Next week, during the Executive Committee report, Southern Baptists will have the second opportunity to vote to amend our constitution and address the issue of sexual abuse. The constitutional amendment we will voting is worded to provide accountability for churches to respond well to sexual abuse. Thus far, however, the newly founded credentials committee has proved to be ineffective in responding to reports of mishandling of abuse. So to survivors, what it looks like is a big fat nothing. And they’re not wrong. There is no database, not yet any real accountability, and known abusers continue to serve in SBC churches. We appear to care about our reputation and the appearance of activity rather than actually caring for survivors. Our efforts seem to SBC survivors to be “more of an institutional image-repair tactic than an earnest effort to hold clergy abusers and enablers accountable.”
So while this amendment is a needed first step, it is not a box to check off as if this solves all our problems. Nor is it the end of what needs to happen if we are going to faithfully address this issue.
Survivors and survivor advocates have been calling for a more comprehensive look into sexual abuse in the SBC and making systemic changes to support victims of abuse, make disclosure of abuse safe for survivors, and respond to abuse allegations in ways that protect victims and hold abusers accountable.
Racheal Denhollander, in an interview at the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference, called on Southern Baptists to make systemic changes so we stop the constant stream of trampling victims who disclose their abuse. She shared her perceptions of the problems in the SBC and our responsibility as messengers to address them.
“It is up to you as members of the SBC to surround these survivors with care, to make sure that the truth is told, to understand what abuse looks like, … to hold your leaders accountable to not trample on these survivors”
Earlier in the conference, Boz Tchividjian very pointedly reminded us how the SBC response looked to survivors, the ironic hypocrisy of finally taking some action but not until a newspaper did a big exposé on our dismal response to abuse. “It is not the abused and the wounded within our churches that are in the most need of healing, it is the church… your system is broken. The system of this denomination is broken.” He continued, “The good ol’ boy system, that often places a greater value on public and private relationships, book sales, and conference invitations than confronting evil and advocating for the abused, that’s got to be done with.”
He then called for an SBC Commission on Responses to Sexual Abuse that would provide a “safe and confidential process to listen and learn from any survivor that has been abused in this denomination.”
Recently in RNS, Christa Brown similarly called for an investigatory commission noting that the SBC response has been less than stellar.
“Faced with such devastating findings, you might imagine a responsible institution would do everything in its power to try to ascertain the scope of the problem, effectively address it and reach out to other survivors. But that hasn’t happened; the SBC’s response has been anemic.”
Christa has consistently called for a “Truth and Justice Commission” to hear testimony from victims and witnesses “to comprehensively investigate sexual abuse, indifferent responses, and institutional enablement in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Thus far, the SBC has ignored these calls for more robust research and action.
One word we have heard consistently about why we can’t do more (like have a database or do a comprehensive study) is autonomy. Autonomy is important and is part of our polity and theology. But autonomy cannot be the default excuse for not being proactive in addressing abuse. Autonomy cannot be an excuse for not gathering the information we need. Nothing about autonomy prohibits us from following best practices standards in our institutions and promoting those standards among our churches.
After the Houston Chronicle’s “Abuse of Faith” series disclosed the serious problem of abuse and response to abuse in the SBC, Southern Baptists did take some initial steps. The Caring Well task force produced a good resource to begin to understand abuse, best practices in how we can prevent and respond to abuse, and minister well to survivors. In the urgency of the moment, they produced material giving basic training in our response to sexual abuse. The material is excellent and I commend it to churches to lead in their churches and as part of their ongoing effort to make their churches safe.
What we have not done, however, is address the specific patterns of abuse or responses to abuse allegations that take place in our churches. And we need that information if we are going to address abuse in any meaningful way.
Again, we have been told an “investigation” of church/clergy abuse would violate our polity as Baptists. Because each local church is autonomous, the SBC cannot compel churches to participate in an investigation. That is correct. But why does the conversation have to end there? The broad-spectrum data we need can be gathered in ways that don’t violate our policy. Research can be done with survivors, witnesses, and churches who voluntarily participate. No compelling. No “investigation”. Strictly voluntary participation.
Of course, this would not produce an exhaustive account of all that has happened, but it would give survivors and witnesses a safe and confidential place to tell about their experience of abuse and disclosure. It would help us learn from those survivors, and provide us the kind of real data we need to assess and analyze abuse in our denomination. It would provide a more clear picture of what is taking place in the SBC. And we need that data and analysis because If the SBC is going to be able to enact meaningful change, it’s critical to have better information to inform those changes.
For this reason, I’ll be making a motion “to hire an outside organization to oversee an audit and assessment of sexual abuse within the SBC.” To provide a trusted and confidential way for victims, witnesses, and churches to voluntarily share their experiences of abuse and disclosure so we can learn from them and make the necessary changes. I believe this is a reasonable and necessary next step, one that fits within our polity and the principle of autonomy, and answers the call of survivors and advocates. We have much to learn from SBC survivors and we must take this next step.
All SBC messengers should be able to unite around such a zealous pursuit of the truth, and a love for the vulnerable and wounded. For we who claim the name of Christ and preach the gospel of good news, pursuing the truth and love of others is a core part of who we are or should be.