My first reaction upon hearing that hundreds of leaders in the Southern Baptist church had sexually abused as many as 700 people in 400 churches, including victims as young as 3, was “how could they?” It was the same reaction I had when news of predatory priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and the cover-up that followed the sexual abuse allegations, surfaced.
I have belonged to Southern Baptist churches in the past, so I know something about their proud “independent” status. Some critics have said it is the lack of a central authority in these churches that contributed to failed oversight. The Catholic Church has a central authority. How do you explain its oversight structure?
The reporting by the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and The Washington Post should turn any stomach. Most Baptists have had children in their Sunday school programs. What must they be thinking as they ponder whether to ask their child, who by now might be a teen or an adult, if they had ever been abused by a teacher, pastor or counselor?
The Washington Post reports: “...instead of ensuring that sexual predators were kept at bay, the Southern Baptist Convention, resisted policy changes....Victims accused church leaders of mishandling their complaints, even hiding them from the public.”
The Post notes that while a majority of abusers have been convicted and are now registered as sex offenders, “the investigation found that at least three dozen pastors, employees and volunteers who showed predatory behavior still worked at churches.”
One explanation for such behavior — it's not the only one — appeared in a 2018 article in Christianity Today magazine: “Most pastors have struggled with porn.”
That's according to an online study of nearly 3,000 adults, teenagers and pastors by the Barna Group. The study included 432 pastors and 338 youth pastors, and was commissioned by Josh McDowell Ministry and Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ).
J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, tweeted, “We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them.”
There are at least two other considerations the denomination must address. It is likely that many abuse victims will not only leave their churches, as many Catholics have done, but possibly abandon their faith altogether. If this is what God allows, they might say, I want nothing to do with Him.
The other thought is a warning. While most people probably think they are above such sin, consider the words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, whose diagnosis of the potential for evil is that it resides at some level in all of us and that we cannot say for certain what we would do given the circumstances: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NLT)
Southern Baptist churches may wish to ponder and deliver a series of sermons on the meaning of these additional words from Jeremiah: “What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people -- the shepherds of my sheep — for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:1, NLT).