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Southern Baptists to fight back against sexual abuse

A ballot sits on a chair during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Jae C. Hong
A ballot sits on a chair during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

Meeting in Anaheim, California, more than 8,000 Southern Baptist Convention members recently gathered for their annual summit. Topping the agenda were how to deal with sexual abuse, and the election of a new president. Both received overwhelming approval.

The meeting follows the release of an investigation by Guidepost Solutions, which found that over the past two decades a small group of influential Southern Baptist leaders routinely silenced and disparaged sexual abuse survivors.

The leaders, according to the report, ignored calls to stop predators and had secretly maintained an internal list of accused offenders at churches — while publicly contending that the SBC couldn’t publish it for the public.

“Every way I’ve served Southern Baptists has left scars – every way that I’ve done it; shooting back to try to own them, does not solve the problem,” said Texas pastor Bart Barber, the denomination’s new president, as elected by the delegates, called “messengers.”

Afterward, Barber had a message of this own for would-be predators.

“Sexual predators have used our decentralized policy to try to turn our churches into a hunting ground,” he said. “It’s time for Southern Baptists to realize how nimble and resilient our Baptist policy can be to put sexual predators on notice, that Southern Baptist churches are dangerous places for them.”

One of the reforms Barber will oversee is making public a database of pastors charged with sex abuse. Texas has the most names on that list, according to the Tampa Bay Times, while Florida was second with at least 58 known predators in Southern Baptist churches.

“[Barber] will be working to get more details from the Sex Abuse Task Force, as to what they’ve discovered over the last year, so he’ll be well-informed,” said Brian Nall, executive director of the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association. “And then he’s going to be selecting that implementation task force. He’s hoping to have that in place by the end of July.”

Nall, who attended the meeting in person, says the new attention to abuse will enable them to keep alive a pair of cherished values — individual church autonomy, and cooperation among them.

“There’s going to be newly-developed and newly-implemented mechanisms,” said Nall. “Let’s just say that if there’s a loophole there that Dr. Barber had mentioned, to be able to close that loophole so that individuals that have committed abuse, if a predator, that there’s not any checks and balances that would be skipped over.”

Going into the Anaheim meeting, Nall says there was a general feeling of “lament and brokenness” over the events mentioned in the Guidepost Solutions report. Nall was asked if the SBC has studied the similar scandal in the Catholic Church for possible guidance.

“Whether it’s lessons learned from the Catholic Church, lessons learned from other ecclesiastical bodies – that as we create good new mechanisms moving forward, to care for the abused; to respond [and] to prevent,” Nall said. “That those wise practices are implemented.”

Another long-standing issue facing Southern Baptists is the dwindling numbers among its membership. Nall says they’re approaching that in a couple of different ways at the local, state, and national levels.

“One, revitalization,” said Nall. “[Churches] choose to close and restart with a brand-new direction in their future, and at the same time, we want to plant new churches. Right now, we are on track, by 2030, one-third of Southern Baptist churches will have been planted since the year 2010.”

Another concern shared by a number of Southern Baptists, both lay and leadership, is that the denomination could be getting more political to the detriment of the denomination. Nall says politics is one of a number of influences that can cloud the SBC’s Message of Christ.

“I know our pastors that I work with all over the area, we’re committed to pursuing that Biblical clarity — responding well in the face of a politically and emotionally-charged culture,” he said. “So there are numerous challenges that any church will often face because it is made up of people. All of us are fallen, all of us have a bunch of baggage.”

But Brian Nall’s “State of the Denomination” address, so to speak, contains the words “hopeful” and “developing.”

“Hopeful, because we know what the end of the story is — the hope of Gospel," said Nall. "It’s developing, because of how some of the exact mechanisms, processes, and policies are still getting developed. And so, there’s a sense we kind of know the direction we need to go.”