Southern Baptists vote on database to track sex offenders, debate pastor


ANAHEIM, Calif. — More than 8,000 members of the Southern Baptist Convention gathered here Tuesday and responded to the shocking findings of an independent inquiry into the handling of sexual abuse cases by passing a recommendation to create a database to track sexual abusers and a formal group to handle sexual abuse accusations in the future. Members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination are also considering electing the next convention president.

In May, Southern Baptist leaders released a report detailing a cover-up of years of sexual abuse within their denomination. For 15 years, according to the report, leaders said they were unable to compile a database of sex abusers – while secretly keeping their own list. The same week they released their report, they also released the list, which consisted of hundreds of names of alleged abusers, many of whom were convicted of crimes of sexual abuse.

Before discussing the sexual abuse proposals, however, a debate erupted over the role of female pastors, a topic that has prompted some on the far right to fear a leftward shift. Like other conservative evangelical groups across the country, Southern Baptists have been divided in recent years on issues such as racial justice, abortion and the idea of ​​denominational liberalism.

Earlier in the day, Southern Baptists also released a list of nine resolutions, including two on sexual abuse and one on the subject of abortion, which will be considered and voted on Wednesday.

The SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force also contacted a dozen sexual abuse survivors mentioned in the report and asked if they could apologize by name from the scene.

The denomination’s relief arm, Send Relief, said it would designate $4 million in existing funding to support the recommendations, including $1 million for survivor care.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re in a Kairos moment, a seminal moment right now. Today we will choose between humility and pride,” said Bruce Frank, the pastor who chaired the abuse task force, as he opened the session on the proposals before an elated audience of thousands.

For years, survivors of church sex abuse have called on churches to admit the extent of the abuse. This helped generate a movement called #ChurchToo, an offshoot of the broader #MeToo movement, calling out not only sexual predators, but also religious leaders involved in the cover-up or other mishandling of abuse allegations.

Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer, survivor and lawyer who advises the SBC on its abuse reform measures, said Tuesday the denomination has made progress but still has a long way to go.

“He’s 10 years behind everyone else in his understanding of abuse, of the best standards,” she said. “I see changes, but I don’t want to minimize the reality that they are a decade behind.”

Brad Eubank, pastor of Petal First Baptist Church in Petal, Mississippi, who identified himself as a survivor of sexual abuse, stood in front of a microphone Tuesday night and urged his fellow Southern Baptists to embrace the recommendations. “The world is watching,” he said. “It’s not all that needs to be done, but it’s a starting point. And I plead with you on behalf of the survivors I speak on behalf of who love our convention and love our churches. Please start the healing process today.

Southern Baptists meet annually. The denomination, which avoids a hierarchical structure and is strongly democratic, passes resolutions each year that often signal the direction that thousands of its members want to go. In 2021, the convention passed an abortion abolition resolution that called for an end to abortion in all cases, without exception. In previous years, there have been flashpoints on “alt-right white supremacy” and critical race theory.

A resolution to be considered Wednesday on sex abuse says Southern Baptists urge state politicians to pass laws that would provide consistent definitions of pastor sex abuse, and they also urge lawmakers to “empower churches in protecting them from civil liability when sharing information”. on the alleged abuses. In another resolution, they focus on the failures of the Southern Baptist Convention regarding sexual abuse, and name and apologize to specific survivors with their permission.

In an abortion resolution, Southern Baptists urge the Supreme Court to overturn abortion-related precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Southern Baptists attending the meeting, called “messengers,” are also expected to elect their next leader, which could shape the direction of the 13.7 million-member denomination. Top contenders include rural Texas pastor Bart Barber, who has been a strong advocate for sex abuse reform. Although still theologically conservative, he is considered more centrist within the denomination.

On Monday, Barber was pictured on Twitter talking with sex abuse survivor Debbie Vasquez, who was named in the sex abuse report and was talking to messengers at a booth in convention halls. In 2019, some abuse survivors were asked to stay outside convention halls because they were no longer Southern Baptists.

Sexual abuse survivors Jules Woodson and Tiffany Thigpen – two of the convention’s most outspoken survivors who were named in the sexual abuse report – stood in bright colors on their way to the convention center, waving at people and handing out teal ribbons – the color for assault survivors – people could put inside the transparent sleeve of their lanyards.

Thigpen said last year she remembered people staring at her during the sexual abuse part of the meeting. This year, she said, more than half of the Southern Baptists they asked to take a ribbon did. The convention provided them with a private room with gifts of lotion and tissues and the presence of trauma counselors.

“This year, we had a lot of smiles. It’s a bit different,” Thigpen said.

Christa Brown, a sexual abuse survivor who has long fought for sexual abuse reforms at the SBC, said from her home in Colorado that she was watching the reunion live stream but did not feel up to it. comfortable coming, knowing when she was looking at people’s faces. , what she would see.

“It would be like waiting for a shiv,” she said.

Another high-profile presidential candidate, Florida Pastor Tom Ascol, meanwhile attacked the third-party investigation after the company Guidepost Solutions tweeted earlier this month in support of the LGBTQ community.

Ascol has the support of the far-right wing of the denomination, called the Conservative Baptist Network, and if he is elected or receives a substantial number of votes, it could indicate the future direction of the SBC. Ascol is part of a movement of abortion abolitionists who believe the procedure should be illegal without exception.

Some of the survivors of sexual abuse have recently released their own list of recommendations, including the establishment of a compensation fund for survivors, an independent commission to receive reports of abuse, and a monument to survivors of abuse in front of SBC offices in Nashville.

Southern Baptists are also expected to decide whether to cut ties with California megachurch Saddleback Church, one of the denomination’s largest, over plans to hire a teaching pastor. The church already has three other female pastors who were ordained last year. The ordinations have renewed a battle among Southern Baptists over whether women can be considered pastors, instead of having them serve as preachers or Bible teachers.

Southern Baptist’s credentialing committee, which decides whether or not to sever ties with specific churches, told the crowd it was not ready to make a decision on its ties to Saddleback, recommending the creation of a study committee on the subject of the distinction of the senior pastor with other kinds of pastors.

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, opposed the idea, saying he thinks the denominational statement that Baptists agree on is clear that women should not be viewed as pastors.

Linda Cooper, chair of the credentials committee, responded by arguing for a study committee to flesh out what pastor means.

“I know what ‘pastor’ means, but in some of our Southern Baptist churches, ‘pastor’ is a spiritual gift that is given to a lot of people, so we wanted clarity,” she said then. that some people were booing. SBC President Ed Litton told the crowd to stop booing.

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