Hundreds of Southern Baptist church leaders and workers have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, according to a joint investigation by two newspapers.
The San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that their six-month investigation found about 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and workers who were accused of sexual misconduct since 1998, leaving more than 700 victims. Some were as young as 3 years old while others were adults when they were abused, the newspapers reported.
About 220 offenders – among them pastors, ministers, Sunday school teachers, deacons and church volunteers – have been convicted or have taken plea deals, with dozens of cases still pending. Nearly 100 are still in prison, according to state and federal records. Dozens of others made plea deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders, and some have returned to the pulpit. At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behaviour were still able to find jobs at churches.
Several past presidents and prominent Southern Baptist Convention leaders have been accused by victims of concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their churches or seminaries, the newspapers reported.
In 2008, a victim implored SBC leaders to track sexual predators, act against congregations that harboured or concealed abusers and establish sexual abuse prevention policies such as those adopted by other faiths, including the Roman Catholic Church. But the SBC Executive Committee rejected the proposals.
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The committee’s interim president, August Boto, who drafted that rejection document, expressed “sorrow” on Sunday about the newspapers’ findings.
“It would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600 cases. Sorrow. What we’re talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement (he drafted in 2008) does not mean that we must be resigned to it,” he told the newspapers.
The Rev. J.D. Greear, who was elected as the SBC’s president last June, said the abuses described in the news report “are pure evil.”
“I am broken over what was revealed today,” Greear wrote in a series of posts on Twitter. “The voices in this article should be heard as a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent.”
In recent years, several abuse survivors and their supporters have campaigned on the issue of sexual abuse within the SBC community. Activists remain skeptical as to whether the study committee created last July will recommend sufficiently tough anti-abuse measures.
The committee was formed following a series of revelations about sexual misconduct cases involving SBC churches and seminaries, including allegations that led to the ouster of powerful leader Paige Patterson as president of a seminary in Texas.
“We leaders in the SBC should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this,” Greear tweeted. “I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again.”
He said the SBC must do better in preventing abuse, commit to full co-operation with legal authorities when it does occur, and offer better care to abuse victims. He also the SBC should never again try to skirt responsibility for abuse by asserting that its affiliated churches are autonomous. In late July, the SBC said it would form a high-level study group to develop strategies for combatting sexual abusers and ministering to their victims.
“We cannot just promise to ‘do better’ and expect that to be enough,” Greear wrote. “But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem.”
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