually involved with the professor.

The Guidepost report states, “Ms. Lyell was thereafter subject to vicious attacks, including harsh and hurtful comments on Baptist Press Facebook – she was called a bitter jealous woman and an adulterer, and some suggested she should be fired.”

Baptist Press finally retracted the story and issued an apology after months of pleas by Lyell.

Lyell expressed her experience on social media, “The silence of bystanders and other SBC leaders will keep destroying people if there is not a major (MAJOR) cultural shift.”

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