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Hesse writes: "The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the largest Christian organizations in the world, is grappling with allegations that more than 250 of its leaders sexually abused more than 700 congregants over the last two decades."

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, JD Greear, speaks to the denomination's executive committee in Nashville, Tennessee on 18 February. (photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)
The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, JD Greear, speaks to the denomination's executive committee in Nashville, Tennessee on 18 February. (photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

Southern Baptist Convention Grapples With Sexual Abuse Report

By Josiah Hesse, Guardian UK

25 February 19

After two newspapers rocked the evangelical Vatican, members who work with victims say much remains to be changed

he Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the largest Christian organizations in the world, is grappling with allegations that more than 250 of its leaders sexually abused more than 700 congregants over the last two decades.

A months-long investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, published this month, asserted that dozens of churches within the SBC knowingly hired sex offenders, silenced victims, neglected to fire sexually abusive leaders and declined to report cases to secular authorities, or even document them within their own organization.

The SBC is the closest thing evangelicals have to a Vatican. That has lead to the two newspapers’ work being compared to the Boston Globe’s 2002 revelations about sexual abuse within the Catholic church, which were retold in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

“It’s similar to the Boston Globe story in that people have been desperately shouting about this for years and it’s only just now receiving the attention has deserved,” said Boz Tchividjian, founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (Grace), an investigative and educational organization.

“The 700 victims revealed in this investigation are only the tip of the iceberg, since very few survivors of abuse ever come forward.”

Tchividjian is also the grandson of Billy Graham, the world’s most famous evangelical preacher. For him and many others, part of what contributes to the sexual abuse problem within some SBC communities is to be found within “purity culture”, a set of principles that portray women as virginal objects for men to court, educate and marry.

Conversely, women within purity culture are often viewed as responsible for male sexual behavior through the way they dress and behave, and are therefore seen as responsible when a man succumbs to sexual temptation.

“Purity culture can discourage abused women from coming forward for fear that they’ll be blamed and no longer seen as pure,” says Tchividjian. “It places distorted value on male leadership, which can lead to a circling of the wagons when a man is accused of misconduct, discrediting the victim and protecting the ministry.”

The SBC was loosely organized in 1845, during a split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery. It has for years wrestled with efforts to reform its principles, particularly its ban on women in positions of leadership over men.

Its 47,000 churches and 15 million members adhere to a variety of principles that are at times altered in more liberal or conservative directions depending on the tides of leadership. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, leaders such as Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson lead a successful conservative takeover, seeking a literal interpretation of the Bible in all matters, particularly on the issue of women in leadership.

In 1984, the SBC adopted the Resolution on Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry. It says: “The scriptures teach that women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church.”

The recent SBC exposé named both Pressler and Patterson as accused perpetrators of sexual misconduct.

Efforts to contact the SBC for comment were not returned. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, interim president of the SBC executive committee, August Boto, expressed support for the investigation and “sorrow” for victims, but said the organization was unable to create a database of abusers within the church, which would help prevent abusers being fired by one church and hired by another, due to the central tenet that each church retains some level of autonomy.

Asked about his rejection of such a proposal in 2008, Boto said: “Lifting up a model that could not be enforced was an exercise in futility.”

Tchividjian finds this perspective troubling.

“If a SBC church hired an openly gay pastor or denied the divinity of Jesus,” he said, “I sincerely doubt that the church would be allowed to remain within the denomination. This tells me that the SBC has some degree of centralized authority, certainly one that could develop a database and require member churches to contribute to it.”

‘A big, flashing vacancy sign for predators’

According to the Chronicle and Express-News, the limited instances in which secular authorities were contacted about abuse within the SBC resulted in little action. Similar to the #MeToo movement, such failures to hold church leaders accused of sexual misconduct to account via conventional channels have led to social media activism that seeks justice through public outings.

Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch grew up the daughters of pastors in the early 2000s, meeting years later at Moody Bible College. Their friendship blossomed as each reevaluated the purity culture doctrine. Paasch saw how her lack of sexual autonomy played a role in her endurance of a sexual assault and reluctance to report it. Joy came to terms with the romantic grooming she experienced as a teenager from a church youth leader in his 30s, and the way in which her community swept it under the rug.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Joy and Paasch decided to share their experiences under the hashtag #ChurchToo. By morning, the move had gone viral and the two were inundated with stories of sexual abuse and psychological manipulation at the hands of church leaders.

“It seems theologically tied to the way women are treated,” Paasch said. “When I was growing up there was this idea I should consider the men who expressed interest in me, because they were men of god, they were leaders. There was this idea that men and God were deciding all that behind the scenes for me. I never felt that I had permission to say no.”

Joy said: “People want to pretend that sexual shame and purity culture has nothing to do with abuse. It not only affects how the church responds to abuse, but it’s the reason it happens in the first place.

“When you have a church that’s mired in purity culture, you have a group of young, naive women who are primed to doubt themselves, to doubt their own intuition, to doubt their sense of their own autonomy. They’re primed to listen to men, particularly spiritual men, above their own intuition. And then there’s little sex education. They don’t know the word ‘consent’. All of this adds up to a big, flashing vacancy sign for predators.”

Paasch and Joy admit that being inundated with horror stories of abuse is triggering and exhausting. But they say providing a space for victims to have their voices heard and believed is an essential process.

Tchividjian is similarly troubled by the revelations of abuse throughout protestant churches. But having worked in the field for so long, both as a state prosecutor and the founder and executive director of Grace, he is aware of how much more pervasive and insidious the problem is than the public knows.

He continues to work with faith-based organizations as an independent investigator and abuse prevention specialist. The most common recommendations he gives are for church leaders to listen to and respect victims, to remove reported offenders from positions of authority, and to contact law enforcement whenever anyone is suspected of being sexually abused.

All these are actions that the SBC failed to implement, according to the newspapers’ report.

“Churches should be the safest communities in the world for vulnerable people,” Tchividjian said. “Being concerned about whether your child could be harmed by a church leader is the last thing a parent should have to think about, but that is a concern that must always be on our radar screen.”

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