Southern Baptists called on their denomination to launch what would be its biggest investigation into sexual abuse responses and coverup.
While the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) recently commissioned its own independent inquiry through Guideposts, messengers voted at its annual meeting to transfer oversight of that investigation or launch an additional one.
Thousands of messengers in the convention hall, voting with a wave of yellow cards in the air, supported the move as an additional level of accountability, while few opposed.
“It is the least we can do for abuse survivors. It is worth the extra effort. It is worth the money. It is worth the time and attention,” said Grant Gaines, a Tennessee pastor who made the request for an outside task force with an SBC abuse victim at his side. “If this investigation is worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.”
The newly elected SBC president Ed Litton will appoint the task force to serve as a middle man between third-party investigators and the Executive Committee, a decision-making body within the denomination.
The Executive Committee, though it declined to consider a similar proposal to amend its own investigation just two days before, has agreed and said it will “work expeditiously to apply today’s motion.”
Scrutiny of the SBC’s response to abuse has recently focused on the Executive Committee after letters leaked in the weeks leading up to the annual meeting described leaders dismissing victims, quickly clearing churches of accusation, and resisting broader efforts to address abuse.
According to the motion, the investigation, backed by a group of survivors and advocates, will cover 20 years of allegations of abuse claims mishandled by the Executive Committee. It will also examine the two-year-old committee tasked with reviewing abuse and coverup as grounds for dismissal from the convention.
“I can’t even begin to fathom going through an investigation short of what Gaines proposed,” tweeted Jennifer Lyell, an SBC abuse survivor whose story of being maligned was referenced in the leaked letters. Lyell, who had served for years as a top leader at Lifeway, worried that an incomplete investigation would lead to more “misleading conclusions because of leaders who use their power—and silence—to hide truth” and was thankful to see the widespread support for the task force.
A group of SBC pastors and leaders spoke out as a vocal minority echoing the concerns of victims and advocates, saying the scope and oversight of the investigation had to change. Some displayed green ribbons on T-shirts and social media as a symbol of solidarity with SBC survivors.
One pastor who backed the task force was Troy Bush, lead pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, Georgia, who blamed the Executive Committee for dismissing an inquiry involving a predatory music minister who had abused at least 10 children at multiple congregations. Bush said those reviewing the claims hadn’t even contacted his church about the allegations before dropping the review.
“Because the Executive Committee didn’t follow through doing what we consider the minimum level of inquiry, they didn’t contact us, any of the victims, or any of the churches involved, we believe the Executive Committee doesn’t have the ability to handle this task force or this investigation alone,” Bush said.
Last week, Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd announced that the Executive Committee had hired Guidepost to conduct a third-party investigation to review recent allegations. Floyd was implicated in the leaked material, but said it was a “mischaracterization” of his response.
As the convention debated the task force to oversee the investigation, Floyd said, “The Executive Committee respects the messengers. We need this deliberative process. We know this will make this convention stronger, and that is what I want.”
The structure of the convention makes it difficult for its voting messengers to force entities to take action—especially the Executive Committee, which conducts SBC business outside the annual meeting. Motions instead can direct, request, or suggest certain actions.
The motion asking for the task force was initially referred by convention leaders to the Executive Committee itself, but on Wednesday afternoon the convention voted instead in favor of a task force appointed by Litton to be in charge. The task force will present a full report, along with suggested action steps, a month ahead of next year’s annual meeting.
Jared Wellman, a Texas pastor and the most outspoken advocate for abuse victims on the 86-person Executive Committee, tried to get the Executive Committee to amend its own investigation to address those concerns the day before the meeting, but his proposal was rejected. The Executive Committee secretary Joe Knott opposed even discussing Wellman’s proposal, saying “there’s no safer place on earth than most Southern Baptist churches.”
Gaines’s motion was drafted in partnership with North Carolina pastor Ronnie Parrott and in consult with abuse victims. The transferred investigation will be funded through the Cooperative Program, the collection funding SBC missions and ministry. Multiple messengers from the floor spoke up to oppose such funds being used for any investigations.
Another pastor and advocate, Todd Benkert had also proposed the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) hire an outside audit to track sexual abuse within the convention from “voluntarily participating churches, victims, and witnesses.” His motion was referred to the ERLC, which could opt to do so and report on its findings at future annual meetings.
“I believe the ERLC will give this audit and assessment the best chance to actually be completed and not die somewhere along the way,” he wrote.
Daniel Patterson, acting president of the ERLC, said the commission’s trustees will meet to review the proposal.
“We want to do everything in our power to serve Southern Baptists in the effort to make churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse,” he said in a statement to CT. “This motion will soon be delivered to our Board of Trustees, and I am confident I speak on their behalf in saying that we look forward to discussing together how we can serve Southern Baptists to the very best of our ability for the sake of the gospel.”
The convention on Tuesday adopted a resolution stating they believe “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.” The convention recommended “all of our affiliated churches apply this standard to all positions of church leadership.”
Southern Baptists also approved a second and final vote on an amendment to explicitly name abuse and racism as grounds for dismissal from the SBC.
Under its earlier policy, the SBC could opt to cut ties with churches that show a disregard for victims of abuse, since caring for the abused comes up in its required statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. The bylaws change makes its stance clearer.
Because Southern Baptists have been talking about strengthening their abuse responses and care for victims for years, some survivors and advocates are waiting to see what will come of the new measures and whether they will result in the change they want to see.
When asked what would be the best outcome for the denomination, Megan Lively—who came forward two years ago with her story of SBC seminary leaders failing to take appropriate action when she reported abuse—said she is looking for “truth revealed, repentance, and a cleansing of the SBC that parallels Jesus cleansing the temple.”