40 Years In The Making: A Timeline of Southern Baptists’ Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Adelle Banks
SBC sex abuse state level timeline
At the SBC annual meeting in Dallas on June 12, 2018, rally participants call for Southern Baptist clergy to receive training on how to handle allegations of abuse  and minister to abuse victims. (Photo by Marc Ira Hooks)

The report on the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuse, conducted by the independent review firm Guidepost Solutions, is unsparing in its criticism of the actions, and the inaction, displayed by the denomination’s leaders, members and critics over a two-decade period, from January 1, 2000, through June 14, 2021. But allegations and recommendations about how to respond to those allegations existed long before that period and in the year since.

Here’s a timeline of Southern Baptists and sexual abuse:

1980s

Darrell Gilyard, a protégé of former Southern Baptist Convention Presidents Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines, is fired from several churches after being accused of sexual abuse. He is eventually convicted of sex crimes against minors but returned to the pulpit. He is listed by Florida authorities as a registered sex offender.

darrell gilyard timeline
Darrell Gilyard’s Florida Sex Offender registry. Screen grab

2000

In a letter responding to a pastor seeking advice about preventing sexual abuse, SBC President Paige Patterson describes the benefits of holding a “lunch and one-hour awareness seminar” should the church later be pulled into litigation related to sexual abuse.

At the annual meeting, delegates known as “messengers” pass a resolution, “On Condemning the Trafficking of Women and Children for Sexual Purposes.” It reads in part, “We acknowledge our own fallenness and the need to prevent such appalling sins from happening within our own ranks. … (W)e encourage those religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers.” 

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2002

After the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston, Southern Baptists pass a resolution at their annual convention on “sexual integrity” of the clergy. It calls on ministers “to be above reproach morally” and urges churches “to discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse in obedience to Matthew 18:6-17 as well as to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases.”

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The Southern Baptist Convention headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo courtesy of Baptist Press)

2004

D. August “Augie” Boto becomes Executive Committee general counsel, advising SBC Presidents Morris Chapman, Frank Page and Ronnie Floyd in the committee’s responses to allegations of sexual abuse.

At the annual meeting, SBC President Jack Graham rules a motion recommending the creation of a child abuse study committee “out of order.” 

A lawyer for Christa Brown, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, sends a 25-page report about her experience of being abused at age 16 by a youth minister, who was later transferred to another SBC church. James Guenther, an SBC lawyer, responded by saying, “The Convention has no spiritual right to defrock a minister” and noted that the name of the person in question was not found in a list of SBC ministers. “We regret the pain Ms. Brown expresses,” he wrote. “We pray that Ms. Brown can find peace.”

2006

In September, Brown and leaders of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests hold a media event outside Executive Committee offices in Nashville, Tennessee. Boto responds three days later opposing her “adversarial posture.”

In December, an Executive Committee staffer presents Boto with a memo “on the SNAP proposals and how they fit with SBC polity,” according to Guidepost’s report. Boto appeared to take no action. The same month Steve Gaines, who served as SBC president from 2016-2018, acknowledges he delayed acting on knowledge that a staffer of his prominent Memphis, Tennessee, church had previously sexually abused a child. “I realize now that I should have discussed it further with this minister and brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately,” he said in a statement quoted in Baptist Press.

August Augie Boto sbc timeline
D. August “Augie” Boto in an undated image. (Photo courtesy Baptist Press)

2007

In January, the same EC staffer provides Boto with information based on internet searches of 66 accused individuals thought to be Southern Baptists. Boto appeared to take no action.

In the spring, survivor Debbie Vasquez emails SBC President Frank Page and Boto alleging sexual abuse and rape by her pastor when she was a minor that led to her becoming pregnant with the abuser’s child. Brown, now a SNAP coordinator for Baptist churches, criticizes Southern Baptists’ failure to keep records about sex abusers. Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page says: “We’re looking at all options” as leaders mull a decision about an offenders list.

At the June annual meeting, Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson seeks a feasibility study for a proposed database of sex offenders. Messengers pass a nonbinding resolution expressing “moral outrage and concern at any instance of child victimization.”

2008

At the June annual meeting, the Executive Committee rejects a proposed abuser database, instead suggesting churches rely on national registries of sex offenders and report allegations to police immediately. The committee says it would be “impossible” to ensure that all convicted sexual predators could be discovered, and a “Baptist only” list might leave out predators who had identified previously with other faith groups.

In September, identifying himself as general trial counsel for the Executive Committee, Boto testified on behalf of a Tennessee gymnastics coach who had been convicted of abuse during the coach’s appeal of his conviction.

2013

Boto tells the Executive Committee staffer who had assembled lists of ministers accused of sexual abuse to send the lists to Guenther “as they may need to be produced in litigation,” the report states.

SBC convention timeline
More than 5,100 Southern Baptist “messengers” met in Houston for the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. (Photo by Van Payne / Baptist Press)

2017

Former SBC Vice President Paul Pressler is sued by a former assistant who alleges the onetime Texas appeals court judge sexually abused him over the course of several decades, starting when the plaintiff was in his mid-teens.

2018

In March, Frank Page, now president and CEO of the Executive Committee, announces his retirement. Later the same day, the committee chairman says he learned from Page that the retirement “was precipitated by a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”

In May, former SBC President Paige Patterson is fired from his leadership role at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after new evidence surfaces of an alleged rape cover-up.

In June, messengers adopt resolutions showing compassion for the abused and expecting “moral and sexual purity” of their leaders.

paige patterson sbc timeline
Paige Patterson closes his eyes during a special meeting of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees on May 22, 2018. (Photo by Adam Covington/SWBTS via Baptist Press)

2019

In February, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News publish “Abuse of Faith,” an investigative series reporting that 220 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct in the past two decades. Overall, they find about 380 Southern Baptists who faced allegations from more than 700 victims. Southern Baptist leaders vow to improve how churches address such behavior.

In June, during the SBC annual meeting, Southern Baptist President J.D. Greear leads a litany of lament during a 45-minute period of prayer and planning at the annual meeting over what he called a crisis of sexual abuse.

In October, the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission hosts the “Caring Well” conference in Nashville, featuring stories of abuse survivors and comments from critics of the denomination’s response to abuse.

sbc meeting timeline
SBC President J.D. Greear speaks on sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS photo by Butch Dill.)

2020

In February, Russell Moore, then president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission defends himself in a letter to ERLC trustees after a task force is mounted to investigate complaints against him. “The presenting issue here is that, first and foremost, of sexual abuse,” he writes.

2021

In May, Brown, now a former SNAP board member, calls for an investigatory “Truth and Justice Commission” for survivors of abuse by SBC clergy.

At the annual meeting in Nashville in June, messengers overwhelmingly approve a motion to create a task force to direct a third-party investigation of the Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. The denomination’s constitution was also amended to say that only churches that do “not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse” will be considered in good standing.

In October, the Executive Committee votes in favor of waiving privilege, allowing for a more comprehensive investigation by Guidepost Solutions.

SBC ezra
Southern Baptist Convention messengers attend the annual meeting on June 15, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn. (RNS photo: Kit Doyle)

2022

In February, Southern Baptist leaders announce reaching a settlement with Jennifer Lyell, a sexual abuse survivor, whose story was mishandled when she came forward in 2019. After telling Baptist Press of her abuse she experienced for years by a former Southern Baptist seminary professor, it was characterized as a “morally inappropriate relationship.”

On May 22, the Executive Committee releases the Guidepost Solutions report.

Adelle Banks is production editor and a national correspondent at Religion News Service.

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4 thoughts on “40 Years In The Making: A Timeline of Southern Baptists’ Sexual Abuse Crisis”

  1. Baptist is the single largest Protestant faith in the USA far and away. This puts them on par with Catholicism in terms of sheer numbers. As such you have an inevitable dynamic whereby the larger a institution becomes the more likely the instance of such crimes showing up in a statistically significant way. This is due to the fact that its almost impossible to not have predators in the mix when a population is large enough. All that said, it then becomes ultra vital that institutions which find themselves at the top of the heap, population wise, would need to be ready to swiftly and sternly deal with such crimes in thier ranks.

    Unfortunately the innate tendancy of the most massive institutions is to protect thier reputation as opposed to protecting the least of these who are victims of predators and abusers. This is where the averge person is flabbergasted at the sheer absurdity of an institution founded on Jesus and his principles of honesty and righteousness and justice would become the very kind of power structure that enables and protects the offender.

    Bottom line…A denomination can become too big for it’s own good, and it will break under it’s own weight.
    The only way to avoid such dysfunction in such massive groups is to find a fundamentally better form of governance that does not hinge on a few powerful political figures at the top.

    1. Good points, Mark. but also….

      Russell Moore had this interesting article back in 2019.

      https://www.russellmoore.com/2019/02/10/southern-baptists-and-the-scandal-of-church-sexual-abuse/

      From which I quote:

      …”Sexual abuse is a sin against God and a crime against the civil order. In every case, if there is suspected sexual abuse of a child the church should report the incident to the civil authorities. With the sexual assault of adults, the church should provide a refuge for survivors and should walk with them towards involving the authorities and bringing perpetrators to justice. In all of this, the church should deal openly with what has happened in the church while caring for all those who were harmed. No one who has committed such offenses should ever be in any ministry arena where such could even conceivably happen again.

      “Moreover, church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability. Yes, in a Baptist ecclesiology each congregation governs its own affairs, and is not accountable to anyone `higher up’ in a church system. And yet, the decisions a church makes autonomously determine whether that church is in good fellowship with others. A church that excuses, say, sexual immorality or that opposes missions is deemed out of fellowship with other churches. The same must be true of churches that cover up rape or sexual abuse….”

      I think he has the right idea, of not soft peddling the problem.

      I would say that a pastor should not just be allowed to resign but to be fired publicly for moral turpitude! This should be true for IFB’s besides Southern Baptist churches.

  2. You need a background check to move into my little condominium.
    Sadly, the SBC and every other denomination need an HR Department, to vet prospective (and current) ministers..

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