Hi and welcome back! Recently, we checked out the response of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to accusations of racism in their leadership ranks. And we discovered that one faction of the SBC’s top leaders have decided to pretend very hard that they want to reform the SBC. It’s a time-honored strategy with them. After all, they adopted the same strategy for dealing with their constant stream of sex-abuse allegations too! Don’t ever believe that any big-name evangelical leaders really want to fix anything. Today, I’ll show you a heartbreaking case in point that illustrates what the SBC really cares about the most.
A Sex-Abuse Narrative Begins to Form.
The SBC has certainly seen a lot of controversy over the past few years. I doubt that we’ve seen everything yet, though. In my opinion, their cultural clout has simply subsided enough to allow their various and numerous victims room — and safety enough — to speak openly about their experiences.
Every single thing I see SBC leaders doing in response to their scandals feels like nothing more than appeasement of their enemies. I strongly suspect these leaders are just doing what they think they must until the flocks calm down and forget about that situation. At that point, everyone just completely forgets what happened. Then, they cruise along until the next giant scandal erupts, at which point they just repeat their whole mind-numbing, thought-stopping charade.
As I read about SBC leaders’ reaction to their scandals, a narrative emerged in my mind. A narrative is a kind of story we create in our minds that makes sense of the details of a situation.
(“Whirlwind romance,” for example, is a narrative that describes quickly-developing romantic relationships leading to speedy marriages. All I need to do is say that phrase to tell you the whole story of the couple at its center.)
In the SBC’s case, that narrative’s title sounds a lot like this:
Holding Down the Fort Till We Can Retire With Full Benefits.
A Case in Point.
Years ago in 1998, Andy Savage sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl named Jules Woodson — after grooming her for years, she said. At the time, she attended an SBC church that employed him as a youth pastor. In late 2017, she publicly revealed the abuse. A few days afterward, Savage confessed to the assault in front of his current church congregation — a megachurch employing him as a “teaching pastor.” Savage called his abuse of Woodson a “sexual incident” and did his level best to make his abuse of a minor sound like a voluntary sexual affair between two consenting adults.
His head pastor, Chris Conlee, clearly agreed with this characterization of the assault. So did that megachurch’s congregation. In fact, they gave Andy Savage a literal standing ovation for his faux-confession.
The backlash did not die down after this blatant example of performative piety, though. Eventually, we found out that his new church had known about his previous assault prior to hiring him. The outcry built.
Nobody who has followed evangelicals’ sex-abuse saga will be surprised at all by what these two men did next.
An Utterly Unsurprising Next Chapter.
In October 2019, Andy Savage began making noises about starting up a new church. He referred to his past abuse of Jules Woodson as a “story.” In fact, he said, “we all have our story. Mine just got national news coverage.” Yeah, like who hasn’t sexually groomed and then assaulted a teenager? Gosh, we’ve all been there, right? Poor guy, his sexual grooming and assault just happened to make national news!
Oh, the disgusting details evangelicals reveal about their tribe by accident! Reminds me of something similar.
And Savage did indeed start up a new church, which he called Grace Valley Church. (So did his ex-lead pastor, Chris Conlee.) Savage’s writeup of his reasons for starting this church are a masterwork of self-pity. His own words display his utter inability to accept responsibility for his behavior.
Savage’s new church has a private Facebook group with almost 1000 members. It looks like they’re quite active, with an average of one new post added per day. Yep, nothing says we’re absolutely 100% definitely not a weird cult with something to hide quite like a sooper sekrit Facebook group for a church.
The outcry of Andy Savage’s victim did nothing to stop him from starting this new church. Nor did it stop a bunch of evangelicals from joining that church and putting themselves under the authority and control of an admitted sexual abuser.
This outcome, right here, shows us exactly how much evangelicals in general care about sex abuse.
(If you needed a good mad today and haven’t gotten it yet, here’s Chris Conlee’s bio entry about his new church, and an essay from his wife accusing critics of being demonically influenced. If those don’t do the trick, I’m not sure what could, really.)
And Now, the SBC.
The megachurch that gave Andy Savage a standing ovation isn’t officially an SBC church (though it believes much the same nonsense). However, Savage commited his sex abuse of Jules Woodson while working as the youth pastor for an SBC church, and those SBC church leaders treated Woodson with breathtaking cruelty when she tried to report the assault to them.
The details of Woodson’s story could have come straight out of any SBC church. Indeed, that story was written in July 2018, before the whole “Abuse of Faith” story blew wide open. At the time, the #MeToo movement had been building up steam, resulting in the sister movement #ChurchToo that began around early 2018.
Even then, Baptist News shared a number of high-level SBC sex-abuse allegations:
- Frank Page, who led the SBC Executive Committee, had to step down after “a morally inappropriate relationship.”
- Various professors at two SBC seminaries resigned, likely over sex-abuse allegations, along with a LifeWay library archivist. It might be what this news article was about. The library archivist later revealed that one of those professors had groomed her for abuse.
- Mark Aderholt, a former SBC missionary, got arrested around that time for his sexual abuse of a teenager decades earlier. His victim, Anne Marie Miller, went public with her story in July 2018, prompting the arrest. He pleaded guilty, then got a kind of probation that, if completed, would leave him with a clean record.
- Paul Pressler, of course, who’d been accused of molestation by then. Seminary leader Paige Patterson accused his fellow Conservative Resurgence conspirator of this abuse. Of course, other reports soon alleged that Patterson himself had failed to properly report numerous rape allegations he’d received from various students at his seminaries.
And y’all, those were just the stories about SBC leaders that had reached headlines by July 2018.
Then, Abuse of Faith.
In early 2019, “Abuse of Faith” blew wide open at Houston Chronicle. Its journalists had uncovered many hundreds of sex-abuse victims and crimes committed for decades against them.
Very quickly, it became obvious to me that J.D. Greear, the denomination’s president, had known about this whole sex-abuse scandal for at least a little while. Oh, he cried crocodile Jesus tears up and down about how grieved he was over the scandal. Yes, of course. However, the reporters had been seeking his opinion for about a month, so he must have known about the general outlines of the scandal well before the story officially broke.
Still, it was not until after the story had broken and after serious outcry had begun against the SBC that Greear realized he had to make nice-nice noises with his pie-hole.
The noises he decided to make were designed from the ground up to assuage the surface-level concerns of SBC flocks without actually doing anything serious to address the sex-abuse accusations raised in “Abuse of Faith.”
Immediately, J.D. Greear sprang into action — to protect the SBC from further damage from their newest public-relations nightmare.
How to Get Out of Changing a Thing: High Level Sex-Abuse Edition.
The first official response I could find from J.D. Greear regarding “Abuse of Faith” came the day after the story broke. Here it is. Remember, he’d known about this whole scandal for about a month, if not considerably longer.
In this response post, Greear does not once suggest that victims of sex abuse contact the police. He does offer hotline phone numbers and suggest that sex-abuse survivors who were hurt as children contact Child Protective Services in their state. However, he does not mention police involvement even once.
In addition, Greear puts the main burden of action on victims throughout his official response post. Nor does he tell pastors to contact the police at any point. Instead, he offers an employee of his at his church, Summit Church, as a resource for (fake fundie) therapy.
Worse still, he includes a point (#5) concerning “justice” that links to that same employee.
As for SBC leaders, Greear chides pastors for being too “self-centered and self-protective” when they encounter victims of sex abuse.
J.D. Greear wrote in his response post,
The way we respond in this moment—either in protecting and caring for victims, or defending ourselves and our institutions—will either obscure or adorn the gospel we claim to preach.
And one must say: he wasn’t wrong. His entire essay could serve as an object lesson in surface-level expressions of concern that will never ever threaten the bedrock of a dysfunctional culture.
It’s like he was trying his best to soothe victims while protecting the power and positions of their abusers and enablers.
The Smoke-and-Mirrors of CaringWell.
Amid all the nice-nice noises that top-level SBC officials made about “Abuse of Faith,” they released Caring Well — more than a year after the story broke. I wrote about it at the time. To put it mildly, I was not at all impressed with this attempt to make the flocks feel that their leaders had finally well and truly dealt with their endemic sex-abuse problem.
Someone established the URL “caringwell.com” back in 2008 — the same year that authorities raided an Ohio pill mill called CaringWell. In April of 2019, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (a major SBC subgroup) updated that URL info, probably to direct traffic to an actual website. In August 2019, they launched the initiative itself.
Caring Well was supposed to be the SBC’s all-singing, all-dancing solution to their epidemic of sex abuse. But all it really did was ask people to please, pretty please read through a series of modules that in no way reflected real changes to the SBC’s operations. Afterward, those readers could take “the Caring Well Challenge.”
Not one part of Caring Well demanded that church leaders take or impose mandatory sex-abuse response training, participate in a denominational offenders’ database, require background checks for employees, or anything like that.
Worse, Caring Well did not penalize anybody in the denomination for not “taking the Caring Well challenge,” much less for not implementing real changes — or even their recommended surface-level cosmetic changes.
Woohoo, y’all! Except not really.
Even By Its Own Standards, Caring Well Failed.
J.D. Greear considers Caring Well a huge success. So do his fellow SBC leaders. The hilariously misnamed Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission says that “hundreds of churches and thousands of Southern Baptists” have taken the “Caring Well Challenge.”
(Don’t you love how they make it sound so grand and monumental, when it’s just reading through modules and promising to act nicely toward sex-abuse survivors while making sure nobody calls the police?)
By September 2019, one affiliation of Southern Baptists reported that 750 churches had participated in it so far. In 2019, the SBC had more than 47,000 churches total, so that’s about 1.6% of their total churches.
If more than 10,000 people had taken this dumb challenge, that SBC group would have said “tens of thousands.” But they didn’t. They said “thousands.” In 2019, the SBC held about 14.8 million members. That is absolutely pathetic performance for a flagship anti-abuse product for a massive Christian denomination.
Wow. Much success, very groundbreaking.
The Caring Well Dumpster Fire.
By December 2020, The Wartburg Watch had assessed Caring Well as “a Dumpster Fire.” They called it that for far more than its pathetic adoption rate.
A year after its implementation, J.D. Greear himself violated its piss-poor guidelines.
See, in June 2015, he himself personally hired someone for his megachurch who’d helped cover up sex abuse in his previous church.
The new Summit Church employee, Bryan Loritts, had started a church called Fellowship Memphis in 2003. He hired his brother-in-law Rick Trotter to be its worship director. Trotter promptly got involved in sexual misconduct there, and also at subsequent churches he worked for. Somehow, he just kept getting hired by SBC churches.
Now, Loritts himself faces no accusations of sex abuse. Rather, he faces allegations of covering up Trotter’s abuse. That accusation should represent a major red flag to J.D. Greear, the pastor who hired him and pretends to care so very, very much about sex-abuse victims.
As well, J.D. Greear made a big deal out of a list of the SBC’s 10 worst sex-abuse churches. Of that list, Wartburg Watch tells us that only one is no longer an SBC church — and they apparently withdrew voluntarily. The biggest offender on that list is probably C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Church. As far as I can tell, nobody has ever given any of these offending churches any hassle at all. Before getting called out for his support, Al Mohler even called Mahaney his “friend” and lauded his “personal integrity.” In February, the SBC did kick out a church for sex abuse, but it wasn’t on their big list!
And then there’s this story about Summit Church’s official policy regarding registered sex offenders. Yes, they’re welcome to attend Summit worship services! Summit super-promises that registered sex offenders will totally be escorted everywhere and never allowed near kids. We can totally trust them. Yep. Sex-abuse victims can feel safe there!
What the SBC Refuses to Do.
A year and a half after “Abuse of Faith” broke, the SBC still steadfastly refuses to make any substantive changes to their operations. They refuse to enact a denomination-wide offenders’ database. They refuse to blacklist church leaders/officers who stand credibly accused of abuse or who have admitted to abuse/been convicted of it. In every way imaginable, they refuse to hold anybody fully accountable for their behavior.
In fact, a Baptist offenders’ database now exists — but it is not formally associated in any way with the SBC. So far, it contains over 500 names arranged in three categories: convictions (405), covered-up/enabled abuse (48), and credible allegations (83).
“Challenges” don’t matter. What matters is action. Southern Baptists who care about abuse victims need to know that the SBC refuses to take real action to deal with its abuse-enabling culture. The SBC consistently shows that it cares much more about pastors who can bring in money and increase their count of butts in pews (BIPs, a measure of evangelicals’ cultural dominance).
The SBC doesn’t need to “challenge” anybody to read silly modules and then promise with pious earnestness to be super-nice to abuse victims. What they need is a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach to keeping their flocks safe.
Right now, though, the denomination’s leaders are fighting tooth and nail to keep their power amid repeated accusations of liberal drift. (You heard me.)
So I’m guessing they will continue to refuse to do anything real about their sex-abuse scandal.
I wonder how long it’ll take the flocks to realize that truth?
NEXT UP: The Christmas narrative is not only not an actual true story, but it isn’t nearly as heartwarming as Christians like to imagine. See you tomorrow for a dive into this beloved Christian myth.
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