survivors
A woman holds signs about abuse during a rally outside the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS photo by Butch Dill)

Abuse Survivors to SBC: We Want an Investigation. Will You Listen?

By Sarah Einselen

As the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting gets underway this week, survivors of SBC clergy abuse are calling for a thorough investigation of how the convention handles reports of abuse by church staff and volunteers.

But the question remains: Will enough SBC delegates listen?

Eight abuse survivors on Sunday issued a statement calling for an outside organization to oversee an audit of sexual abuse within the entire denomination.

Just two days earlier, the SBC’s Executive Committee, the governing body of the convention, announced it would hire an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, to investigate the committee’s response to abuse. But during a pre-conference meeting today, the Executive Committee rebuffed attempts to add discussion of a second, more comprehensive investigation to its agenda.

Now, some SBC delegates say they’ll raise the issue of a broader investigation on the floor of the convention meeting, which starts tomorrow in Nashville, Tennessee.

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For 15 years, Christa Brown has been pushing for the Southern Baptist Convention to reform how it handles allegations of clergy sexual abuse. Herself a survivor of abuse by a Southern Baptist pastor, she’s one of the eight calling for a strong third-party investigation into SBC mishandling of abuse reports.

This week, she’s talked with SBC pastors whom she felt had heard her cries for justice.

“I truly believe there are some Southern Baptist pastors who are hearing us,” Brown said Monday.“But whether there are enough? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother question.”

Headed for a vote

The two-day SBC gathering is expected to be highly contentious as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination grapples with a number of serious challenges, including charges and countercharges about how it has handled sex abuse claims.

Though she’s not in attendance at this year’s meeting, Brown is keeping close tabs on the proceedings through livestreams, emails and private messages. She has been speaking publicly since 2006 about her abuse at the hands of her church’s youth pastor when she was a teen, and has called for reforms to prevent similar cases within the SBC.

“I was a voice crying in the wind,” she said. And she’s grateful for pastors, including Todd Benkert, who’ve listened to her and other survivors over the last several months.

Benkert, pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Indiana, has announced he’ll make a motion Tuesday at the SBC’s annual meeting calling for a comprehensive audit and assessment of the ways the SBC has handled sexual abuse claims.

The survivors’ statement Sunday specifically urged messengers to vote in favor of Benkert’s motion. “In my view,” Brown said, Benkert’s wording“will be a much stronger motion than anything we’ve seen before.”

The survivors are also asking for a full release “without redaction” of the investigation by Guidepost Solutions into the actions of Executive Committee staff and trustees.

Executive Committee motion ‘shot down’

Friday’s announcement by the Executive Committee that it would hire Guidepost Solutions to investigate itself came after several leaked letters and audio indicating committee leaders had resisted sexual abuse reforms.

On Monday, Jared Wellman, an Executive Committee member and pastor from Texas, asked the Executive Committee to discuss broadening the third-party investigation.

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, appeared to back Wellman’s motion.

In a tweet this morning that received 1,300 likes, Akin stated: “It is hard to imagine under any circumstances that a body of believers of the Lord Jesus would vote to limit in any way an investigation to find the truth when there are serious allegations related to sexual abuse. Praying our Convention charts the right course tomorrow.”

However, minutes earlier, Wellman tweeted that the Executive Committee had voted against even discussing a broader investigation.

Jules Woodson, another of the eight who signed the survivors’ statement, said she was “very disappointed” that Wellman’s motion “got shot down.”

“I was hoping that the Executive Committee, especially after our survivors’ statement was released yesterday, they would see . . . we need transparency,” Woodson continued. But, she said, “it seems like there’s just more intention to protect themselves than to protect the very people they claim to love.”

Woodson went public in 2018 saying her youth pastor assaulted her when she was a teen.

“When I told mystory and it made international news, I thought, surely more people will listen now. And they didn’t,” Woodson said. She said she was disappointed again by the convention’s response to the Houston Chronicle’s 2019 investigation finding a slew of clergy sex abuse cases within the SBC.

This year, after multiple letters and leaked recordings detailed internal resistance to reforms addressing sex abuse, “you think surely they’ll do something now,” Woodson said. “We’ll see.”

Virtual rally

On Sunday, a group supporting sexual abuse survivors, called “For Such a Time as This,” held a virtual rally. Benkert, the Indiana pastor, has also tweeted that he is passing out teal ribbons, which he said is “the sexual assault awareness ribbon color.”

Brown said she is grateful for SBC pastors who’ve stood with her and other survivors.

“But I want to say to the messengers: You are at this convention, you are waiting in an arena that is covered in the blood of Southern Baptist clergy abuse survivors,” Brown said. “A few little mandates are not going to suffice.”

Religion News Service contributed to this report.

Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.

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5 thoughts on “Abuse Survivors to SBC: We Want an Investigation. Will You Listen?”

  1. Why should the SBC leasdership–(All men) care about an issue that involves women and children? Leadership has done nothing for years and i fear this trend will continue.

    1. Every year I look for some ray of hope. Every year I am disappointed, Every earth SBC looses hundreds of thousands of members

  2. Warren Millard Roy

    I don’t understand why some things are permitted to go on. Look at what Paul said in 1 Cor.5.
    Look how King David’s sin was brought out in the open in 2 Samuel 11&12!
    Aren’t we serious about what the Bible says about sin? It makes me wonder.
    Look at Josh.7 and how Achan hiding the Babylon Garment hindered the children of Israel in a battle! I believe to cover up sexual abuse will hinder God’s Power even more!
    So when sins like sexual assault, abuse, child molestation,rape, both heterosexual and homosexual is done it should be zero tolerated and the people guilty should be removed from the church and arrested! It should be a zero tolerance for such stuff!

  3. Indeed, if we spend more time attempting to reshape our environment in the hopes that it will protect our souls than we spend humbly asking God to reshape our heart, then our priorities are exactly wrong. If the church laments the waywardness of the culture more than it laments the misconduct of the church, then its priorities are exactly wrong.
    David French

  4. Elaine Mercer

    Sadly, this situation reminds me of one I saw a picture of. A woman is going out to march for better wages and working conditions for household servants. Meanwhile, her own maid is treated like dirt and paid less than most.

    The church needs to come clean and have zero tolerance for sexual assault and abuse, etc…. But when a specific case is brought up, too many people are not willing to believe that abuse is present. Either they can’t believe that this eminent person did this or that it was really THAT bad. Or they want to assign part/most of the blame to the victim, saying it takes two to tango or they should have known better/acted better. Until we can educate ourselves on these matters, it will probably continue.

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