Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, stonewalled and denigrated survivors of clergy sex abuse over almost two decades while seeking to protect their own reputations, according to a scathing 288-page investigative report issued Sunday.
These survivors, and other concerned southern baptists, repeatedly shared allegations with the SBC’s executive committee, “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some” leaders, said the report.
Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm hired by the SBC’s executive committee under pressure from outsiders at the denomination’s national meeting last year, conducted the seven-month investigation that produced Sunday’s report.
“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior (executive committee) leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the … response to these reports of abuse … and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC,” the report said.
The report added: “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 policy regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
An executive committee staffer maintained a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, but there is no indication anyone “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches,” the report asserted.
In one example cited in the report, August Boto, a longtime SBC leader, decried the allegations in an email and said that they were a “satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism”.
“This whole thing should be seen for what it is,” Boto wrote. “It is a misdirection play.”
Boto added that a survivor and an advocate for the survivor went to the SBC “looking for sexual abuse, and of course, they found it”.
“This is the devil being temporarily successful,” Boto said.
The most recent list of suspected abusers includes the names of hundreds thought to be affiliated at some point with the SBC. Survivors and advocates have long called for a public database of abusers.
The report offers shocking details on how Johnny Hunt, a Georgia-based pastor and past SBC president, sexually abused another pastor’s wife during a beach vacation in 2010.
According to the report, Hunt “slid closer while (the woman) was telling a story of the stress that she and her husband were under at the church”. He asked a series of increasingly personal questions including, “Have you ever done anything like this before?” and whether she was “wild growing up”.
At one point, Hunt approached the woman and “proceeded to pull her shorts down, turn her over and stare at her backside … (and) made sexual remarks about her body and things he had imagined about her”.
The report went on to detail how Hunt pinned the woman to the couch, pulled up her shirt and sexually battered her with his hands and mouth.
In an interview with investigators, Hunt denied any physical contact with the woman but did admit he had interactions with her.
Hunt on 13 May resigned from his post as senior vice-president of evangelism and leadership at the SBC’s domestic missions agency, the North American Missions Board. The board’s president and chief executive, Kevin Ezell, said “he was not aware of any alleged misconduct” by Hunt before that day.
The report details a meeting Hunt arranged a few days after the alleged abuse between him, the woman, her husband and a counseling pastor. Hunt reportedly admitted to touching the victim inappropriately but said, “Thank God I didn’t consummate the relationship.”
According to the report, Guidepost’s investigators said they interviewed survivors of varying ages, including children, and they were all traumatized by the way in which churches responded to their reports of sexual abuse.
Survivors “spoke of trauma from the initial abuse, but also told us of the debilitating effects that come from the response of the churches and institutions like the SBC that did not believe them, ignored them, mistreated them, and failed to help them”, the report said.
SBC president Ed Litton, in a statement Sunday, said he is “grieved to my core” for the abuse survivors endured and thanked God for their work propelling the SBC to this moment. He called on southern baptists to change the denomination’s culture and implement reforms.
“I pray Southern Baptists will begin preparing today to take deliberate action to address these failures and chart a new course,” beginning when the denomination hosts its two-day annual meeting in Anaheim, California, beginning on 14 June.
SBC executive committee leaders Rolland Slade and Willie McLaurin pledged to “take steps to eliminate sexual abuse within the convention” after the report.
“We recognize there are no shortcuts,” they said in a statement.
The executive committee scheduled a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the report.
Last year, thousands of delegates at the national SBC gathering made clear they did not want the executive committee to oversee an investigation of its own actions. Instead they voted overwhelmingly to create the taskforce charged with overseeing the third-party review.
Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, appointed the panel.
The taskforce had a week to review the report before it was publicly released Sunday, along with recommendations to be presented at the Anaheim meeting.
Recommendations include forming an independent commission and later establishing a permanent administrative body to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse allegations within the SBC.
Other suggested measures include installing and maintaining a system to alert and inform the community about known offenders, as well as providing a comprehensive resource toolbox supplying protocols, training and education.
In addition, the report recommended eliminating nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements which bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters, unless requested by the survivor, a step Catholic bishops have adopted amid managing the decades-old clerical abuse crisis in their church.