The SBC Annual Meeting is just a few days away, and sex abuse reform remains central to the SBC and its future. All sides agree abuse is wrong, abusers should be held accountable, and the SBC must do better. Yet, the divide over the future of the SBC is deep, and the sides disagree with fierce conviction.
Enter Trinity Community Church, formerly Trinity Baptist Church, Ashburn, Ga. Trinity has a confessed child sex abuser serving with their worship team. He confessed to me in 2019 he had sexually assaulted 5 boys and could not remember if there were others. Trinity terminated him at the time, only to bring him back last year to serve with their worship team. Trinity is also affiliated with the SBC and the Georgia Baptist Convention through a local Baptist association of SBC churches. Though Trinity has withdrawn from the SBC and GBC, the church remains an active member of this Georgia Baptist association.
Mike Stone recently spoke about Trinity in a campaign podcast, claiming, in my view, his personal efforts led Trinity to terminate this abuser and remain in the SBC. David Pittman, one of the survivors of abuse by this predator, responded a few days later. See his response here. Following David’s response, I responded that Mike had taken credit for something only the survivors deserved credit. See my response here.
This tragic story of sexual abuse and how it has been mishandled did not end in 2019 when Trinity terminated the abuser. It continues to this day, as does Trinity’s affiliation with the local Baptist association in Georgia. Southern Baptists will make monumental decisions at our annual meeting this month, none of which will be more significant than how the SBC handles abuse moving forward. The story about Trinity speaks painfully into this current debate. It offers important insights in the pursuit of preventing abuse, holding abusers and negligent churches and entities accountable, and caring well for survivors. I will share a few thoughts we should consider.
I need to address another matter before sharing those thoughts. Mike objected with exaggerated and sharp language that I did not call him before I responded to his public comments. The fact is, I have called Mike twice previously and exchanged email with him regarding Trinity and the abuser’s termination. He made these public comments about Trinity during a campaign event on a nationally prominent podcast. My comments, then and now, are appropriate.
Friendly Cooperation, a Bridge Not Far Enough
A leader in an SBC state convention recently asked, “How can we do better based on Trinity’s story?” One step would be stronger cooperation with and between SBC entities and the local church involved. The SBC Credentials Committee is necessary, but most questions about whether an SBC church has mishandled sex abuse would benefit from better cooperation between state convention leadership, local association leadership, and the church in question. Before you say, “We are already cooperating this way,” an update to Trinity’s story will be instructive.
After Mike made his campaign comments about Trinity, David and I learned Trinity is still a member of the local Baptist association. I called Trinity’s pastor and revisited the abuser’s written confession to me of sexually assaulting 5 boys, while maintaining he could not remember if several more allegations are true. We also discussed how he and Trinity had mishandled this matter from 2010 to the present day. Trinity’s pastor resigned on Sunday, May 28, 2023.
I also called association leadership. They said they knew little about what had transpired in 2019 with Trinity, and they did not know the abuser had returned to Trinity’s worship team. They indicated the association was not included in conversations with the EC, the Bylaws Workgroup, or the GBC about Trinity where they might have learned necessary details about this tragedy. They added Trinity’s former pastor previously reported to them only that a matter occurred a long time ago and had already been addressed. Association leadership is now reviewing Trinity, and I have informed GBC leadership.
What could have been done differently? The answer is simple, low-cost, and Biblical. It also respects local church autonomy. Every time a state convention or an association learns of an allegation of abuse related to an SBC church affiliated with them, they should request the following entities meet and work together to address those allegations:
State Convention Leadership
State Convention Legal Counsel
Baptist Association Leadership
Local Church Leadership
The case with Trinity demonstrates cooperation with and between these entities is essential. We must no longer assume an SBC church or entity will handle abuse appropriately. “Friendly cooperation” is the foundation for all relationships in the SBC, and everyone will benefit if the SBC makes this process standard operating procedure. Such a process would start only when an allegation becomes known, and serious concern should arise if any SBC church or entity resists friendly cooperation. We cooperate for missions, and we should cooperate to address allegations of abuse.
In-house Reviews Have Lost Credibility
Better cooperation, however, is not enough. In 2006, David began warning GBC churches where the abuser was serving on staff. This first effort resulted in the pastor of that GBC church, the chairman of the deacons, and David informing the GBC. They would again do so when the abuser became the youth minister at Trinity in 2010, and David again did so in 2011 when the abuser became Trinity’s worship leader.
David notified Trinity, the GBC, the SBC Executive Committee, the SBC president’s office, and the SBC Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group. He eventually talked with reporters in a further effort to have the abuser removed from leadership in an SBC church.
I communicated with GBC leadership, the SBC president’s office, the EC interim president and general counsel, and the EC president. I called and exchanged email with Mike Stone, who served at the time as chairman of the EC and a member of the Bylaws Workgroup that conducted the review of Trinity.
Worse yet, this same Bylaws Workgroup declared Trinity had not violated provisions* to affiliate with the SBC and said no further inquiry was necessary. They made this perilous announcement knowing David Pittman and at least six other survivors claimed Trinity’s worship leader sexually assaulted them when they were children. The Bylaws Workgroup also knew Trinity’s pastor declined to say if he knew about the allegations, and they knew email existed showing David warned him several times. Inexplicably, the Bylaws Workgroup told the survivors and Southern Baptists, “We believe no further inquiry is warranted based on that information.” After Trinity terminated the abuser, Mike confessed, “Whether by miscommunication or mistrust, few, if any, have handled this perfectly. Let’s own that, admit it, and come together.”
It is undeniable the SBC, state conventions, associations, and churches are making improvements in how they handle sex abuse. It is also undeniable it has taken decades of exacerbating effort by survivors to see these improvements begin to occur. Trust from those who have engaged SBC entities regarding sex abuse may never be restored. Considering this case of child sex abuse alone, the magnitude of how the SBC mishandled it at all levels should warrant a qualified third-party be part of the sex abuse reporting process for the SBC.
Background Checks and Law Enforcement Provide Limited Help
Every SBC church and entity should conduct background checks on staff and volunteers, especially those who serve with children and students. I believe most now do. Every SBC church and entity should also remember the abuser in this story passed every background check!
Georgia’s strict statute of limitations hinders civil or criminal judgements against most abusers, including this one. It is sobering to realize less than 7% of sexual assaults result in a conviction, and it also needs to be said—contact law enforcement every time you learn of abuse. They will determine how and if they can help.
Category 4 of “Credibly Accused” Must Be Included
Until 2019, this abuser had never made a written confession. He verbally confessed in 2006 to an SBC pastor that he had sexually assaulted David, and he repeated that verbal confession in 2010 to Trinity’s former pastor. Maybe these verbal confessions would have been enough for the abuser to be included on the forthcoming SBC Ministry Check website. But “maybe” is not good enough.
The case of this abuser is one of many test cases that should be used to close the gap as much as is reasonably possible while also providing protections against false accusations. Including an appeal process before any public determination would be a step in the right direction to do both.
Survivors Are the Heroes
You will almost always find one or more survivors who have acted heroically anytime an abuser is exposed. The response to hold an abuser accountable is frequently a response to the efforts first done by a survivor(s). It is certainly the case in this tragedy where every measure of accountability has occurred because of the relentless efforts of David and other survivors. Yet, survivors’ wounds from being ignored, especially when ignored by those who should care most, are sometimes as great as the wounds from their abusers.
On March 2, 2019, the day Trinity terminated the abuser, I emailed David, saying he was right this abuser should have been removed from leadership in an SBC church long before that day. I added, “And because you have not given up, it has finally occurred. You are to be commended for your perseverance.” These words remain true.
*The Bylaws Workgroup used the following proposed constitutional amendment as their guide to determine if Trinity met the qualifications to remain in friendly cooperation with the SBC: “(4) Has not been determined by the Executive Committee to have evidenced indifference in addressing sexual abuse that targets minors or other vulnerable persons and in caring for persons who have suffered because of sexual abuse. Indifference can be evidenced by, among other things, (a) employing a convicted sex offender, (b) allowing a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer in contact with minors, (c) continuing to employ a person who unlawfully concealed from law enforcement information regarding the sexual abuse of any person by an employee or volunteer of the church, or (d) willfully disregarding compliance with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.”
Troy Bush serves as lead pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, Ga. He previously served as an urban church planting strategist and international missionary. He has written about urban ministry, missions, church history, and slavery. He has taught missions and urban ministry at several seminaries.