Southern Baptist sex abuse report stuns, from pulpit to pews
By Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias
Carissa Beard was helping her daughter pack up her dorm room Sunday night when she got the text from her husband, lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Thurmont in Maryland. The nearly 300-page report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention had dropped online. “It is every bit as bad as I expected it to be,” she said.
When Philip Meade, pastor at Graefenburg Baptist Church in Kentucky, read the details, he began reworking his plans for the church’s worship service this Sunday. He will now devote a portion of the service to “a lament for the mishandling of sexual abuse claims and for the survivors who have suffered so much,” he said.
Michael Howard, head pastor of Seaford Baptist Church on the coast of Virginia, paused a family vacation to spend hours reading the report Sunday afternoon. “It makes you ill,” Howard said. “I know as the word gets out, the people in our church will be asking: What is our response?”
Revelations in a sprawling report covering 20 years of sexual abuse accusations are coursing through every level of Southern Baptist society. The report, made public by the denomination Sunday, claims that top church leaders suppressed and mishandled abuse claims, resisted reforms and belittled victims and their families.
The investigation, conducted by a third party at the insistence of church members, has thrust the nation’s largest Protestant denomination into turmoil at a particularly fraught moment. The Southern Baptist Convention is already grappling with declining membership, sharp divisions over politics and culture, and a high-stakes leadership change that is weeks away.
In some quarters, pastors and church members are openly frustrated at what they see as years of inaction on a crisis that has publicly persisted since 2019, when an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News revealed that nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders, from youth pastors to top ministers, had pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998.
The report quickly proved to be another dividing line within the denomination, with some pastors and members seeing it as a call to action for deep cultural and structural changes on abuse, as well as a range of issues around politics and the treatment of women.
The denomination’s former policy head, Russell Moore, who left last year, called it an “apocalypse” that revealed “a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.” Its current president, Ed Litton, said the report was “far worse” than he had anticipated.
More than 24 hours after the report was published online, leaders of the ultraconservative wing of the denomination remained relatively muted. The Conservative Baptist Network, an influential group founded in 2020, said in a brief statement Monday evening that it joins other Southern Baptists in grieving, and that although it disagreed “with certain aspects of the report,” Southern Baptists should study its recommendations.
Litton’s successor, to be chosen at the denomination’s annual meeting in June, will determine the convention’s direction.
Bart Barber, a Texas pastor who is a candidate favored by many of Litton’s supporters, said in a statement that the convention needed leadership that “breaks decisively” from the patterns described in the report. “Discovery is no substitute for action,” he said.
Another candidate, Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who has said the denomination needs a “change of direction” from what he describes as a leftward drift, said in a statement late Monday that the report’s revelations should prompt Southern Baptists to “uphold God’s standards of holiness and purity in all things, especially in caring for those who are most vulnerable among us.” He urged prayer and study of the task force’s recommendations.
Leaders of the convention’s executive committee said they would meet Tuesday to discuss the report.
In pews across the country, the report’s effect was just beginning to be felt. The denomination includes almost 14 million members in more than 47,000 congregations. In small towns and cities, pastors and churchgoers grappled with what the report said about their denomination, and what should happen next.
“Our people, I don’t think they have the bandwidth to get into all the details,” said Griffin Gulledge, pastor of Madison Baptist Church in Georgia. “But what all my pastor friends are hearing is we better get this right, and we better fix this.” He is planning to discuss the report with attendees at the church’s weekly Bible study Wednesday night.
The report shows how some leaders used the convention’s decentralized structure as a reason for avoiding mandatory accountability regarding sexual abuse in local churches. National entities have significantly less control over individual congregations than they do in institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Critics have said the Southern Baptist Convention is comfortable drawing hard lines from the top down when it chooses. After one of the denomination’s largest congregations, Saddleback Church in Southern California, announced it had ordained three women pastors in supporting roles last year, high-profile pastors and leaders criticized the church sharply, and a committee was assigned to examine whether the denomination should break with the church.
Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee expelled two churches over their decisions to accept gay couples as members and church policies that the denomination deemed accepting of homosexuality.
For Beard, the Maryland pastor’s wife, the crisis remains personal. She is finishing a graduate degree in professional counseling, focused on trauma, to help people like her who have survived sexual and spiritual abuse in churches. Although there are some people in the denomination who really want to do the right thing, she said, others are content with the status quo.