Baptist Church Sexual Abuse: History, Statistics, & Ways to Prevent It
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is one of many organized religious denominations accused of permitting pervasive sexual abuse by its leadership and personnel. Since the early 2000s, denominations like the SBC, local churches, and individual church leaders and personnel across the country have been scrutinized by national media––and their own congregations––for letting reports go unchecked and for fostering environments where sexual abuse is endemic.
The internal hierarchies and cultures of many religious organizations enable sexual abuse. In recent years, media coverage has exposed a pattern of sexual abuse in organized religion, including in denominations like the SBC.
Aside from reactionary steps, the SBC has done little to address the toxic culture of organized religion that permits abuse, leaving individuals to educate themselves and find their own resources to address sexual assault when it occurs to them or a loved one.
Until organized religious groups like the SBC can be reliably held accountable, the best way to address sexual abuse in the SBC is to be aware that it happens, know how to report it, and learn how to support survivors.
History of Sexual Abuse in the Baptist Church
The SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Its name reflects its Southern origins but has churches in every state.
The SBC has been facing sexual abuse allegations for decades. Sexual abuse in religious organizations is widely reported; stories are on every major news website. One of the earliest ongoing nationwide narratives was about the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse, which came to light in national media outlets in the early 2000s.
This issue gained more attention at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, and even got its own hashtag: #ChurchToo. In response to a 2022 report following an independent investigation, the SBC released a list of over 700 known sexual abuse allegations against its pastors and church personnel.
While some instances of credible allegations have led to swift accountability, the SBC has largely fallen short in addressing the sexual abuse occurring within its denomination; recent developments like a confidential hotline only came about after highly publicized reports and allegations in the mid-to-late 2010s and early 2020s. And its tardiness cannot be blamed on ignorance; since at least 2007, one of its own attorneys proposed a plan for the SBC’s website to link to a sexual abuse database, but the SBC’s vice president at the time took no action.
Causes of Sexual Abuse in the Baptist Church
Lack of accountability, authoritarian leadership, and institutional protection are all organized–religion–specific causes of abuse. These causes are especially prevalent in SBC churches, because church personnel and leaders are in positions of power over their members; the unquestioned, revered authority of church leaders by their congregation enables misuse of that grant of authority, which sometimes results in using their positions of influence for their own means, including sexual behavior.
Churches are not required to conduct sexual abuse training like other entities. Churches are also not required to incorporate screening and background checks when they engage personnel. The unique combination of a lack of oversight or consistent policies regarding sexual abuse prevention and response means that there are few mechanisms in place to address this issue.
Prevention and Solutions
Sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault, and prevention as a strategy to combat sexual abuse is not a way to blame victims or suggest that the sexual abuse they suffered was avoidable. It is a way to educate people who aren’t knowledgeable in the causes, sources, or signs of sexual abuse.
The SBC makes clear that it does not have “power, control, or ownership” over member churches. This means that the SBC as an executive arm of the church cannot answer for the actions or inactions of a member church. Member churches are, therefore, largely left to their own devices, including whether and how to respond to abuse allegations.
When denominations like the SBC or its individual churches fail to take action, individuals must fend for themselves to prevent and address sexual abuse. Until religious institutions can reliably take accountability for and rectify the underlying causes of abuse, there are several ways individuals can protect and heal themselves and their loved ones:
One way to prevent abuse is to be aware that it can and does happen. For many, the church community is a chosen family, and it can be hard to believe that family members could sexually abuse others.
Organized religion can be a source of community, connection, comfort, and guidance. But, like any entity, it can also be a source of abuse. Awareness that sexual abuse can and does happen in religious communities like the SBC is an important exercise for members of or participants in organized religion. Generally, awareness protects people who are vulnerable to abuse, such as children, by people in power, such as church leaders.
Reporting known or suspected incidents of sexual abuse ensures that responsible parties can be held accountable. There are many national and state-level resources for sexual abuse survivors and their loved ones.
Reporting abuse can sometimes be done through a particular church or denomination if such resources are available, but there is no legally authoritative mechanism to ensure that these reports are addressed.
Navigating resources can be overwhelming. If you need advice or just want someone to listen who is on your side, Crew Janci offers free consultations to help you understand your options or provide a referral to someone who can help.
The last two decades have been a novel era for exposing the SBC’s sexual abuse transgressions against its congregation and nonmembers. If the goal is to stop sexual abuse in organized religion, it is crucial that individuals understand the causes of abuse and to be aware of and know how to respond to sexual abuse. For those who have been abused, access to resources is an important part of the healing process.