- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2019

The Southern Baptist Convention opens a three-day meeting of pastors, youth leaders and laypeople on Thursday in Dallas to address a clergy sex abuse crisis that has shaken the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

However, debate over the path forward before the annual meeting of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission spilled into public view Monday, amid news reports about discontent among some of the 10 survivors slated to speak in Dallas.

Among the sharpest criticisms came from Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, who said some panelists “don’t have credibility within the survivor community.”

Susan Codone, a Mercer University professor who was abused as a teenager by her youth minister and pastor in Alabama and is scheduled to speak on Thursday, said the SBC won’t find accountability until addressing male-dominated hierarchy.

Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told The Washington Times on Monday that he had not yet read those reports, but he is “certainly familiar with these types of questions.”

“What we’re trying to do with our speakers at the conference is to represent a cross-section of the experiences of those who encounter abuse,” said Mr. Bethancourt. “This is the first, large-scale SBC conference completely dedicated to addressing abuse That’s why we’re encouraged.”

In February, reporters for The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published an investigation into 20 years of clergy sex abuse allegations in the SBC, counting more than 700 women.

In June, days after the SBC released a 52-page report on sex abuse, SBC President J.D. Greear tearfully embraced survivors on stage at the annual convention. More recently, he told a committee of church leaders, “I believe in this last year, thanks to your leadership, things are changing.”

At the annual convention this summer, members approved an amendment to the SBC constitution, identifying sexual abuse as grounds for a church to be deemed “not in friendly cooperation” with the convention. Another amendment added to the bylaws would allow a standing committee to investigate allegations of sexual abuse.

But in interviews with The Associated Press, many survivors said they are skeptical of the meeting’s ability to bring about accountability to the loosely affiliated network of more than 47,000 individual churches comprising 14.8 million members.

“The anger in the survivor community has been extremely valuable for instigating change,” said Ms. Codone. “But changing the culture of the SBC will take generations.”

Leaders of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission say the conference has sold out with 1,600 attendees, about 40% of whom represent senior pastors and youth ministers and 60% represent laypeople.

Panels will include “Light in the Darkness: Abuse and the Hope of the Gospel,” led by human rights attorney Gary Haugen, and “Facts vs. Myths: Understanding Who Child Sexual Abusers Actually Are” by Gregory Love, a child sexual abuse expert.

There also will be women-only and men-only panels.

“We think that there are some things that people will be more willing to be candid about in a non-mixed setting than they would with everybody in the room,” Mr. Bethancourt said.

Some critics have suggested the SBC’s lack of women in leadership roles — only men can be pastors — complicates the ability of church leaders to believe accounts of abuse from women.

The SBC’s 52-page report issued in June addresses this criticism, citing its view that “men and women were equally created in God’s image but have been given unique roles and gifting” as evidence for why men and women should be involved in holding abusers accountable. The report says abuse can “hide behind theologies that minimizes ‘gender roles’ or in those that exaggerate them.”

“Unfortunately, what we learn when it comes to abuse is that it respects no theological framework,” Mr. Bethancourt said. “We see abuse happening in structures like ours, who view gender and sexuality like us, and across the spectrum.”

One outspoken survivor who will not be present is Christa Brown, an author and retired attorney who says she was abused by a Southern Baptist minister as a child. She suggested that organizers opted to invite survivors whose stories were deemed “risk-free for the SBC.”

“They have picked those who don’t ask anything of them at this point,” said Ms. Brown, who has been pushing the SBC to create an independently run database listing pastors and other church personnel who have been credibly accused of abuse.

So far, the SBC’s structure of loosely affiliated churches has shielded it against sexual abuse victims seeking or winning big damages in court, as has been seen in the Catholic Church, where dioceses have paid hundreds of millions to plaintiffs. But a lawsuit filed in Virginia this summer will test that theory.

Attorneys for eight minors in Chesterfield County, Virginia, are asking $82 million naming the SBC — as well as a former pastor and a youth leader— as defendants. The lawsuit states the SBC “operated, managed, and controlled” its member churches. An attorney for the plaintiffs told The Washington Times on Monday that SBC has not yet responded in court to the charges.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide