By Theresa Waldrop, CNN
An independent investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention found its leaders mishandled allegations of sexual abuse, intimidated victims and resisted attempts at reform over the course of two decades.
Abuse survivors and others “made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC (executive committee) meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press…only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC,” a report on the findings said.
The response to such allegations was largely handled by a few senior EC leaders and outside attorneys who were “singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations,” the report said.
SBC leaders said they are reviewing the report and are committed to preventing abuse and improving the church’s response to abuse allegations.
The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with an estimated 14 million members across more than 47,000 Baptist churches.
Hundreds of alleged abusers were documented since 2007 by the EC, according to the report, though investigators noted many survivors may never have reached out to the EC about their abuse.
The EC intends to make public its list of known abusers and is reviewing whether it can revoke retirement benefits for leaders who mishandled allegations, SBC President Ed Litton said Tuesday.
Here’s what we know about the origins and scope of the investigation.
What prompted the investigation
In recent years, sexual abuse accusers had grown more vocal in the church, and allegations had garnered media attention, the report found.
The EC was divided on how to handle the issue, but last year representatives from SBC churches “overwhelmingly voted” for the creation of a task force to supervise an independent investigation into how the EC managed such allegations.
The EC had earlier commissioned Guidepost Solutions LLC, a private company, to carry out the investigation.
The scope of the investigation
Guidepost Solutions looked into the actions and decisions of EC staff and members from January 1, 2000, through June 14, 2021, as they related to allegations of abuse, treatment of survivors and their advocates and reform efforts.
The investigation also examined allegations of abuse by EC staff and members.
One such allegation in the report was against former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who was reported by an SBC pastor and his wife to have sexually assaulted her on July 25, 2010.
Hunt responded to the report on Twitter by saying, in part, “To put it bluntly: I vigorously deny the circumstances and characterizations set forth in the Guidepost report. I have never abused anybody.”
The report said investigators found the sexual assault allegation credible, partly because it was corroborated by witnesses. CNN has reached out to Hunt for further comment.
Over 288 pages, the report details similar allegations and the response — or lack thereof — by church leaders.
Investigators interviewed about 330 people, including 22 accusers, and had access to more than five terabytes of data, including emails from survivors and EC leadership.
One person said he was abused by a youth minister at a Southern Baptist church in Georgia when he was 12-15 years old, according to the report.
An official from the SBC told him “the churches were autonomous and there was nothing he could do but pray,” according to the report. The accuser said that between 2006 and 2011 the SBC and EC did not respond to his emails, didn’t answer his calls and “were always unavailable for meetings.”
When he went public with his accusation in 2011, he learned two friends from his youth group also claimed to have been abused at the same time. The report says the minister later made a written confession and resigned, but his church disaffiliated with the SBC and rehired him.
A woman who has been vocal about her abuse allegations told the investigators that the public backlash has “had an enormous impact on her life and personhood,” the report said. She told investigators she had “received volumes of hate mail, awful blog comments, vitriolic phone calls, and occasionally worse. She received one anonymous message threatening to cut off her head.”
A different woman alleged that she became pregnant from one of many assaults by a pastor and was forced to go in front of the congregation to ask for forgiveness, “but she was told she could not mention who the father of the child was because it would harm the church,” the report said.
What church leadership knew
The EC is governed by 86 trustees who serve limited terms. Decisions regarding sexual abuse were “largely left to the discretion” of the executive committee president and chief executive officer as well as his closest advisors on staff, with “high-level issues” brought to the SBC president, according to the report. It said the trustees were not informed nor involved in the decision-making process.
From as early as 2007, an EC staff member maintained a list of reports of abuse, the report said; however, there was no indication that EC staff “took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.”
The most recent list prepared by the staff member “contained the names of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time,” according to the report.
In a 2019 email to some leaders, an EC staff member pointed out that 44 women had reported being victims of sexually inappropriate conduct by one pastor.
“In almost every instance, they were reportedly shamed for it and left feeling like they were not believed. From all published accounts, it seems (the pastor) moved from church to church and left ruined lives in his wake,” the email read.
He was later convicted of sex crimes against minors and served time in prison. After his release, he returned to the pulpit, the report noted.
The SBC’s response to sexual abuse allegations over the course of two decades was largely driven “by a small cadre of staff” as well as its outside lawyers, the report said.
In general, when responding to cases of alleged abuse, some SBC leaders pointed to the fact that its churches have autonomy and its structure is not hierarchical, as the Catholic Church is, so it could not mandate how churches respond to allegations, according to the report.
What the report recommends
Guidepost proposed recommendations to improve how the SBC responds to sexual abuse and misconduct allegations.
“Some recommendations will require a significant amount of work, while other elements recognize the need for education and cultural change. A comprehensive implementation of these recommendations should help to create safe spaces for children and all members of the Convention,” the report said.
The recommendations include:
- Creating and maintaining an “Offender Information System” database to alert communities to known offenders.
- Establishing an independent commission and, later, a permanent administrative entity to oversee comprehensive reforms.
- Providing a “Resource Toolbox” that includes protocols, training, education and practical information.
- Restricting the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements that require confidentiality.
- Acknowledging those affected through a sincere apology and tangible gesture, accompanied by dedicated survivor advocacy support and a compensation fund.
SBC says it is committed to preventing abuse
“To the members of the survivor community, we are grieved by the findings of this investigation,” EC Chairman Rolland Slade and EC Interim President and CEO Willie McLaurin said in a statement Sunday. “We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks, and to respond to the will” of convention delegates who meet next month.
The leaders have asked EC members and staff to “closely examine the findings and recommendations of this report and begin formulating how they might be incorporated into Southern Baptist convention polity and structure.”
“A great wrong has been committed,” Litton said Tuesday when asked why the SBC is being transparent about the report.
“We need to be mindful that the world is watching… we have to do this right,” he added.
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CNN’s Joe Sutton, Keith Allen and Emma Tucker contributed to this report.