Reports of Southern Baptist sex offenders have brought calls for change, said Jeremy Wright, pastor at Redeemer Baptist Fellowship in Memphis.
Brad Vest, Memphis Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An investigation that found more than 700 victims of sexual misconduct by leaders in Southern Baptist churches is “heartbreaking,” said Jeremy Wright, pastor at Redeemer Baptist Fellowship in Memphis.
He also said he was grateful for the investigation, in which the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News compiled more than 380 cases over the last 20 years of church leaders and volunteers who have been accused of sex crimes.
“I hope the overwhelming response is ‘We’re sorry, we want to change’,” Wright said. “I hope the overwhelming response is to say ‘That is not the way we want to represent Jesus.’ That’s the hope in coming days.”
Southern Baptist leaders respond
Denominational leaders also have spoken out about the series.
Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the USA TODAY Network that he’s grateful that the investigation brought these stories to light.
In the past, some churches have felt as if they are invulnerable to these issues, Moore said. Other barriers to addressing sexual abuse have included a lack of awareness and training.
“There are some churches that assumed these sorts of crimes can only happen in the outside world,” Moore said. “That’s exactly the mentality predators count on: A sense of invulnerability within the church so there’s not a questioning of what is going on.”
Last year, J.D. Greear, president of the convention, formed a study group on sexual abuse in partnership with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Although that group rose out of conversations about mainly adult victims during the #MeToo movement, Moore said it is meant to focus on all victims, including children.
He said he is hopeful that the group will move the denomination toward “systematic overhaul” on these issues.
“I think that one important piece is for churches not to see these issues as somehow a distraction from our mission,” Moore said. “Protecting vulnerable people is right in line with our mission.”
Questions about church autonomy
Some have said reform can be difficult since Southern Baptist churches are autonomous — affiliated but not governed by the convention. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, can choose to associate or disassociate with a local church, but it can’t otherwise enforce policies or theology.
That shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid reforms, Wright said.
“Each church is governed from within, but that doesn’t make each church its own island,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of influence that goes on in the Southern Baptist world.”
Wright said he hopes for “sweeping changes” at the individual church level in hiring processes, volunteer orientation and allowing people into different ministry roles.
At the denominational level, he said he hopes for the convention’s publishing arm to offer more training on sexual abuse in its curriculum. The publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resources, already offers discounted background screenings to churches, but Wright hopes they will offer them at a lower cost or even for free.
A survivor of sexual assault in the Catholic Church, David Brown is now a Southern Baptist who works with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) in Memphis.
He and others have asked the convention for years to establish a database that includes people credibly accused of sexual abuse, not just those who have been convicted.
“The SBC uses the word ‘autonomous,’ ” said Brown. “They couch and cover a lot of sins that way.”
Lindsey Pence, who attends Wright’s church in Memphis, said she’s excited to hear about denomination-wide ideas for change.
“I think the problem in the Southern Baptist Convention is we care too much about autonomy and not enough about justice in this situation,” she said. “In general, the Bible teaches that evil looks for darkness to hide in. The church should be the last place functioning as that darkness where evil can occur.”
Moore also said that autonomy shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction.
“There are special challenges with autonomy,” Moore said. “How do we equip 45,000 autonomous churches when no one can sternly change their policies for them? That’s a challenge, but we should work to meet that challenge not simply shrug our shoulders at the front end.”
Greear, the denomination’s president, also said in a statement posted on Twitter that “The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse.”
“I will pursue every possible avenue to bring the vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to bear on stopping predators in our midst,” Greear said.
Change at the local level
Emily Brown, who also attends Wright’s church and has written about issues of sexual abuse, said she doesn’t think autonomy and oversight have to be in tension with one another.
Churches can have multiple pastors or other safeguards in place to ensure that one abuser does not stay in power, she said. Another way churches can combat abuse is by creating more opportunities for women in leadership, she said.
At the same time, Emily Brown said she hopes to see action from Southern Baptist leaders, such as disassociating from churches with known abusers in leadership.
“I’m just looking for some tangible steps at the smaller level, but also from the leadership,” Emily Brown said. “I think that sets a very important precedent.”
Survivor hopes for action
David Brown, who survived abuse in the Catholic Church, said Southern Baptist leaders have provided strong “soundbites” after the investigation was published.
Now, there needs to be action, he said.
“It’s important to us as survivors that the church of our faith, the faith we believe in, stands up and acts like they believe survivors,” he said. “The SBC needs to create an environment where when a survivor comes forward, the tools are in place for them to be believed.”
Follow Katherine Burgess on Twitter: @kathsburgess
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