Southern Baptists vote to probe leaders’ sex abuse response

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People pray during the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to create a task force to oversee an independent investigation into the denomination’s handling of sexual abuse.

The resolution calls for the newly elected SBC president, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, to appoint the task force, which will head up a review of allegations that the denomination’s Executive Committee mishandled abuse cases, intimidated victims and advocates and resisted reforms.

It would also investigate the work of a credentials committee that was created in 2019 with a mandate to exclude congregations that fail to respond to sex abuse cases.

It was a sharp turn of events for the SBC’s largest gathering in decades.

The SBC’s business committee had planned to refer the proposal to its Executive Committee — the same entity alleged to have failed in its response to abuse cases — but church representatives voted in the morning to put the matter before the convention floor and then approved it later in the day against only token opposition.

The task force was proposed by Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines following leaked letters and secret recordings purporting to show some leaders tried to slow-walk accountability efforts and intimidate and retaliate against those who advocated on the issue.

Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd has defended the body’s response, but last week he announced that the panel had retained an outside consulting firm, Guidepost Solutions, to investigate the claims. On Wednesday he told the convention that he accepts the proposal for a more independent probe.

“I hear you,” Floyd told the gathering, drawing out his words. “This will make our convention stronger, and that is what I want.”

During a brief floor debate, Georgia pastor Troy Bush said the committee failed to investigate adequately a case involving a minister accused of abuse in multiple churches including his own.

“We believe the Executive Committee does not have the ability to handle this task force and investigation alone,” Bush said.

Opposing the measure, one delegate from Idaho argued that under biblical principles, local congregations alone should handle abuse cases: “The Holy Spirit does not need the Southern Baptist Convention to be judge and jury in these matters.”

Before the vote, critics had said the Executive Committee couldn’t oversee the Guidepost probe because it would be a conflict of interest.

Abuse survivors “brought their cases to (SBC authorities) only to feel that they were brushed off, disregarded and turned away,” Gaines said. “These are not the kind of allegations we can sweep under the rug.”

The resolution calls for the task force to assume oversight of the Guidepost investigation; for the Executive Committee to grant access to documents that normally would be protected by attorney-client privilege; and for the task force to issue its findings in a public report.

The vote is the latest action in response to a landmark 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News in 2019 documenting hundreds of cases of abuse in Southern Baptist churches, with several alleged perpetrators remaining in ministry.

The debate over the investigation came on the concluding day of the two-day gathering of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 15,726 voting delegates in attendance, the most in at least 25 years.

A separate proposal for an outside audit of the SBC’s handling of the abuse issue was referred to the denomination’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the commission’s acting president said the agency’s trustees will consider it.

“We want to do everything in our power to serve Southern Baptists in the effort to make churches safe from abuse,” Daniel Patterson said in a statement.

The previous day, delegates elected Litton as their new president, turning back a push from a conservative faction that had sought to paint the Alabama pastor known for his work on racial unity as too liberal.

Litton has been viewed favorably by some abuse survivors and advocates.

Fred Luter, who nominated Litton and is the only Black pastor to have served as SBC president, said Wednesday that the vote signaled to him that “people are tired of the division and all the things that separate us.”

The buildup to the meeting included the departures of the Southern Baptists’ top public policy official, Russell Moore; mega-selling Christian author Beth Moore; and several prominent Black clergy, amid overlapping controversies including sex abuse, racism, politics and the treatment of women.

Others had threatened to leave as a faction calling itself the Conservative Baptist Network pushed for action on culture war issues like critical race theory, an academic tool for analyzing systemic racism that has been a target of Republican-controlled legislatures in at least 16 states.

“From the African American perspective, we were upset because we felt that the convention was denying the fact that there is systematic racism in this country. … We need to accept the fact that there is systematic racism in this country, and it should not be in our convention at all,” Luter said.

Delegates on Tuesday approved a consensus measure regarding critical race theory that did not mention it by name but rejected any view that sees racism as rooted in “anything other than sin.”

That didn’t end discussion on the topic, however.

In reports to the convention Wednesday, Southern Baptist seminary presidents doubled down on a controversial statement they issued several months ago denouncing critical race theory. They called it “toxic” and incompatible with Christian doctrine.

But Adam Greenway, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, acknowledged the objections of several Black clergy.

“What they heard from us is that we were denying the reality of structural or systemic racism. … For any way in which I personally have hurt you, I apologize and I ask you to forgive me,” Greenway said.

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Loller reported from Nashville, and Smith reported from Pittsburgh.

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