Department of Justice to Investigate Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse

By Bob Smietana
bart barber investigate sbc
SBC President Bart Barber speaks during a press conference at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Anaheim, California, on June 15, 2022. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

Federal officials have begun an investigation into sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptist Convention officials announced Friday. 

A spokesman for the SBC Executive Committee’s lawyers said that the committee “has received a subpoena. No individuals have been subpoenaed at this point.”

Southern Baptist leaders pledged to cooperate fully with investigators, who will be looking into several SBC entities, according to a statement released by the SBC on Friday. 

“Individually and collectively each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation,” said the SBC statement. “While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future.”

The statement was signed by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler and other seminary presidents; the Executive Committee; the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; leaders of the SBC’s International Mission Board and North American Mission Board; along with executives at Lifeway, the SBC’s publishing arm; the Women’s Missionary Union; and GuideStone, which handles retirement and insurance benefits for churches.

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Texas pastor Bart Barber, the SBC’s newly elected president, also signed the statement.

At their annual meeting in June, Southern Baptists approved a series of reforms to address abuse, including setting up a website to track abusive pastors. Barber recently named a nine-member task force charged with implementing those reforms.

Southern Baptists have been divided for decades over how to deal with the issue of abuse, with top leaders saying there was little the denomination could do to address the issues, as all of its churches are autonomous. Following a 2019 Houston Chronicle investigation that found hundreds of cases of abuse, Southern Baptists issued a public lament, set up a program to train churches to care for abuse survivors and set up a process to disaffiliate with churches that mishandled abuse. 

In 2021, Southern Baptists approved an investigation into how the denomination’s Executive Committee had responded to abuse. A group of SBC leaders, including high-ranking members of the committee, attempted to limit the scope of the investigation and to control any public disclosures but eventually lost the battle under pressure from rank-and-file members of the convention.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse task force holds a press conference during the SBC’s annual meeting in Anaheim, California, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

The ensuing investigation led to a May 2022 report from Guidepost Solutions, which found Southern Baptist leaders mistreated abuse survivors for decades, often portraying them as enemies of the church, and downplayed the number of abuse cases in local congregations. Many Baptists alleged these attempts were aimed at protecting the institution from liability. 

“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” investigators wrote.

Investigators also found former SBC President Johnny Hunt had been credibly accused of sexually abusing another pastor’s wife. Hunt first denied that allegation, then later said that the encounter had been consensual. 

In their statement, Southern Baptist leaders pointed to the Guidepost investigation as a sign they want to address the issue of abuse in a serious manner. 

“Our commitment to cooperate with the Department of Justice is born from our demonstrated commitment to transparently address the scourge of sexual abuse,” it said.

Bruce Franks, who chaired a previous SBC abuse task force charged with facilitating the Guidepost Solutions investigation, said he had not received a subpoena about an investigation. Neither had Lifeway nor the ERLC.

Guidepost Solutions declined to comment.  

The Department of Justice’s Middle District of Tennessee office did not respond to a request for comment. 

In 2018, the attorney general of Pennsylvania released a report detailing more than 1,000 cases of abuse in Roman Catholic dioceses. Other states have also investigated clergy sex abuse. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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21 thoughts on “Department of Justice to Investigate Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse”

    1. If a church commits a crime they should be investigated!!! No one should be above the law!!! It has nothing to do with separation of church and state!

    2. Sexual abuse is a crime and a rather serious one at that. Covering up sexual abuse is also a crime.There is no separation of church and state when it comes to breaking the law.

    3. Meredith N,

      When a church has 501c3 status, it has agreed to federal oversight and all federal regulations, which is why churches were claiming they were powerless to refuse the birth control/abortion insurance mandate under Obama, or lose tax exempt status. In other words, the churches have chosen to submit to the State, not God.

      “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon (money)”. (Matthew 6:24)

    4. Are you saying you do *not* want the state to prosecute sexual abuse? That state and federal laws which make certain sexual behaviors criminal should not exist or should not be enforced on churches and church members?

  1. It will be interesting to see what federal crimes will be allegedly committed by this federal investigation? Problems like these are generally handled by state courts.

    Justice Department Investigates Southern Baptist Convention Over Abuse.

    I’m glad to see that the Southern Baptist Convention place to cooperate fully with this investigation!

    1. 18 U.S.C. § 2241 aggravated sexual abuse or aggravated rape can be charged if someone uses threat or force on another person, or minor under 16, to participate in sexual activity or by having sex with someone who can’t give consent to high intoxication from drugs or alcohol…

      Other common federal sex crimes include soliciting minors for sexual activities across state lines or bringing in children from another country to have sex with them.

    1. Daniel, the SBC needs to be investigated by the DOJ. Also your comment sounds to me like a Republican talking point. You just have to try and change the subject matter and spread fear.

  2. Meredith Nienhuis

    Jesus warned the church to be watchful for wolves among the flock. If victims of sexual abuse within the church are not given a voice, then they should immediately go to the civil authorities.
    This blanket federal investigation will likely smear and bloody the SBC.

    1. Much too late for that. The SBC has been discouraging victims of sexual abuse within the church from going to the civil authorities for decades. If the SBC had done the proper thing in the first place, they wouldn’t be subject to this federal investigation. The evil the SBC has been hiding has finally been brought to light which will hopefully result in justice for the victims. It has been a long time coming.

  3. I would feel much better about this if I had any confidence that our DOJ would simply prosecute any criminal activity they find here and not try to use this for political purposes.

      1. Meredith Nienhuis

        Tom, a good question for each of us. Particularly because of the DOJ and FBI involvement in the Russia Collusion Hoax.

        1. Interesting reference point, Meredith.
          I was thinking moreso of how the FBI spied on the likes of MLK, Malcolm X, and other key civil rights leaders. But back then, conservatives justified it as a need to protect our democracy from liberalism and Communism. (Sound familiar?)
          There has been reason to distrust the FBI for DECADES – not just since Trump.

  4. The SBC was founded to preserve slavery. It has added protection of groomers and sexual predators to that “proud” legacy. It’s way past time to shut it down.

  5. Mark Scheiderer

    Please view “No Place to Call Home” on Youtube. The documentary tells the story of 50 years of child molestation at a “church” in Chicago. Then, since this “church” still exits, PLEASE do a report on it.

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