Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

Southern Baptist Church Sexual Abuse

A detailed investigation by Guidepost Solutions LLC has revealed a disturbing pattern of sexual misconduct among pastors and other workers in Southern Baptist churches throughout the country.

Church is supposed to be a safe place for families and children to worship, learn, and serve. Church members rely on clergy to provide guidance and support while serving as role models. Many members see their pastors as ordained by God and trust them completely.

Pastors who sexually abuse church members violate a sacred trust that leaves victims with mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds. After decades of intimidation and concealment by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), this egregious conduct has been exposed thanks to the courage and perseverance of survivors who came forward and refused to be silenced.

The Power Dynamic in Religious Abuse

Spiritual authority is a unique type of power to which congregants submit without question. The godlike esteem awarded to church leaders affords them the protection of their congregations and superiors. They receive little or no oversight, while church members trust them in ways they would never trust other adults:

  • They confide their personal secrets
  • They allow them to spend time with their children
  • They believe everything they say

What is Clergy Sexual Abuse?

Predatory pastors and church personnel who take advantage of this trust often use it to psychologically manipulate victims, claiming the activities are God’s will. Some victims are unaware that the acts are abuse due to their trust in the office of pastor. Others are afraid to come forward because they fear the following:

  • A romantic relationship
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Rape
  • Unwanted touching
  • Sexual touching
  • Sexualized comments
  • Sharing of sexualized visual material

Trust is a sacred instrument reserved for those who have earned it, but trust is freely given to church leaders by virtue of their office. Church members regard their leaders as pillars of uprightness and moral virtue who are chosen by God. This level of trust creates the ideal scenario for predators to get close to their targeted victims, leading to clergy sexual abuse.

Church leaders who engage in sexual conduct with members directly under their tutelage are guilty of sexual abuse, whether the victim is an adult or child, and whether or not the contact is consensual. This includes any of the following:

  • Coming forward will harm the church’s mission
  • No one will believe them
  • Their reputation will be destroyed
  • The pastor’s reputation/family/position will be in jeopardy

The trust given to pastors is similar to the trust given to doctors, mental health counselors, teachers, police officers, and other professionals, in that the position of authority makes sexual relationships inappropriate.

Last Date Modified
February 26, 2024
Content Reviewed By:

Kathryn Kosmides
Managing Director | Helping Survivors

If you are not sure where to turn, RAINN can help.

Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk confidentially with a trained professional from RAINN.

They can put you in touch with local resources and organizations that can help in your healing journey.

If you want to speak to a lawyer about your experience, we can help.

Sexual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches

An eight-month Guidepost investigation encompassing a 20-year time span from 2001 to 2021, uncovered sexual abuse from 703 perpetrators, over 400 of whom were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Perpetrators included pastors, youth pastors, church staff, and high-ranking leaders, including a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The victims included boys, girls, and adult women, in many cases on multiple occasions over a period of time.

The Coverup by the Southern Baptist Convention

According to the Washington Post, the Southern Baptist Convention Report revealed that leadership made extensive efforts to dismiss and conceal allegations of abuse and even harassed, threatened, and humiliated victims who came forward.

The report reveals previously confidential communications between high-ranking leaders in the SBC and their lawyers, which showed that the avoidance of litigation was prioritized over addressing or preventing sexual abuse.

These communications include a secret list of known perpetrators and emails between officials encouraging each other to ignore and dismiss allegations. Perpetrators were rarely reported to law enforcement, and many were allowed to continue in their capacity as ministers.

To justify their failure to address and prevent sexual abuse, officials claimed that the individual churches operated autonomously, and therefore the SBC had no authority to intervene. However, the convention does appear to regulate other individual church practices:

Churches that violate these policies are publicly criticized by the same body that has historically remained silent about sexual violence against women and children in the churches.

Ongoing Victimization

Reporting sexual violence is an act of courage, and the response a victim receives can impact long-term healing. When reports of abuse are minimized, dismissed, disbelieved, or met with hostility, the victim is retraumatized. The emotional impact of this is so profound that it is often referred to as an additional rape.

Blatant Retaliation

Jennifer Lynell was a well-respected leader in the Christian publishing industry who provided a detailed written account of sexual abuse by a seminary professor to a Christian reporter at the Baptist Press. The Baptist Press is overseen by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Her story was blatantly misreported as a consensual affair, destroying her reputation and resulting in the loss of her job and health. She received an apology and correction years later after the damage was done.

Sexual Dysfunction

Anne Marie Miller reported the sexual abuse perpetrated on her by a church leader when she was 16 years old. Not only were the allegations not reported to the authorities, but the SBC continued to promote the leader through their ranks. Ms. Miller also reported in a PBS News Hour interview that this was “almost as traumatizing as the abuse itself.”

The Villainization of Victims

The SBC has regularly portrayed victims negatively, by making references to them such as the following:

  • Agents of satan who are trying to distract the church from its real mission of evangelism
  • Opportunists seeking personal gain
  • The equivalent of sex criminals
  • “Potiphar’s wife,” a reference to a Biblical character who made a false accusation of rape

The Impact of Sexual Abuse by Clergy

All sexual abuse represents a betrayal of trust, but betrayal may be even more profound in the case of sexual abuse by clergy, and in addition to the victim, it impacts families, communities, and the church itself.

Ongoing Victimization

Members of the clergy may incorporate religious rituals, prayer, and statements about God with the abuse. The abuse may occur in places where religious events or activities are regularly held, reinforcing the association between God or religious faith and the abuse.

Faith is central to many individuals’ identities, with a view toward eternal concepts. Sexual abuse by clergy is faith-shattering and creates an existential crisis for many victims. Some have referred to it as “soul murder.” Many victims perceive God differently as a result, interpreting the abuse as one or more of the following:

  • A punishment from God
  • A failure by God
  • Evidence that God is not real
  • Evidence that God is evil

Victims may respond by perceiving themselves differently:

  • Unclean
  • Undeserving
  • Unfit
  • Unworthy

Impact on Families

Learning that a loved one has been sexually abused by a pastor is devastating for families, particularly if the victim was a child or teen. Families can become divided. Some may be unable to believe the abuse occurred. Those that do believe may experience severe guilt, betrayal, and anger.

Families may also be divided on whether to come forward, creating tension within the family. Families that do come forward may be ostracized or ignored by the church or authorities, while those that fail to do so are left with a harmful family secret. All of these scenarios can retraumatize the victim.

Impact on Congregations

When church congregations or followers learn that a trusted spiritual leader has committed sexual abuse, mass feelings of betrayal and anger result. Some members may not believe the victim. Others lose their faith in God or switch churches. When the public learns of the abuse, the reputation of the church is tarnished, especially if the church attempted to conceal the abuse.

Victims Feel Guilty Coming Forward

These potential impacts on families and congregations are among the reasons many victims of sexual abuse continue to endure it in silence. They take on the task of protecting their families, churches, and even God. No victim of sexual abuse is responsible for the consequences abuse causes the perpetrator or others. The perpetrator, not the victim, is the betrayer of trust.

Preventing Sexual Abuse by Church Leaders

Sexual abuse is never the fault of the victim or of unsuspecting members of the victim’s family, congregation, or community. However, measures can be taken to minimize the risks.

Victims Feel Guilty Coming Forward

The following church policies and procedures can protect church members and their children:

  • All pastors, volunteers, and church staff should undergo thorough background screening and personal reference checks
  • No one should be permitted to work with children or teens alone under any circumstances
  • Volunteers and paid personnel working around children should work in other capacities for at least six months prior to working with children
  • Pastoral counseling should occur with a second party present
  • All staff and volunteers should undergo sexual abuse awareness training

Protecting Yourself and Your Children

Always be on guard, and remember church leaders are not infallible. Do not give them more trust than you would give school officials or other adults.

  • Do not attend pastoral counseling alone or allow your child to do so.
  • Be aware of relationships your child forms with youth pastors or other church personnel.
  • Set firm boundaries:
    • Church leaders should not ask inappropriate questions or make off-color remarks
    • Church leaders should not discuss their personal, sexual, or marital issues with you or your child
  • Make sure your child understands that unwanted touching even from trusted adults is not okay.

Signs Your Child or Teen May Have Been Sexually Abused

Your child or teen may have experienced or be experiencing sexual abuse if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Unexplained injuries or genitourinary symptoms
  • Non-specific physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Inappropriate sexual knowledge
  • Social isolation
  • Inappropriate sexual knowledge
  • Regressive behaviors
  • Running away from home
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
  • Nightmares or other sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Changes in personality
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • New gifts, money, or toys without a reasonable explanation of where they came from

Recognizing when Your Child Is Being Groomed

A pastor or church leader may groom the victim in advance of sexual abuse. Grooming is the process of gaining trust and forming a relationship based on manipulation to ensure the abuse will not be resisted and that it will continue in secret. Adults, teens, and children can be groomed. Below are warning signs your child is being groomed:

  • Favoritism towards your child, evidenced by gifts, special attention, and casual touching
  • An excessive amount of alone time with your child
  • Communications from the perpetrator at inappropriate times or frequencies

Your Legal Options If You or Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused

If you, your child, or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, you do not have to remain silent. Even if the church refuses to respond, you have criminal and civil remedies that can help you get justice and stop the abuse. If the abuse happened in the past, it is important to know the legal timeline you have to be able to press charges.

The Southern Baptist Convention has gotten away with a longstanding pattern of abuse and subsequent concealment in the past, but now that this is publicly known, clergy abuse victims have a stronger chance of being believed and receiving justice.

If you are ready to come forward, choose a safe person to support you. A licensed therapist can provide guidance on how and where to report the abuse locally and help you prepare for the potential events that could transpire afterward. A sexual abuse lawyer can help you explore your legal options and protect your interests against retaliatory perpetrators and their allies.

Resources for Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse Survivors

The Houston Chronicle’s searchable database of convicted sex offenders who were Southern Baptist church leaders

The secret list of abusers maintained by The Southern Baptist Convention and released to Guidepost Solutions LLC during the investigation

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network)

  • (800) 656-HOPE

Want To Speak With A Lawyer?

Understand your legal rights and options as a survivor of sexual assault and abuse.