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Southern Baptists Apologize to Abuse Survivors and Urge Criminalizing Pastoral Abuse

By Bob Smietana and Adelle Banks
abuse survivors sbc hotline
Abuse survivors Debbie Vasquez, from left, Jules Woodson and Tiffany Thigpen react to a vote in favor of sexual abuse victims during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

A day after approving a series of reforms meant to address sexual abuse in their denomination, Southern Baptists at their national meeting approved a resolution Wednesday apologizing to abuse survivors and asking for forgiveness.

They also called on U.S. state legislatures to create laws that make pastoral sexual misconduct a specific crime and punish those who prey on church members.

Alabama pastor Griffin Gulledge told the more than 8,100 local church delegates, known as messengers, attending the afternoon session of the second day of the SBC’s annual meeting that many states have laws forbidding doctors to have sex with their patients or therapists with their clients.

“It should be illegal for pastors to prey upon their own congregations,” said Gulledge, who said some states already have such laws on the books. “This convention should have no problem saying so.”

Gulledge said that a pastor who commits sexual misconduct involving a church member will often confess to a “moral failing,” before resigning and facing no legal consequences.

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“For every pastor in this room — you have nothing to worry about, unless you’re a sexual abuser,” Gulledge said in urging his fellow Southern Baptists to pass the resolution. “And then you should have the fear of God in you.”

The resolutions session marked the end of a tumultuous year in which messengers sent a clear signal that they wanted to address the issue of abuse after years of delay and resistance by leaders. 

Last month, an investigation authorized by messengers at last year’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, found that SBC leaders had downplayed the issue of abuse in local churches for years while demonizing abuse survivors as enemies of the church.

The resolution of “lament and repentance” for that mishandling of sexual abuse stated that Southern Baptists “publicly apologize to and ask forgiveness from survivors of sexual abuse for our failure to care well for survivors, for our failure to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse adequately accountable in our churches and institutions, for our institutional responses which have prioritized the reputation of our institutions over protection and justice for survivors, and for the unspeakable harm this failure has caused to survivors through both our action and inaction.”

sbc 2022 prayer abuse survivors
Messengers bow in prayer at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California, on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

Ten survivors were named in the resolution. According to Bart Barber, the chair of the resolutions committee who was elected president of the SBC on Tuesday, each had given consent to be named.

Tiffany Thigpen, one of the abuse survivors named in the resolution, said the statement was a step forward.

“We’ve seen them fight for us this time,” Thigpen said. “We’ve seen some actions that have shown us that they’re trying to make the changes and do the right thing.”

On Wednesday, SBC leaders began discussing plans for what they called a “post-Roe” future, anticipating a Supreme Court decision later this month, which they expected would render abortion “illegal, unthinkable, and unnecessary.”

But they rejected pressure from some messengers who wanted the denomination to call for criminal penalties for women who have abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned as expected.

“You are not going to get me to say I want to throw mothers behind bars,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

The ERLC has been criticized by so-called abolitionists who want to outlaw abortion with no exception because the ERLC was among several groups that sent an open letter to state legislatures urging them not to impose criminal penalties on women who have abortions.

In an interview after the session, Tennessee pastor Jared Moore said that abortion should be treated as murder and that unborn children need equal protection under the law. “We won’t get an end to abortion until they get equal protection,” he said.

Messengers also rejected a motion to dismantle the ERLC for being a divisive organization — something Leatherwood thanked them for.

Earlier in the day, outgoing convention President Ed Litton presented plans for the Unity Project he hopes to create with Southern Baptists and other Christians committed to racial reconciliation.

sbc 2022 tony evans
Pastor Tony Evans addresses the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

Fred Luter, the first Black SBC president, and Tony Evans, whose Urban Alternative ministry is a partner in the plans, spoke in favor of the project.

“I am convinced this is the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Litton, “not to debate theories, but stick to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the solution to the most damaging wounds in our land.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter, and Adelle Banks is production editor, for Religion News Service.



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8 Responses

  1. Sadly, the deviant behavior is not limited to strictly pastoral abuse. As an SBC pastor when I learned of the habitual sexual abuse by the long time church treasurer, I confronted it immediately. Associational and state leaders were informed and involved, but in the end I was forced out as the senior pastor because I opposed the illegal, sinful behavior of a church boss.

  2. There would seem to be a constitutional obstruction to making pastoral abuse a specific criminal offense; namely the principle of separation of Church and State. Health profession is not separated from the State in the constitution; so aspects of health profession practice can be held to be criminal under aegis of State authority. The problem here would seem two-way: as some would object to the State taking authority over what was specifically religious; and others would object to religions imposing their standards on State practice.
    That being said, numerous pieces of extant legislation could be made to apply to the Pastoral situation where abuse as discerned (as is the situation already, say where minors are abused); all without the arguable overreach inherent in the demand to make pastoral abuse a specific criminal offence. If this demand was yielded to, then why not have a multitude of specific criminal offences such as teacher-abuse or doctor-abuse or politician-abuse or reporter-abuse.
    If a Church or denomination bids to be an example to us all, then keeping its own house in good order across its own standards and authority, would seem a baseline requirement.

      1. Ralph. Where a pastor is seen to be acting as a counsellor, then the laws applying to counselling could be applied. You still have complex interpretation involved there, as counselling under Christian or Biblical or denominational aegis does not begin as equivalent to professional secular counselling. There is overlap, but not consensually agreed upon equivalence.
        Constitutional separation of Church and State is of fundamental importance to many people, perhaps the majority of Americans. Many would balk at disregarding that Constitution in order to nail those seen as doing wrong. That sentiment seemingly central to American culture and law and politics. Go after the wrong doer, but not in a manner seeing the Constitution abandoned, does seem to be the mainstream American way. Across a commendable impulse to do right by victims of wrongdoing, messengers are arguably putting separation at risk.

  3. And we were thrown out of my lifetime mission because they chose to believe a false accuser over their own missionaries. Even when she wreaked havoc on the whole Christian community there and it became obvious this was a false accuser.
    It is naive to tell pastors that they don’t have to worry unless they are abusers. If they are gifted to love and guide the vulnerable well, they will very likely be hit with false allegations. This is a spiritual war.
    We have discovered there are numerous innocent pastors and missionaries who have been dumped from their organizations (church/mission) and left traumatized, terrified, and sometimes thrown into jail. The “preponderance of evidence” is fancy wording for “maybe they did it; we want to show the world that we take abuse seriously and are willing to throw out the person who appears to be the one with power, just in case they did.
    People…wake up!!!! The US (or any secular) government is NOT a loving safe place. The criminal codes are already in place, probably globally, (thanks to well-meaning networks of missions that want to make sure no abuse takes place). These codes can (and will) be used to destroy those who are on the front lines of spreading the true gospel and loving the most vulnerable, whether overseas or here in the US.
    The SBC is now on dangerous footing….just like my ex-mission. Satan will likely have a heyday with what is basically a “guilty until proven innocent” system, which believes the apparent victim over the accused.

    1. Elizabeth, I’m very sorry for your circumstances.

      So many missionary children have been molested, raped, and treated abusively by staff. There was no accountability and the perpetrators were allowed to continue on and move around. My father and his siblings were raped/abused while at missionary boarding school.

      Their lives were destroyed far beyond your career loss. Please have come compassion for them.

      It is a mistake to spiritualize this. It is a criminal matter. It is also a mistake to criticize the steps the SBC (and other organizations) are taking.

    2. Like the good priests who people assume are bad. Blame the hierarchy for allowing evil to be protected. There are many more evil pastors that got away with something then innocent falsely accused.

  4. If the idol shepherds are willing to ignore the Biblical injunctions not to sleep around, especially on their wives, why do we think that they’ll be deterred by the prospect of a criminal conviction?
    Assuming anyone other than the complaining witness even wants to prosecute.

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