Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse
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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.
What is clergy sexual abuse?
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.
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:
The Power Dynamic
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Support and Protection of Perpetrators
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 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.
Impact on the Victim
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:
Victims may respond by perceiving themselves differently:
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.
The following church policies and procedures can protect church members and their children:
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.
Signs Your Child or Teen May Have Been Sexually Abused
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:
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.
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