At its annual meeting in 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention commissioned a report on sexual abuse within the denomination, to be released before the 2022 annual meeting, which begins June 14. The purpose of the report is to document and investigate how the SBC has handled allegations of sexual abuse in the past and give recommendations on how to improve its handling of them going forward.

The report was released on Sunday, and after investigators gathered five terabytes of electronic documents and conducted 330 interviews, the picture is disturbing. The report says the denomination was keeping an internal list of 703 sexual abusers in ministry, 409 of whom were believed to have been affiliated with the SBC at some point. Nearly all of them have left ministry altogether, but the report says that it appears that nine of them remain in ministry today, and two remain in ministry at SBC-affiliated churches. The report says the leaders who kept the list did so to shield the SBC from legal liability, and that “there is no indication” that they “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”

There are two ways to put those numbers in perspective. On the one hand, there are about 47,000 SBC-affiliated churches, which claim about 14 million members. But on the other hand, there is one God, and He detests sexual abuse within His church. Churches must be safe places for children and adults, especially for abuse victims. This report contains important information and recommendations to improve the culture surrounding sexual-abuse allegations in the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

The report is valuable for a few reasons. First, it’s valuable as a chronological history of the SBC’s actions related to sexual abuse. The report includes a section that goes year by year, recounting specific instances when sexual abuse came to the fore, and how various institutional leaders responded to those issues. The history is based on publicly available information, plus previously private documents and interviews conducted with key figures that help to reliably recount events in a digestible way.

Second, the report demonstrates a deep understanding of SBC polity, which is all too often lacking in popular media coverage of the denomination. The SBC is not itself a church, but rather a convention of independent churches, each of which is given autonomy to make its own decisions regarding ordination of ministers and church governance. Questions of how to address issues at a national level in such a decentralized organization are genuinely difficult to answer, and the report grapples with those difficulties without compromising on basic questions of Baptist ecclesiology.

Third, and most important, the report reveals a consistent pattern across two decades of how the SBC handles allegations of sexual abuse.

The SBC is composed of delegates, called “messengers,” assembled at an annual meeting. Between annual meetings, an Executive Committee composed of 86 trustees (elected by the messengers to four-year terms) conducts denominational business. The EC hires a professional staff and elects officers. “Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse,” the report says. “They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.”

The report says that EC trustees consistently said in interviews that they were “largely unaware that survivors had been contacting the EC to report sexual abuse allegations.” Some trustees are pastors, and others are laypeople; most see the position as a form of church service. The report says that given that dynamic, “Some EC Trustees felt that decisions were already made by EC leadership without including the EC Trustees, and that the EC Trustees were expected to be a ‘rubber stamp’ for those decisions.” That is not how SBC governance is supposed to work, and it is an example of institutional failure surrounding the handling of sexual-abuse allegations.

One EC trustee quoted in the report said, “Our job is not to guard the institution but guard the truth.” That is the attitude that Christian leaders must uphold, and it’s an attitude that many Southern Baptists do uphold. But a few did not, and they were very influential over many years.

Institutional concerns and legal liability are not irrelevant details. The SBC’s decentralized church polity does not allow for some processes that other denominations could implement, and it oversees millions and millions of dollars that fund mission work, disaster relief, education, and other worthy causes. But when institutional and legal concerns repeatedly triumph over caring for abuse victims and bringing perpetrators to justice, it’s a Christian moral failure.

That the SBC commissioned this report and ensured independence to the investigators was laudable, even if it was much too late and not without controversy. When the denomination meets in June, it will have a strong foundation upon which to build better practices going forward. The report offers 33 specific recommendations, and the messengers should consider them carefully.

The SBC is in a relatively unusual position for American Protestant denominations: It’s generally united on basic questions of doctrine. Despite a contentious presidential election at last year’s annual meeting, the Baptist Faith and Message, its statement of faith, remained untouched, as it has since 2000. Southern Baptists should leverage that unity in doctrine to respond to the revelations in the sexual-abuse report. And they should begin with fear and repentance before a just and holy God.

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