SBC leaders ‘grieved’ over report finding sexual abuse claims ignored for years to avoid liability

J.D. Greear, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, speaks at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Caring Well Conference in Grapevine, Texas, on Oct. 3, 2019.
J.D. Greear, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, speaks at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's Caring Well Conference in Grapevine, Texas, on Oct. 3, 2019. | ERLC/Karen Race Photography

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have said they are “grieved” after an independent investigation found the denomination’s leadership mishandled sexual abuse allegations, mistreated victims and advocates, engaged in an abusive pattern of intimidation and repeatedly resisted reforms aimed at making their churches safer largely to avoid liability.

The report from Guidepost Solutions was promised to be delivered ahead of the denomination’s annual meeting set for Anaheim, California, in June. Released on Sunday, the report alleges that for the last 20 years, the SBC sought to protect the interests of the denomination above alleged sexual abuse victims even as they fielded credible claims of abuse.

These claims include one made against former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who was accused of sexually assaulting another pastor’s wife while on a beach vacation in Panama City, Florida.

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“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations,” Guidepost Solutions investigators wrote in their 288-page report to the denomination’s Sexual Abuse Task Force.

“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” investigators continued.

Responding to the report Sunday, Rolland Slade, chairman of the SBC EC, and Willie McLaurin, interim president-CEO of the EC, said the commission was reviewing the report and grieving.

“To the members of the survivor community, we are grieved by the findings of this investigation. We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks, and to respond to the will of the messengers in Anaheim next month,” the commission said in a statement to The Christian Post.

In a separate statement to CP, the Sexual Abuse Task Force of the SBC EC said they, too, were grieving.

“We receive this report with open minds and heavy hearts. We grieve for those impacted by abuse, and we are prepared to repent for anything the Credentials Committee inadvertently failed to do to alleviate the suffering of survivors,” the group said. “We are committed to listening and learning from this extensive report and its recommendations. We look forward to implementing recommendations and strengthening the Credentials Committee’s work.”

The SBC Executive Committee announced on June 11 that Guidepost Solutions would review allegations made by the former leader of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, that SBC leaders intimidated whistleblowers and exonerated churches with credible claims of negligence of sexual abuse victims.

Guidepost Solutions was also commissioned to "review and enhance training provided to SBC Executive Committee staff and its board of trustees" as it relates to sex abuse and the organization’s "communications to cooperating churches and congregants in cooperating churches."

The investigation, funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program, covered the period from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021, and include a review of “actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee.”

The investigation also includes an audit of the procedures and actions taken by the SBC Credentials Committee, tasked in 2019 with evaluating whether a church is in “friendly cooperation” with the Convention as described in the SBC Constitution, Article III. 

Investigators found that the SBC Executive Committee’s response to sexual abuse allegations over the years was largely driven by senior members of the committee, particularly D. August “Augie” Boto, who served as EC General Counsel and later Interim EC President, as well as the SBC’s long-serving outside counsel, James Guenther, James Jordan and the firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price.

“Their status and longevity in the SBC organization — Mr. Guenther had provided legal advice since 1966 and began in 1998 as Vice President for Convention Policy before becoming General Counsel in 2004 — enabled them to control decisions about how the SBC EC would deal with the increasing attention on church sexual abuse,” investigators noted. “Their main concern was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.”

Guenther repeatedly advised EC staff not to request follow-up details on claims of sexual abuse to ensure that the EC did “not assume a legal duty to take further action.”

While these reports were not shared with EC trustees, investigators found that since 2007, an EC staff member working for Boto has been maintaining a list of accused ministers in Baptist churches, including the minister’s name, year reported, and relevant news articles, state and denomination.

Investigators cited a May 2019 email from former EC Vice President Roger “Sing” Oldham to Ronnie Floyd, the then-EC president, acknowledging that “[f]or the past decade, I have been regularly sending Augie news reports of Baptist ministers who are arrested for sexual abuse, for his awareness. It hasn't slowed down since the [Houston] Chronicle articles started on February 10.”

Boto also acknowledged that: “Yes. We are collecting them, and may even post them in some way, but we’d have to really examine the potential liabilities that would stem therefrom.”

Investigators noted that the most recent audit of the list shows 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time. There is no evidence showing that the SBC took any action against these alleged perpetrators.

The report also shows how some EC leaders took steps to protect some of these alleged abusers.

Investigators showed how former SBC President Steve Gaines admitted that, as senior pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church, he had delayed reporting a staff minister’s prior sexual abuse of a child out of “heartfelt concern and compassion for th[e] minister.” He did acknowledge that he should have “brought it to the attention of our church leadership immediately.”

Another former SBC president, pastor Jack Graham, was accused of allowing an accused abuser of young boys to be dismissed quietly in 1989 when he was pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church. He did not report the abuse to police, and the accused abuser, John Langworthy, was later charged with abusing young boys in Mississippi in 2011.

A spokesperson for Prestonwood Church told The Washington Times that “protection of an alleged abuser has never been provided at Prestonwood, and the church categorically denies the characterizations made in this report.”

Former SBC Vice President Judge Paul Pressler is reportedly the defendant in a civil sexual abuse lawsuit alleging that he repeatedly sexually abused the plaintiff beginning when the plaintiff was 14 years old. Two other men also accused Judge Pressler of sexual misconduct in separate affidavits.

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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