I've got to have surgery this Summer. It's nothing major, but there is no such thing as "minor" when you are put to sleep and cut open. I'm dreading the surgery and the recovery, but I know that it has to happen so my body can begin to heal. Otherwise, I will be dealing with worse problems down the road.
Sunday night, as I read the report from the Southern Baptist Convention's Sexual Abuse Task Force, the phrase I kept repeating to myself was, "This is painful, but it's necessary." For those who are not up to speed, a group of sexual abuse survivors has been pushing for the Southern Baptist Convention to be more proactive in dealing with sexual abuse by pastors in the SBC. They have also been advocating for the SBC to put together a mechanism to prevent abusive pastors from being able to resign and simply go to another church down the road.
SBC leaders claimed that this would be difficult to do because of the Convention's polity – how it is organized. Churches are autonomous and make their own decisions about calling staff. Churches voluntarily cooperate with the SBC, and the Convention has no say in how local churches are governed. However, the SBC can declare that churches are no longer "in friendly cooperation" with the Convention because of their theology.
In recent years, survivors started appealing to the SBC Executive Committee (EC), which oversees the day-to-day operations of the Convention. As they began to see what they believed was the mishandling of sexual abuse cases by the EC, they called for an investigation into the body. At last year's Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, messengers approved an investigation by a third party into the EC's handling of sexual abuse reports. Last fall, the EC voted to wave attorney-client privilege so Guidepost Solutions – the independent firm investigating the EC – could read emails between the EC leaders and their attorneys.
What the investigation turned up is painful to read for so many reasons. First, they said survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of SBC ministers were "met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC." They additionally found that "a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC's response to these reports of abuse … and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC."
To read the evidence in the report is to see a master class in trying to avoid responsibility. In emails between EC leaders and their lawyers, they repeatedly looked for ways to ignore and minimize the concerns of survivors, mainly so the SBC could be shielded from lawsuits and financial responsibility. Concern for victims of sexual abuse rarely occurred throughout the emails, and victims were often described in an insulting manner.
One prominent and popular SBC leader was named in the report. The report accused Johnny Hunt, a former SBC President and pastor emeritus at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, GA, of sexually assaulting another pastor's wife in a condo in Panama City. The report alleges that when confronted, Hunt told the couple they would hurt 40,000 churches that he worked with if they went public. Hunt denied all of the allegations in a note posted to his Twitter feed.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the report was how often SBC leaders said that spending time to deal with the sexual abuse issue was a "distraction" from the SBC's commitment to evangelism. This argument never comes up when a culture war issue is at stake. No SBC leaders have argued that pro-life advocacy or opposing same-sex marriage is a "distraction" from evangelism. However, when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable among us, those who have been tormented by men in powerful positions, and those who want to prevent future abuse, they are somehow guilty of distracting the SBC from evangelism.
Let us put this simply – when there is rampant sin in the Lord's house, it is not a distraction from the church's mission to deal with it. Sin hinders the mission. Women and children suffering sexual abuse at the hands of the men who are called to lead the church hinders the mission. Just as cutting cancer out of a body promotes healing and health, so does bringing sin to light so that we can move forward in repentance.
The Sexual Abuse Task Force closed their report with a litany of steps the SBC needs to take to address this crisis. Every step will bring the SBC closer to fulfilling its mission.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”