Over the past two decades, more than 300 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct against at least 700 victims, according to a devastating new investigation published by the Houston Chronicle this weekend. The report also found that since 1998, about 220 ministers, pastors, deacons, Sunday-school teachers, and church volunteers have been convicted of sex crimes, taken plea deals, or currently have cases pending. Of the over 700 victims, some were adults, many were adolescents, several were as young as 3.
Efforts by victims to get the church to adopt prevention policies, and implement tools to track alleged predators, have been almost universally rejected, in part because of the church’s doctrine of local church autonomy, “the idea that each church is independent and self-governing.”
One church leader, August Boto, the interim president of the SBC’s Executive Committee who helped draft a rejection of proposed reforms in 2008, told the Chronicle that “what we’re talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.”
Due to the autonomy of individual churches, Boto said that his committee concluded trying to force churches to report sexual abuse to a central registry was “an exercise in futility.” Instead, he and the committee put together a report that he claims “accepted the existence of the problem rather than attempting to define its magnitude.”
Church leadership did not extend this same deference to individual congregation’s autonomy when, over the past ten years, it ended its affiliation with at least four churches after they endorsed homosexuality. As the Chronicle notes: “The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.”
One victim who spoke to the Chronicle, David Pittman, said he was molested by a Southern Baptist youth minister in 1981, when he was only 12. When he spoke out in 2006, it was too late to press charges against the minister, who was accused of abuse by two other former congregants, and still works at an SBC church. Pittman told the Chronicle he has only recently stopped hating God.
Read the full report here.