The Southern Baptist Convention's abuse report is out and published now. Here are its main points and recommendations.
I don’t know what you did on Sunday, but I spent most of it curled up with a nearly-300-page document released by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which contains the results of an extensive investigation into sex abuse.
I’d suspected that it would release a lot of bombshells, and I was certain it’d make the SBC look really bad, especially its Old Guard faction. And it did all of that and more—to the utter shock of quite a few Southern Baptists, it seems. Here are some key features of this report and its recommendations.
Background: The Guidepost sex abuse report
In February 2019, Texan journalists published the first of many parts of a huge investigation into sex abuse in the SBC. These journalists called this scandal “Abuse of Faith.” For many years, they discovered, SBC leaders had knowingly harbored, shuffled around, and shielded active sex abusers in their ministry ranks. Also, they had silenced these abusers’ victims through a variety of methods. All signs point to their then-president, J.D. Greear, knowing full well about the investigation and saying—and doing—nothing till it dropped.
At their 2019 Annual Meeting a few months later, the SBC’s pew-warmers exploded in outrage. Their outrage forced their leaders to pretend to care about sex abuse for the first time.
But that pretense never extended to doing anything tangible about abuse. Instead, the SBC unveiled its alternative to action: Caring Well. Caring Well is a voluntary self-education campaign that only a fraction of SBC churches have ever bothered to start.
Two years later, nothing else of note had happened.
During the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting (p. 57), Grant Gaines of Tennessee formally suggested that the denomination appoint a task force to examine the SBC’s growing megascandal. This megascandal now comprised not only all the sex abuse itself, but also the SBC’s strange inaction regarding it.
In August 2021, Ed Litton, who succeeded J.D. Greear as the new president of the SBC, got the task force formed up and appointed. And by September of that year, the task force had hired Guidepost Solutions to do the investigation itself.
After quite a lot of infighting and foot-dragging (almost all of it from various Old Guard SBC leaders), Guidepost completed the report. They published it on Sunday.
This abuse report fills in a lot of blanks
In a lot of ways, the abuse report isn’t a shocker. We’ve seen the broad outlines of their discoveries for years now. What Guidepost did was fill in a lot of blanks and give shape to critics’ vaguely-outlined hunches.
First of all, yes, the SBC’s top leaders absolutely and positively knew that they were shielding and shuffling-around sex abusers. There’s no mystery there at all. They knew full well what these abusers were doing. In fact, at least one of their staffers spent many years compiling newspaper reports of the arrests and trials of ministers who were potentially working with the SBC (p. 67 in the report. Unless otherwise noted, page numbers in this story will refer to the report).
However, these leaders’ only concern was protecting their gravy train. To keep that train running on time and with their paychecks, they would go to the wall. They cried “church autonomy” constantly, but that was just a plausibly-deniable excuse. They knew what their real motivation was: protection of their own power.
Speaking of which, the report absolutely eviscerates the Old Guard in every conceivable way. Very few stalwarts of that faction escape unscathed. (Al Mohler’s the sole exception; his handling of one abuse report [p. 81] was considered very good). If you read the report, don’t miss the mystifying steps these folks tried to put into place to avoid giving Guidepost any information.
Also, Guidepost uncovered quite a lot of sex abuse in the ranks of top SBC leaders: past SBC presidents, Executive Committee (EC) leaders, and more.
Guidepost spent a lot of time on the EC’s leaders, which in turn uncovered their habit of hiding a lot of pertinent facts from the 86 EC Trustees who served under them. In a very real sense, the 86 right hands had no clue what the left hand was doing. And since the EC was almost entirely the force behind the SBC’s rejection of any reforms to address abuse, these facts are quite damning.
Some interesting passages
The abuse report contains a great many interesting details. On page 26, we see Paige Patterson’s lawyer referring to Guidepost investigators as “these ladies”:
I am pleased to receive any questions from these ladies they would like him to answer and if I deem them appropriate, I will get him to answer them.Gene Besen on behalf of Paige Patterson, p. 26, abuse report
Given exactly how Paige Patterson got sacked, this kind of strangely-sexist wording seemed interesting to me, like Besen was deliberately dissing Guidepost’s investigators.
Also on p. 26, we see the absolutely remarkable lengths that Augie Boto took to avoid talking to those investigators. Their quest culminated in a personal visit that proved weirdly productive:
Finally, on May 6, 2022, Guidepost investigators went to Mr. Boto’s residence to ask in person for an interview. Mr. Boto initially stated that he did not want to make a statement, citing his former position as EC General Counsel as the reason he could not speak to us. However, he did engage in conversation with our investigators for approximately an hour and give his views on various topics related to the investigation.p. 26, abuse report
In 2019, Boto referred to the focus on the SBC’s abuse scandal as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism” (p. 170). During his interview with Guidepost, the investigators noted that he reiterated this opinion to them.
Lastly, I thought it was just Wacky World levels of strange to see how Frank Page engaged with the scandal. SBC-watchers may remember that he ended up retiring-before-he-was-fired some years back for putting his dick somewhere it didn’t belong. In 2006, Christa Brown had tried to get him to take action regarding her own SBC-affiliated abuser (p. 49). He cried church autonomy, of course. The next year, he accused abuse survivors and awareness groups of “seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain.” I reckon Frank Page knows all about that, eh?
The recommendations Guidepost makes
Guidepost’s report offers a number of recommendations to the SBC’s leaders (starting on p. 259). These recommendations, taken together, would represent an absolutely epochal overhaul of the SBC’s current culture, values, and leadership style. As such, the SBC will not ever adopt them. But they’re interesting, all the same.
First and foremost, they suggest the SBC create a completely independent permanent commission to oversee and implement all these reforms. (Chances: 20%, less if completely independent; SBC leaders do not like to see people operating outside their good ol’ boy crony network. It took two years to get them to semi-agree to Guidepost’s independence, and even then a bunch quit over it.).
Guidepost also wants the SBC to create a “resource toolbox” for handling sex abuse reports, and they want training in the use of this toolbox to be “mandatory for SBC entities” (p. 263). Interestingly, they do not even once mention Caring Well here. Caring Well is a sham of a program that pretends to be such a toolbox, and if Guidepost is deliberately snubbing it, then it’s a proper and delightsome snub. (Chances: 0%. See muh church out-TAW-nuh-mee).
Equally 0% chances and for the same reason: Guidepost’s request that the SBC institute mandatory background checks on “all staff and volunteers” in all SBC-affiliated churches (p. 265).
Interestingly, the report also uncovered the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) as a form of victim silencing in the SBC. So they recommend that practice be prohibited (p. 268). (Chances: LOL)
This sex abuse report really highlights the absolutely broken nature of the SBC
For years now, I have identified the SBC as a broken system. A broken system isn’t necessarily one that is falling apart at the seams. Some broken systems last for centuries. Rather, a broken system is one that cannot possibly fulfill its own stated goals. It exists only as a means of channeling power to its leaders, who can’t find that kind of undiluted, unfettered power through functional systems.
To put it plainly, the SBC’s leaders are about power. That is all. That is all they want, all they need, all they crave. If any threat to their power arises, their sole concern is eliminating it. Their only fear is losing power.
Broken systems are a danger to anyone lacking power within them. The leaders of these systems don’t care about justice, loyalty, or compassion, since these qualities all represent dangerous distractions from power-building to them.
Remember when we all joked about the American Republican Party being “face-eating jaguars,” and how rank-and-file Republican voters were just utterly shocked about the face-eating jaguars turning on them and eating their faces by enacting laws and policies that directly harmed them and their families? Well, that is exactly what I mean here.
The SBC exists to channel power to its top leaders. Maybe it’s always been that way, or maybe it changed at some point. It hardly matters. Whatever the case, those leaders don’t care how they get what they want.
Whatever SBC-lings think the SBC is about, what I have described here is the reality of the situation. However good those followers might be as human beings, that is the truth of the organization they have willingly joined and supported.
This year’s Annual Meeting is going to be absolutely lit
In just a few weeks here, right about when I’m getting settled into my new home, in fact, the SBC will be holding this year’s Annual Meeting. It promises to be an absolute madhouse. Attendance last year was through the roof. This year’s attendance may be even higher, for all that it’s being held in Anaheim, California (meaning: far from its biggest base of members in the Deep South).
And abuse reform is going to be on a lot of attendees’ minds.
They’re voting on a new president this year, as well as on a bunch of motions that may make a lot of demands of SBC leaders that I guarantee they will not like.
So far, we’ve got Old Guard candidates whose approach can be summarized as we all just need to Jesus Harder, while the Pretend Progressives are doing their damndest to fix sex abuse without making a ton of big (and utterly necessary) changes to the SBC’s rotted core.
As I’ve said many times: no matter who wins their election this year and no matter which faction’s approach carries the day for the abuse scandal itself, the real losers here will be the folks who understand what kind of reforms are really needed and actually want to make them happen.
The winners? Well, that’d be Guidepost, probably. And anyone who maintains leadership status in the SBC once the dust has settled.