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Sex abuse panel urges lament, unity, action

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a more expanded version of the story posted Monday evening (June 10).

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — The sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention calls for lament, honesty, unity and action, panelists said Monday evening (June 10) regarding an increasingly obvious problem in the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

More than 1,250 people registered for “Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention,” a conversation co-hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study at an exhibit hall in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

SBC President J.D. Greear told the audience, “Right now, this is a time for lament. It is a time for sorrow. It is a time for humility and brokenness.”

It also is a time for Southern Baptists to speak clearly to the convention and the world about how committed they are to addressing the crisis correctly — and to take action, he said.

“The credibility of what we actually believe about the Gospel is at stake,” Greear said, adding he has learned from the survivor community, “[T]he strongest words without actions that follow up those words are worse than not saying words at all.”

Rachael Denhollander — lawyer, advocate and abuse survivor — told the audience there is a wide range of emotions in the survivor community. “By and large the survivor community loves the church; they love Jesus; they love the Gospel,” she said. “And our desire is to see the church do this better so that it becomes the refuge it was intended to be.

“There is a lot of skepticism, and I think some of it is justified, because the survivor community is used to hearing a lot of words,” Denhollander said. “What we’re not used to seeing is action.”

The sexual abuse crisis requires men and women to work together and not against each other, said Beth Moore, popular Bible teacher and an abuse survivor. It also calls for truth, she said.

The Southern Baptist family “is sick,” she said. “We need help. This is not conjecture. This is a proven fact that has come forth. It is before our very eyes. And what will just kill us will be denial. We will never get healthy if we cannot get honest.”

She is hopeful, Moore said.

“One of the things that I feel is relief that we really are talking about it,” she said. “And I can tell you that we do have some things happening right now that I have never seen happen. I feel hope because we are speaking plainly about it, and I feel a tremendous sense of resolve.”

ERLC President Russell Moore said the Baptist belief regarding local church autonomy should not prevent action on the sexual abuse issue.

While no church has authority over another church, Moore said, “We have always understood that we have an accountability toward one another when we cooperate with one another.

“[S]imply to say that church autonomy means that we can’t deal with this is horrific,” he said. “We have an accountability to one another. We’re in cooperation with one another, and cooperation means mutual accountability.”

Susan Codone, senior associate dean of academic affairs at Mercer University School of Medicine, shared her personal story of being abused 35 years ago by both her pastor and youth pastor as a teenager in a Birmingham-area church.

“I don’t see a lot of change in how things are handled,” Codone said. Churches still practice what she described as “the catch-and-release policy.” Pastors are caught in sexual abuse but are quietly removed by their churches and able to go to other congregations without disclosure of their crimes. The youth pastor who abused her served churches in the Birmingham area for 33 years before he died, she said.

“It’s going to take the entire church to deal with this problem,” Codone said. “And so I call all of us” to action.

All of the panelists are to speak at the ERLC’s 2019 National Conference – “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis” — Oct. 3-5 at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Texas.

The panel discussion on the eve of the SBC’s 2019 meeting followed a year of growing awareness of and attention to sexual abuse. Soon after being elected SBC president, Greear formed the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study in July 2018 to work in collaboration with the ERLC. The fluid study group’s purpose was to assess the current Southern Baptist handling of sexual abuse and to offer recommendations to churches in caring for survivors and providing protection from predators.

In February, the Houston Chronicle — joined by the San Antonio Express-News — began what is now an ongoing series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. The initial articles in the series found 220 pastors and other leaders in Southern Baptist churches who had been convicted of or taken plea deals in sex crimes involving more than 700 victims. The series has since reported on more abusers in churches, as well as some who served as missionaries with the International Mission Board.

The Sexual Abuse Advisory Study issued a 52-page report June 8 following interviews with hundreds of sexual abuse survivors, as well as church leaders and national experts in the field. The report recommended several steps of action intended to help thwart abuse and to care for survivors. The Advisory Study will make a presentation at the SBC meeting Wednesday afternoon, June 12.