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On Sunday, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, publicly released a massive internal investigation into the sex abuse crisis that’s embroiled so many of their churches. The report took an investment of roughly $4 million, involved interviews with hundreds of people, and collected over 5 terabytes of documents.

The result is as awful as critics predicted. And somehow, it still misses the most obvious answer.

The investigation that spurred the sexual abuse crisis

Some background is helpful here: In 2019, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published the 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, 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.

That’s why this report from the outside group Guidepost Solutions was so anticipated. If reporters discovered that much bad behavior, what was an organization with far more (theoretical) access and cooperation going to find?

Read: What you need to know about the Southen Baptist sex abuse report

What the report revealed about how Southern Baptist leaders handled sex abuse

The answer came in a 288-page report, covering roughly two decades of bad behavior. The conclusions are devastating. It’s not that they list a set number of abusers or victims. It’s that the report shows a pattern of covering up or downplaying abuse and creating an environment where victims couldn’t get justice.

It’s impossible to choose just one excerpt from the report, because so much of it is jaw-dropping, but look at this one passage detailing how various SBC’s leaders acted:

While stories of abuse were minimized, and survivors were ignored or even vilified, revelations came to light in recent years that some senior SBC leaders had protected or even supported abusers:

• Former SBC President Steve Gaines admitted that, as senior pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church, he had delayed reporting a staff minister’s prior sexual abuse of a child of “heartfelt concern and compassion for th[e] minister,” while acknowledging that he should have “brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately;”

• Former SBC President Jack Graham, when he was pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, allegedly allowed an accused abuser of young boys to be dismissed quietly in 1989 without reporting the abuse to police. The accused abuser, John Langworthy, later was charged with abusing young boys in Mississippi in 2011;

• Former SBC President Paige Patterson was terminated from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 after it was revealed that he told a student not to report a rape in 2003 and, in 2015, emailed his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could “break her down;”

• Former SBC Vice President Judge Paul Pressler is the defendant in a civil sexual abuse lawsuit alleging that he repeatedly sexually abused the plaintiff beginning when the plaintiff was 14 years old. Two other men submitted separate affidavits in the case also accusing Judge Pressler of sexual misconduct; and

• Former EC Interim President and General Counsel Augie Boto testified as a character witness for Mark Schiefelbein, a gymnastics coach convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault against a minor. During his testimony at a post-conviction evidentiary hearing in September 2008, Mr. Boto identified himself as general trial counsel for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention

If those are the men heading up the organization, is it any wonder that so many pastors figured they could get away with abuse?

The Washington Post also notes another stunning conclusion from the report:

The findings of nearly 300 pages include shocking new details about specific abuse cases and shine a light on how denominational leaders for decades actively resisted calls for abuse prevention and reform. Evidence in the report suggests leaders also lied to Southern Baptists over whether they could maintain a database of offenders to prevent more abuse when top leaders were secretly keeping a private list for years.

I repeat: The SBC claimed it couldn’t maintain a database of offenders… but they kept a private list for years. They knew who the bad apples were but said nothing publicly. The report says: “The latest iteration of the table contains the name of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated.”

One of those bad apples was another former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who allegedly sexually assaulted a woman a month after stepping down from his post. (Hunt denied all of that on Sunday.)

So the SBC 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.”

Sex abuse has long plagued the Southern Baptist Convention

All of this comes after years of stories about bad behavior that we already knew about (even when it wasn’t criminal). Former SBC leader Paige Patterson, mentioned above, also told women trapped in abusive marriages to stay and pray. He also made creepy sexual remarks about an underage girl. There was Pastor Matt Chandler, who botched sexual abuse cases and told his congregation a staffer had been fired over a “sin issue” when the truth was he had secretly taped a male youth pastor in the shower at his home multiple times. There was International Mission Board member Mark Aderholt, who sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl, and was then allowed to resign quietly… until over a decade later when police finally arrested him. More recently, there was Willy Rice, who was poised to become the next SBC leader until it was revealed that he ordained a man guilty of sexual misconduct.

Why is there so much sexual abuse in this denomination?

We know it’s not a lack of treating sex outside of marriage as a sin. It’s not homosexuality. It’s not Satan. It’s pretty much what critics long suspected. This is what happens when a group of male leaders with no serious oversight act in their own best interests all the time. They dodged accountability until it became impossible. They used their power to avoid transparency and consequences until they finally couldn’t. They used faith as a weapon to keep people quiet until one courageous victim after another began telling their stories publicly.

The report offers a series of recommendations for the SBC moving forward, including establishing an independent commission to implement and oversee reforms, creating a group to deal with sexual abuse issues within the SBC (with appropriate staff and funding), compensating survivors, eliminating non-disclosure agreements when it comes to settling sexual abuse cases, and more.

In that sense, the report basically restates what sex abuse experts have been advocating for years.

The sex abuse report ignored one area in desperate need of reform

Those might be fine suggestions if adopted. But it’s not nearly enough. In fact, the report misses the most important area in need of reform: Southern Baptist theology.

The way Southern Baptists push “Purity Culture” leads to victim-blaming and sex-shaming. The way women are excluded from positions of leadership creates a lack of trusted role models for girls, and the women who use their voices anyway are routinely shut down or condemned. The way women are told to submit to male leadership breaks down when those same men are either abusers or accomplices. The way pastors talk about LGBTQ people leads to sexual repression and silence if abuse occurs by someone of the same sex.

This list could continue, but all of those problems with their core beliefs are just off the table. By definition, those things cannot be reformed.

How can the SBC’s sex abuse problem be solved when the root causes remain unaddressed?

No amount of documentation and oversight are going to be as helpful as overhauling their broken and harmful Christian beliefs.

Even Russell Moore, the former head of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, acknowledged the misguided priorities:

Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.

The Southern Baptist Convention has shed 1.1 million members over the past three years. From a peak of 16.3 million members in 2016, they currently sit at 13.7 million members. The report itself quotes a former SBC leader saying 10% of SBC church members under age 35 left the denomination specifically because “they believed sexual abuse was not being treated seriously.”

I would sincerely hope that this report leads to an even faster decline in the future.

Simply put: Women are not safe in Southern Baptist churches. They don’t need to become atheists; they just need to find a church that actually respects them. SBC churches do not, because they fall under the umbrella of SBC leaders, who clearly do not.

The SBC is scheduled to hold its annual meeting in a few weeks. We’ll see if if current leaders adopt the recommendations wholeheartedly or put up any kind of resistance. Regardless, it’s far too late to make amends for this much bad behavior.

If this report doesn’t cause a mass exodus from the denomination, nothing will.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.