The executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in America, said Tuesday that they will release a secret internal database that identifies hundreds of church officials who are known or accused sexual abusers.
The decision was reached during a virtual meeting that was called in response to an explosive investigative report released Sunday. The 288-page report followed a seven-month investigation that revealed widespread cover-ups and mishandling of sexual abuse allegations by top church members.
The report also detailed how former SBC vice-president August Boto and former SBC spokesman Roger Oldham kept their own private list of of abusive pastors. According to the report, the list contains 703 names of church abusers. Both Boto and Oldham retired in 2019.
“Despite collecting these reports for more than 10 years, there is no indication that (Oldham and Boto) or anyone else, took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches,” the report said.
It’s not clear how many SBC committee members knew about the internal list, but the report detailed that some “were aware of the existence of Southern Baptist-related sexual abuse allegations for many years.”
The database will be released on Thursday, but the names of survivors and witnesses will be removed from reports. The names of alleged sexual predators who have uncorroborated accusations against them will also be removed.
“It’s our commitment and intent to review the unsubstantiated allegations, and if more can be substantiated, we will release those as well,” said Gene Besen, the committee’s interim counsel.
SBC executive committee interim president and CEO Willie McLaurin issued a formal apology to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of SBC pastors. There are over 47,000 churches in the SBC.
“We are sorry to the survivors for all we have done to cause pain and frustration,” he said. “Now is the time to change the culture. We have to be proactive in our openness and transparency from now.”
During the virtual meeting, committee members and leading church officials vowed to change the culture within the Southern Baptist denomination that led to the suppression of survivors’ stories of abuse.
The committee also released a statement on Tuesday denouncing some of Boto’s words, in a rare move to admonish one of their own.
In 2006, Boto wrote in a letter to a woman who survived sexual assault from a youth pastor when she was a child that, “continued discourse between us (the Executive Committee and survivors’ advocates) will not be positive or fruitful.”
The committee’s statement read that it “rejects the sentiment (of Boto’s words) in its entirety and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors.”
Besen said the committee’s leaders will also look into revoking retirement benefits for Boto and others who were featured in the report, which was compiled by Guidepost Solutions, an independent investigations firm that works with religious organizations.
The investigation was prompted by a rising number of accusations against church officials across the U.S. in recent years.
Following the release of the report, the committee has been fielding numerous other stories of sexual abuse as more survivors come forward. Besen said that Guidepost as been asked to establish a hotline so that survivors “are directed to the proper place and receive the proper care.”
The hotline number will be publicized as soon as it is up.
The Sexual Abuse Task Force, appointed at the demand of SBC delegates during last year’s meeting in Nashville, expects to make its formal motions based on the Guidepost report public next week. Those recommendations will then be presented to the delegates for a vote during this year’s national meeting scheduled for June 14-15 in Anaheim, Calif., according to Pastor Bruce Frank, who led the task force.
Frank, lead pastor of Biltmore Baptist Church in Arden, N.C., said the crux of the task force’s recommendations based on Guidepost’s report would be to prevent sexual abuse, to better care for survivors when such abuse does occur and to make sure abusers are not allowed to continue in ministry.
Survivors and advocates have long called for a public database of abusers. The creation of an “Offender Information System” was one of the key recommendations in the report by Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm contracted by the SBC’s Executive Committee after delegates to last year’s national meeting pressed for an investigation by outsiders.
The proposed database is expected to be one of several recommendations that resulted from Guidepost’s seven-month investigation presented to thousands of delegates attending this year’s national meeting.
Lawyer and writer Christa Brown, who says she was sexually abused as a teen by the youth minister at her SBC church, has been pressing the SBC since 2006 to create a publicly accessible database of known abusers. She was heartened by Tuesday’s announcement that the secret list would be made public.
“I hope that will happen in the very near future. I’ll be watching and waiting,” she told The Associated Press.
“It boggles my mind to try to imagine how they could have rationalized keeping this list secret for so many years — since 2007. It suggests a level of moral bankruptcy that I find incomprehensible.”
— With files from The Associated Press