ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Nearly 10,000 members of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination are gathered in Anaheim, Calif., this week to discuss how Southern Baptists should respond to the shocking findings of an independent investigation into the handling of sex abuse cases. Members of the Southern Baptist Convention are planning to vote Tuesday on proposals, as well as elect the next president of the convention.
In May, Southern Baptist leaders published a report detailing a years-long coverup of sex abuse within their denomination. For 15 years, the report alleged, leaders said they were not able to compile a database of sex abuse offenders — but they were secretly keeping a list of their own. The same week they released their report, they also released the secret list, which consisted of hundreds of names of alleged abusers, including many convicted of sex abuse crimes.
“This is our gut punch,” Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Litton, a pastor from Mobile, Ala., told attendees Tuesday, referring to the sex abuse report.
“We must do something,” Litton said. “We must do what is right and just in the eyes of our God.”
Andrew Hébert, a pastor of about 1,000 Southern Baptists in Amarillo, Tex., who sits on the SBC’s sexual abuse task force, said the task force contacted about a dozen sex abuse survivors who were mentioned in the report and asked them if they could be apologized to by name from the stage.
Southern Baptists will vote Tuesday on sex abuse recommendations by the task force.
“I’m feeling very optimistic. I think Southern Baptists are ready to do the right thing,” Hébert said. “My sense is that this is a recognition that these are common-sense reforms.”
On Tuesday morning, Southern Baptists released a list of nine resolutions they plan to vote on, including two on sexual abuse, and others on the topics of abortion, Ukraine and Native Americans.
One resolution on sex abuse states that Southern Baptists urge state politicians to pass laws that would provide consistent definitions of sexual abuse by pastors, and they also urge lawmakers to “empower churches by shielding them from civil liability when they share information about alleged abuse.” In another resolution, they focus on the failures of the Southern Baptist Convention around sex abuse, and name and apologize to specific survivors with their permission.
In a resolution on abortion, Southern Baptists urge the Supreme Court to overturn the abortion-related precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. They also note a recent federal report on the troubled legacy of federal Native American boarding school policies, calling “atrocities done against these people in the name of religious ‘conversions’ … reprehensible.”
For years, survivors of sexual assault in church settings have been calling on churches to admit the extent of abuse. It helped to generate a movement called #ChurchToo, a spinoff of the wider #MeToo movement, calling out not just sexual predators but also religious leaders involved in coverups or other mishandling of abuse claims.
Like other conservative evangelical groups across the country, Southern Baptists have been divided in recent years over issues such as racial justice, female preachers and a fear of liberalism overtaking the denomination. They meet annually in cities across the country. This year, about 8,800 people preregistered, drawing from mostly California and other states where many of the bigger Southern Baptist churches are located, such as Texas, Tennessee and Georgia.
The denomination, which shuns a hierarchical structure and is heavily democratic, passes resolutions every year that often signal the direction thousands of its members want to go. In 2021, the convention passed a resolution on abortion abolition, which called for ending abortion in all cases, with no exceptions. In previous years, there have been flash points over “alt-right white supremacy” and critical race theory.
This time, Southern Baptists who are gathered, called “messengers,” are expected to consider the overhauls proposed by its sex abuse task force, including setting up a website to track abusive pastors and church workers. The denomination’s relief arm, Send Relief, announced it would designate $4 million in existing funding to back the recommendations, including $1 million in survivor care.
Rachael Denhollander, an attorney, survivor and advocate who is advising the SBC on its abuse reform measures, said Tuesday that if the reforms fall short at the meeting, “it’s a death knell to the SBC. What has taken place over the past year and the level of corruption and re-traumatization by SBC leaders has been laid bare.”
If the SBC doesn’t deal with its sex abuse issues, Denhollander said, “it’s the end of the SBC as we know it.”
“If they refuse to deal with the wickedness in their midst, that’s a complete abandonment of their principles in a way that will cause an exodus from the SBC,” she said.
The report published in May also suggested that a prominent Southern Baptist leader, Johnny Hunt, was considered “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting a woman during a beach vacation in 2010, a month after his tenure as SBC president ended. He has denied the abuse allegations on Twitter. The allegations rocked the Southern Baptist world because Hunt was previously beloved across the denomination and mentored young pastors.
Griffin Gulledge, a pastor who leads a congregation of more than 200 people in Madison, Ga., and is in Anaheim to cast votes this week, said he thinks that most Southern Baptists believe that the sex abuse coverup was conducted by a small group of Southern Baptist leaders but that the vast majority want to be part of the solution.
“Everybody I’m talking to is saying, ‘We want to get this right,’ ” he said. “And getting it right means addressing what we’ve done in the past, reforming our systems and sending a message to survivors that ‘we’re sorry’ that we didn’t previously.”
Messengers are also expected to elect their next leader, which could shape the direction of the 13.7 million-member denomination. The top candidates include rural Texas pastor Bart Barber, who has been a vocal advocate of sex abuse reforms. While he is still theologically conservative, he is seen as more centrist within the denomination.
On Monday, Barber was pictured on Twitter speaking with sex abuse survivor Debbie Vasquez, who was named in the sex abuse report and was speaking to messengers at a booth within the convention halls. In 2019, some abuse survivors were asked to remain outside convention halls because they were no longer Southern Baptist.
Another leading candidate, Florida pastor Tom Ascol, on the other hand, attacked the third-party investigation after the firm Guidepost Solutions earlier this month tweeted in support of the LGBTQ community.
“This is who we gave our tithe dollars to? I & 47,000 other SBC pastors, plus millions of faithful members feel betrayed,” Ascol tweeted. “We paid $millions to a LGBT-affirming & proud organization to guide us on moral & spiritual matters!? Is there no fear of God?”
In a statement, Guidepost spokesman Montieth M. Illingworth said the organization’s tweet reaffirms its anti-discrimination position.
“We believe our anti-discrimination position only strengthens our ability to conduct independent, fair and bias free investigations like our SBC investigation,” the statement said. “Moreover, our work for faith-based organizations seeks to be consistent with faith principles and practices. In the Guidepost Solutions SBC EC report, we consulted with Baptist polity experts to ensure that our recommendations were consistent with Baptist polity and practice.”
Ascol has the backing of the far-right wing of the denomination, called the Conservative Baptist Network, and if he were elected or received a substantial number of votes, it could indicate the future direction of the SBC. Ascol is part of a movement of abortion abolitionists who believe the procedure should be illegal even if a pregnant person’s life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest.
Some of the sex abuse survivors named in the report said they plan to be in Anaheim to press for change. Several of them recently released a list of recommendations, including creating a compensation fund for survivors, an independent commission to receive abuse reports and a monument to abuse survivors outside SBC offices in Nashville.
Southern Baptists will decide whether to cut ties with California megachurch Saddleback Church, one of the largest in the denomination, which recently announced plans to hire a female teaching pastor. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” announced plans to retire this fall and named Andy Wood, a San Francisco pastor, as his successor. Wood’s wife, Stacie, would also become a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church in Orange County, joining three other female pastors who were ordained last year. The ordinations renewed a battle among Southern Baptists over whether women can be considered pastors, as opposed to having them serve as preachers or Bible teachers.
During last year’s meeting, a Louisiana pastor made a motion for the SBC to “break fellowship” with Saddleback, as well as all other churches that ordained female pastors. The motion is being considered by a committee, which can recommend expelling churches, and could be voted on by Southern Baptists this week.
Official business will take place Tuesday and Wednesday, though most of the major votes are expected to happen Tuesday.