Southern Baptist Leaders Mistreated Abuse Survivors for Decades, Report Says

By Bob Smietana
sexual abuse 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)

For decades, a handful of leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination treated sexual abuse survivors as enemies of the church, denied responsibility for the actions of local churches and downplayed the number of sexual abuse cases in those churches, all in the name of protecting the institution, according to a report released Sunday.

The report, conducted by a third-party investigative firm, Guidepost Solutions, and made public by the Southern Baptist Convention’s sex abuse task force, reveals a callous disregard for abuse survivors and a relentless commitment to protecting the denomination from liability. 

Guidepost Solutions found that SBC leaders were well aware of abuse cases in the church and even compiled a list of offenders but took no steps to find out if alleged abusers remained in ministry, instead focusing on protecting the SBC 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.

The report also details graphic allegations of sexual assault by former SBC president and longtime megachurch pastor Johnny Hunt. The investigators determined those allegations were credible despite Hunt’s denials. Hunt issued a separate denial of the allegations Sunday afternoon.

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The report also accuses SBC leaders of taking concrete and intentional steps to hide information about sexual abuse from trustees in the SBC’s Executive Committee, which oversees the ministries of the denomination.

“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse,” investigators from Guidepost Solutions wrote in an executive summary of their report. “They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.”

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

According to the nearly 300-page report, former Executive Committee vice president and general counsel D. August “Augie” Boto and James Guenther, who represented the SBC from 1966 to 2021, spend decades defending the SBC at all costs.

The two attorneys criticized SBC leaders who tried to take steps to address abuse and mishandled abuse allegations “in a manner that involved the mistreatment of survivors,” the report says. The report also found that Boto, in particular, had a pattern of intimidating victims and abuse advocates.

“This whole thing should be seen for what it is,” Boto wrote in an internal email quoted in the report. “It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.”

Tiffany Thigpen, an abuse survivor and advocate, said the report revealed what many survivors already knew and had been warning Southern Baptists about for decades.

“We told the truth,” she said.

This week, Thigpen said she has been thinking about Bible verses that urge believers to tell the truth and not cover up misdeeds, something that she said SBC leaders failed to do. In particular, she pointed to a verse in the Book of Proverbs, warning that pride will lead to disgrace.

“This report is the disgrace,” she said. “The abuse of victims is the disgrace.

“The Bible did not tell them to do this,” she added.

SBC leaders have long excused their inaction by claiming that the SBC is not a hierarchical denomination and has no power to enforce changes to prevent abuse.

“The Southern Baptist Convention structure leaves the responsibility for such matters in the hands of those most motivated and capable of addressing it — the members of the local churches — many of whom are parents and grandparents,” the SBC lawyer Boto wrote in 2007, after abuse survivor Christa Brown and other advocates called for the creation of a database and national action by the SBC.

Thigpen said the report is evidence that a handful of powerful leaders are in fact in charge of how abuse is handled.

The sexual abuse investigation was authorized by local delegates — known as messengers —at the 2021 SBC annual meeting, prompted by allegations from abusive survivors as well as those contained in a letter written by  former Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore about mistreatment and intimidation by SBC leaders toward survivors.

Immediately, SBC leaders fought to limit the scope of the investigation, rejecting the messengers’ instruction to the Executive Committee to waive attorney-client privilege as part of the investigation. The messengers’ order would allow investigators to review communications between SBC lawyers and committee members.

Southern Baptist messengers vote during annual meeting
Messengers vote during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 15, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn. (Source: Kit Doyle/RNS)

Members of the Executive Committee, including former Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd — continued to resist the idea of waiving privilege during a series of intense and difficult meetings last fall. They claimed that waiving privilege would lead to the ruin of the SBC. The committee eventually voted to waive privilege, leading Floyd and other members to resign.

Thigpen said that dispute shows that SBC leaders hold ordinary church members in contempt.

“They don’t really see you as in charge,” she said. “They see you as the dumb sheep that they can just tell what to do.”

Southern Baptist leaders had long known the denomination had a problem with sexual abuse in local churches. In the 1980s and 1990s, Darrell Gilyard, a protégé of former Southern Baptist Presidents Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines, was fired from several churches for sexual misconduct. He was eventually convicted of sex crimes against minors but returned to the pulpit. In 2002, the SBC passed a resolution calling on “civil authorities to punish to the fullest extent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors.” 

augie boto sbc
Former SBC Legal Counsel Augie Boto (via Twitter)

A 2007 investigation by the ABC News show “20/20” documented abuse in Protestant churches, including the SBC. That led to a resolution on protecting children from abuse and a call for the SBC’s Executive Committee, which oversees the business of the SBC between annual meetings, to look into creating a database of SBC abusers.

SBC President Frank Page and Boto criticized the ABC report as “yellow journalism” and rejected claims that the SBC had an abuse problem.

Boto released an official statement saying the ABC report misled viewers into thinking “the Southern Baptist Convention somehow condones, hides or denies sexual offenses committed by ministers in SBC-affiliated churches.”

“The convention does none of those things,” Boto said. “Quite the contrary.”

Boto was later appointed to advise a committee looking into the possibility of creating an abuser database, which was eventually rejected. Instead, the Executive Committee suggested that churches rely on national registries of sex offenders and report allegations to police immediately.

“Where delay is caused by a desire to protect the reputation of the church, we believe such delay to be completely unjustified,” the Executive Committee’s 2008 report to the SBC annual meeting read.

After the Executive Committee rejected the database, Brown warned that the problem of abuse would continue and lamented that there was no place in the denomination for abuse survivors to turn.

“I believe that unless and until there is a safe place to which the victims themselves can report abuse with some reasonable expectation of being objectively heard … everything else will be window dressing,” she said in 2008.

But while claiming that creating a database would be difficult or impossible, Executive Committee staff were compiling a list of abusers.

“The most recent list prepared by the EC staff member contained the names of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time,” according to the Guidepost report.

jennifer lyell sbc mistreated
Jennifer Lyell (Courtesy Photo)

Guidepost also detailed how Executive Committee staffers and lawyers mistreated Jen Lyell, a former Lifeway official who came forward with her story of abuse at the hands of an SBC seminary professor. An initial draft of a story by Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news publication, described Lyell as an abuse survivor, but just before publication, the story was changed to describe her as being involved in an inappropriate relationship with the professor.

According to the report, SBC officials refused to correct the story for months, causing significant harm to Lyell’s reputation and health. The story was eventually withdrawn by Baptist Press, which apologized to Lyell as part of a settlement.

One of the most chilling parts of the Guidepost report, which came with a trigger warning, involved sexual assault accusations against Hunt, who was elected at the same 2008 meeting where the database was rejected.

According to what investigators called credible allegations, Hunt was accused of sexually assaulting the wife of another SBC pastor in 2010. That assault allegedly included Hunt pinning the survivor to a couch, pulling off her clothes, and then sexual assaulting her with his “hands and mouth.”

“Survivor said she did not want him to ruin his ministry, at which he responded he did not want to ruin hers,” the report states. “But he then forced himself on her again by groping her, trying to pull her shirt down, and violently kissing her. Survivor did not reciprocate, but rather stood eyes open and very stiff, hoping he would just stop and leave. He finally stopped and left.”

Investigators found several witnesses who corroborated the allegations, saying that Hunt had admitted the assault and learned that Hunt had gone on leave in 2010. They also spoke with a counselor who had counseled Hunt and the survivor.

“We include this sexual assault allegation in the report because our investigators found the pastor and his wife to be credible,” Guidepost wrote, saying “their report was corroborated in part by a counseling minister and three other credible witnesses; and our investigators did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible.”

Hunt denied the allegations during interviews with investigators. The former pastor of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Georgia, he said on social media that “my heart breaks for all victims of abuse.”

He also acknowledged that he had resigned from NAMB and denied the allegations against him.“ To put it bluntly, I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report,” he said on Twitter. I have never abused anyone.”

Following the release of the report, the SBC’s North American Mission Board confirmed that Hunt had resigned as senior vice president of evangelism and leadership.

rachael denhollander abuse survivors report mistreated
Rachael Denhollander, Esq. (Video screengrab)

Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and prominent advocate for abuse survivors who served as an advisor to the abuse task force, said for decades that survivors such as Brown and Thigpen had raised the alarm to SBC leaders, to no avail. 

“There was a persistent refusal to listen to the survivors literally standing outside the door, and to seek outside help, and to listen to expert counsel,” said Denhollander. “And that resulted in a situation where two men were able to deceive and control and manipulate the denomination, literally for decades.”

She worries that Southern Baptists will place all the blame on Boto and Guenther. But many Southern Baptist leaders failed to be proactive and listen to survivors, and they never asked for second opinions, she said, or disagreed with legal counsel. Though many leaders had good intentions and wanted to help survivors

“Southern Baptists are going to have to start asking some very difficult questions, including, and probably most importantly, how could this have gone on for so long?” said Denhollander. “How could two men have controlled and commandeered an entire denomination and an almost 100-member trustee board for the last 30 years?”

Former SBC President J.D. Greear said the report showed that the SBC should have taken action years ago to address abuse. Greear began talking about abuse in 2018, not long after becoming president, and led the denomination’s annual meeting in a service of lament after a 2019 report from the Houston Chronicle revealed hundreds of abuse cases.

“You look back to 2008 and you have to ask, ‘why were we allowing bureaucratic, mumbo jumbo and legalese to keep us from doing the right thing?” he said.

Greear said that he hopes the SBC will adopt changes to help prevent abuse in the future and to care for survivors. He said that for too long, church leaders gave the benefit of the doubt to the institution.

“It very apparent that what the Bible would counsel us to do is to give the benefit of the doubt to the survivors,” he said.

The report includes a series of recommendations for the SBC, including creating an “Offender Information System” to track known abusers, along with starting an independent commission to deal with abuse, restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements, and creating standards for churches to certify that they are following best practices.

“We must resist the temptation to minimize, to look away, to find the easy ‘scapegoats’ for what was uncovered in this report, and instead ask ‘what could we have done better?’ and ‘what should we do now?’ the Task Force said in a statement. “As a Convention, we did not hold our own leaders accountable, and we did not listen to the warnings. Leaders had access to expertise but chose not to seek assistance, and in some cases, rejected any assistance that was offered.”

SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force – Guidepost Solutions Independent Report – May 22, 2022

Guidepost+Solutions+Independent+Investigation+Report

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

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21 thoughts on “Southern Baptist Leaders Mistreated Abuse Survivors for Decades, Report Says”

    1. Mark Gunderson

      Remember how Mike Stone filed a $750k defamation lawsuit (eventually withdrawn) against Russell Moore, because Moore wrote a few letters criticizing Stone’s handling of sexual abuse in SBC churches? Page 77 of the report (edited for the sake of brevity):

      “In 2019, during the period when Mike Stone was EC Chairman, a married pastor of an SBC church in Georgia was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a single mother by several members of his congregation. The woman was in counseling with the pastor who had been sending her text messages and photographs that were sexually suggestive. These text messages and photographs were viewed by witnesses who were interviewed during our investigation. According to witnesses, the pastor agreed to apologize to the congregation and ask for forgiveness. They stated that the apology was drafted with the assistance of Mr. Stone. The witnesses recounted that the apology made by the pastor was not accurate, and that the survivor was blamed. The witnesses stated that they felt intimidated by Mr. Stone for bringing the pastor’s behavior to the attention of the deacons in the church. One witness attempted to call Mr. Stone and was instead contacted by Mr. Stone’s assistant who told him that Mr. Stone planned to help the pastor, not the church.”

      When Guidepost interviewed Stone he said “that this pastor was a close friend and they had attended college together. Mr. Stone acknowledged knowing about this pastor’s inappropriate conduct through text messages but stated that he did not receive information that the conduct ‘reach[ed] the level of sexual impropriety.'”

      https://static1.squarespace.com/static/6108172d83d55d3c9db4dd67/t/628bfccb599a375bece1f66c/1653341391218/Guidepost+Solutions+Independent+Investigation+Report_.pdf

  1. For many of us there is zero surprise with this report. This same type of report could have been written decades ago. When the FUNDAMENTALIST began the TAKEOVER in the 1970s forward this was inevitable. They codified women as second class citizens in the BF&M. Women were to be seen and not heard from. Once again their will be lots of hand wringing and finger pointing, but the SBC will continue on its journey to obscurity.

  2. From the AP report,
    The report asserts that an Executive Committee staffer maintained a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, but there is no indication anyone “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”

    Ok, so there was, or is a list. People, especially the secular media, is going to go to any lengths, to get that list made public. There are going to be dozens, maybe hundreds, of men in pastoral roles who will be resigning. There are probably hundreds shaking in fear that their name is on the list and will be published. Such a list means the end of a person’s life, whether they are guilty or not. I was taught in seminary that all it takes is one accusation of sexual impropriety to ruin a man’s life. And the world’s media proponents do not care if they are guilty or not, all they care is that they get more clicks and more money for the story.

    Lest you think I am defending guilty men, I am vehemently not. The fact that there is a list will cause a huge stir, and will become the central item of desire for “Matt Drudge” types.

    1. Bob, not a word in your comment about the victims, only the pastors. Your comments show your true colors on this very serious issue.

      1. I was not addressing the aspect of this story that mentions victims. Does every person who comments on every story that includes victims have to mention them?

    2. Bob,

      Seven hundred victimizers equates to hundreds or thousands and thousands of VICTIMS.

      Why shouldn’t that list of abusers be made public? When a sexual abuse victim sees that her abuser is publicly named, wouldn’t that empower her to come forward?

      Where did you stand when the names of Catholic abusing priests were being made public?

    3. Mark Gunderson

      You misunderstood the purpose of the list, Bob. According to the full report, it was maintained by a staffer on behalf of Auggie Boto. It specifically contained “reports of Baptist ministers who are arrested for sexual abuse, for his awareness.”

      This was not a list of secret complaints, this was a list maintained so the EC could monitor exposure. Not all of the ministers on the list were even in SBC churches. Guideposts found that 9 of the 700ish were currently in ministry, and only 2 of those were in ministry with SBC-affiliated churches.

      They had a database and used it to monitor for PR impact, rather than to protect future victims.

    4. Bob, the list came from a member of the executive committee who gleaned the names from the internet periodically by entering “Baptist” and “arrest” and sending the results to Augie Boto, so the names would be a matter of public record, wouldn’t they? This is according to a Baptist Press article which gave people mentioned in the report a chance to respond.

  3. Kimberly M Chastain

    I had been a Southern Baptist my entire life till 4 years ago when all this started coming out. I’m now a Presbyterian in the PCA. One of the main reasons is if this happens in a church the pastor’s ordination is removed and they will not be allowed to to go do this in another congregation.

    The SBC is no different than a corporation trying to minimize its losses and protect themselves. In fact, they are probably worse because they won’t even acknowledge the reports of abuse. One of the many sad consequences is what does this look like to an unbelieving world. The church is no different. Ultimately, the cause of Christ is grievously harmed.

    I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. The clients that grieve me the most are ones that have been harmed by church leaders and the clients want nothing to do with God. I tell them this angered God more than it angered you. Please separate God from “the church”. The church does not represent him at all in this evil behavior.

    My last comment. I would expect the Executive Committee of the SBC has no women on the committee. The EC has become a good ole boys club and they protect one another. This is what happens when the church decides to excludes half of the body of Christ. I honestly have very little hope the SBC will change.

    1. Change? It will die. I am seriously thinking that the SBC as we know it will come to an end with this.

      1. Kimberly M Chastain

        I think you are probably right. The SBC may lose congregations, but I don’t sense those in power are willing to make changes. Hopefully, they will be removed. Again I don’t have much hope change will happen.

  4. Kimberly M Chastain

    I must correct my earlier post. I looked up the current Executive Committee members and there are women members. The committee has a lot of members. I did not see any women mentioned in the report that were making decisions or were involved in stopping or covering up the abuse.

  5. I am a member of a SBC church and I would be surprised if even 10% of the church knows or ever hears about this report. CNN covered it this morning…like I said, less then 10% will hear about it.

    1. Yeah, I would agree.

      Most Southern Baptist members are more in tune with FOX News than they are with Christ or the Southern Baptist Convention.

      I doubt this report will reach them. Expect online replies to include the words “woke,” “liberal,” “Nancy Pelosi” and “Democrat.”

      1. Greg and Dan, I am hoping that more SBC church members will hear about this since Baptist Press has committed themselves to report completely after being interviewed by the investigators of Guidepost. I have seen a difference in their reporting. (I belong to an SBC church in the northwest).

        However, I think most SBC church members view the SBC entities as a mess, if they think of them at all. We are focused on our individual, autonomous churches and keeping them healthy and on mission rather than on what the SBC entities are doing.

    2. Kimberly M Chastain

      I think this is one of the main problems Dan. People will say my church is fine, we don’t have those problems. The average SBC member knows little of anything that goes on at the national level. I think the Executive committee would like to keep it that way.

  6. Some initial thoughts as this report settles:

    Willow Creek had women on their board, in pastoral roles and as staff. John Ortberg’s church did as well. We must not believe that women in leadership or championed is necessarily a protection against abuse and cover ups. It is a matter of character and willingness to expose the truth regardless of the results. That is not simply a gender issue.

    This investigation reveals how cover ups and enabling happen. It is the playbook, not an outlier. The same methods are used regardless of setting or size.

    Imagine if Willow had been subjected to such objective scrutiny. What craven cowards made up the “Independent Advisory Group” for Willow. If that had been handled appropriately, maybe other bad actors in evangelicalism would have been fearful rather than emboldened.

    Church polity and procedures don’t make people hate evil or protect the vulnerable. How did we ever come to care so little about so much evil? How have we become such cowards we will not go to the wall for the victimized and exploited?

    The Conservative Resurgence was not the start of horrific abuse and cover ups. Ask Christa Brown. We must not accept simplistic explanations.

    The fact that the people listed in the report have not publicly resigned or been crushed by public outrage today would shock me…if I hadn’t been watching closely the last several years.

  7. Daniel Mitchell

    Lord Acton understood well that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.”
    Depravity lurks at the core of every one of us. Was it not on this very issue that Jesus said to the victim’s accusers, “He that is without (this) sin, cast the first stone!” Why then do we react with so much outrage and surprise when sinners sin? I think we do this because we wish to distance ourselves from such. The outing of the misdeeds of those we have placed over us in the church implicates us all. When we become enamoured with flash and power to lead Christ’s church we betray Him and scatter His sheep. This is not the time for gleeful condemnation of others. It calls for repentance in sackcloth and ashes. Dear God, let it begin me!

  8. Am I surprised…… No….

    Over the years I have seen many churches and ministries where abuse is protected….at the end of the day it is always about defending the entity or institution.

    I can also clearly see this where leading evangelical leaders bless and pray over a president who is abusive and foul mouthed, and most in the church simply do not care……. and through pragmatic reasoning it is always justified….

    I have only one word for all of this….. fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake fake…..

  9. “It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel.”

    Confronting sin in the church and coming to the defense of women and children who have been sexually abused is a “satanic scheme”?

    If those two things are not part of a Baptist church’s gospel, what gospel are they really preaching?”

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