Why pace yourself when you can sprint? The Department of Justice, during a surprisingly busy week, is now investigating the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, for sexual abuse. That’s according to the SBC leaders themselves, who announced on Friday that an investigation was taking place and that they’d fully cooperate.
If you’re wondering what the hell is going on, it helps to go back to 2019, when the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published their first article resulting from a six-month-long investigation into Southern Baptist churches. They found that, over the previous decade, more than 250 staffers or volunteers had been “charged with sex crimes” against more than 700 victims.
That included malfeasance with the International Mission Board, the SBC’s missionary arm with an annual budget of over $158 million (the result of tithe money from SBC member churches) and 3,600 members. The reporters found that several members of the IMB were credibly accused of abuse and several other members of the IMB helped cover it all up.
Unlike the Catholic Church, which has a hierarchy always looking toward the Vatican, Southern Baptists have autonomous churches that act independently in many ways. It’s much harder to control what each one does. It’s especially hard to force them to report problematic staffers to some central office. Not only does that make predatory pastors harder to track, it makes those churches magnets for abusers who know they’ll be able to get away with their crimes.
It took the reporters to create a database of bad actors since church leaders themselves avoided doing such a thing. Or so we were told.
Under immense pressure, the SBC leaders eventually agreed to hire an outside group, Guidepost Solutions, to conduct its own investigation into the denomination. They released their findings this past May and the results were devastating. The report revealed a pattern of covering up or downplaying abuse and an environment where victims couldn’t get justice. We learned that SBC leaders actively avoided calls for reform. We also found out that, yes, the SBC kept a private list of alleged sex offenders. They knew who the bad apples were but said nothing publicly. The report said, “The latest iteration of the table contains the name of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated.”
In short, the Southern Baptist Convention mishandled abuse allegations, mistreated victims, intimidated victims or their advocates, and resisted attempts at reform. All the while, SBC leaders ignored the crisis, with one saying the focus on sexual abuse was “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” The report summarized the response more honestly: “Survivors were always viewed through the lens of potential plaintiffs threatening lawsuits, rather than as individuals who had been harmed and were in need of care.”
In response to the report, the SBC promised that it would take the recommendations seriously and begin implementing them as soon as possible. They adopted some reforms in June, including the creation of a tracking system for problematic pastors and staffers. But victims were demanding far more—and with good reason.
That’s where we were at until Friday’s bombshell announcement: The Department of Justice is investigating “multiple SBC entities,” but not specific individuals, as a result of the report which revealed mishandling of sexual abuse cases:
“The SBC Executive Committee recently became aware that the Department of Justice has initiated an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, and that the investigation will include multiple SBC entities,” the statement issued Friday by 14 SBC leaders from multiple top entities said. “Individually and collectively each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation.”
“While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future. The fact that the SBC Executive Committee recently completed a fully transparent investigation is evidence of this commitment,” the statement read. “We recognize our reform efforts are not finished.”
As far as a statement goes, it’s fine. It acknowledges the DoJ’s investigation and promises cooperation. (Unlike many conservatives this week, they’re not treating the investigation as a “witch hunt” or acting like they’re being persecuted.)
Keep in mind that an investigation here wouldn’t have anything to do with the religious beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention but rather the possibility that sexual abuse was ignored or treated improperly. The SBC couldn’t be trusted to investigate itself, so they finally hired an outside company to look into their problems and make recommendations. A federal investigation could dig even deeper and possibly lead to criminal charges if they apply.
Christianity Today explains why the DoJ’s involvement could be significant:
It is not clear what potential or suspected crimes they are looking into. The Department of Justice (DOJ) writes on its website, “Child sexual abuse matters are generally handled by local and state authorities, and not by the federal government.”
But the DOJ has looked into church abuse before. It began investigating abusive Catholic priests in Pennsylvania in 2018, following a state grand jury. At the time, the Washington Post wrote that “the decision to launch such a probe, even one limited to a single state, is noteworthy because the federal government has long shied away” from responding to allegations of the church’s coverup.
May the SBC go the way of the Catholic Church, at least as far as public perception goes. A complete reckoning is long overdue.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)