A recent report has uncovered that Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) officials have been accumulating a database of hundreds of sexual abusers working in their churches throughout the United States for decades and kept it secret.
The SBC is a network of over 47,000 Southern Baptist Churches with almost 14 million members, overseen by an Executive Committee (EC). Last month, Guidepost Solutions released findings from its independent investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and other SBC members. This was the first official independent investigation into SBC’s handling of sexual allegations in its 177-year-old history. The investigation uncovered supported what survivors have been saying for years: the SBC’s Executive Committee knew of the substantiated allegations of abuse and did nothing.
Largely keeping their trustees and membership in the dark about these abuse allegations, long-time SBC counsel, Augie Boto and James Gunther repeatedly refused to acknowledge the rampant abuse by SBC clergy and instead resisted any type of reform. For years, SBC officials claimed that SBC-affiliated churches maintained their autonomy, therefore SBC’s hands were tied when it came to enforcing or controlling who churches hired and let interact with children. They claimed that because of the autonomy the churches retained, it would be legally and feasibly impossible to maintain a central database of clergy members accused of sexual abuse. However, this year, a two-million-dollar independent investigation revealed that not only was it feasible, but that the database already existed. SBC officials and legal counsel had been compiling a list of alleged abusers’ names, totaling over 700 church employees and volunteers, for almost two decades.
Knowing that predators were lurking in Southern Baptist churches across the country, not only did SBC not warn their members, but actively refuted survivors who came forward with their experiences of abuse. Allegations of abuse would be met with silence, or worse yet, skepticism and doubt. Survivor Jennifer Lyell, a former executive with LifeWay Christian Resources, came forward with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her Seminary professor, David Sills. Baptist Press, the official news organization of the SBC, initially agreed to publish her account of the abuse. However, the final article that was published did not contain details of the abuse according to Jennifer. Instead, Baptist Press recharacterized the abuse that Lyell endured, removing the words “sexually abused” from the article and replacing them with “morally inappropriate relationship.” Ms. Lyell received no support from the SBC Executive Committee. Instead, she received threats of violence and online harassment, and she was eventually forced to resign from her position with LifeWay. Other survivors were scoffed at by SBC Executive Committee members in meetings where they reported their abuse. In one email correspondence to other committee members SBC Attorney Augie Boto characterized survivors coming forward with claims of abuse as “a satanic scheme to distract the EC from evangelism.”
In 2019, a series by the Houston Chronicle titled “Abuse of Faith” finally brought media attention to these widespread allegations of abuse: since 2000, hundreds of SBC church leaders and members had been charged with sexual abuse crimes. Some of those people were found to be still employed by SBC churches. However, it wasn’t until May 2021 when public calls for an investigation into the SBC began to gain momentum. The independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions, linked here, conducted 330 interviews and accumulated five terabytes of data (in excess of 1 million files) demonstrating the decades-long cover-up by SBC Executives to shield themselves from liability for the rampant sexual abuse in SBC churches across the nation. This report yielded little doubt that the SBC’s executive committee knew full well the pervasive instances of sexual abuse in their churches. The report further supplies a list of recommendations for reform, including the creation of a task force charged with implementing a transparent and thorough sexual abuse investigation policy. While the egregious mishandling of sexual abuse allegations by SBC executives is now public, that does not negate the harm that they perpetuated for decades across the country.
Attorneys at Crew Janci have experience litigating claims of sexual abuse against religious entities. We will work with survivors to help them heal as well as empower them in forcing these entities to make changes in their hiring and investigation of sexual abuse claims protocols.
We’re here to help victims attain peace, healing, and positive change. If you or someone you know has been a victim of abuse in SBC, contact us today for a free confidential consultation. You are not alone. We are here to help.