This article represents the opinion of the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.
The reforms passed this month by the Southern Baptist Convention mark the start of a long road to restoring the faith in the wake of the church’s sex abuse scandal. The sheer scale of the abuse and the church’s indefensible failure to act calls into question the extent to which this is an exercise in accountability or public relations. Of course, that remains to be seen, but at least the church has brought a microscope to a story it needs to fully explain.
The reforms come just days after an independent investigation revealed a list of 700 volunteers, ministers and pastors known to be “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. As Anastasia Dawson of the Tampa Bay Times reported, about 8,500 delegates overwhelmingly approved the changes in a June 14 vote at the organization’s annual meeting. The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with 14 million members in more than 47,000 affiliated churches across the country.
The changes were prompted after members voted last year to review sexual assault complaints reported to the executive committee. A scathing report, published last month by independent consultancy Guidepost Solutions, detailed the myriad ways leaders mishandled cases and blocked and disparaged survivors of sexual abuse, while maintaining a list of approximately 700 known cases between 2000 and 2019 involving Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated clergy deemed “credibly accused.” The people mentioned have been the subject of civil judgments, criminal convictions or, in some cases, even subjected their own confessions to acts of sexual abuse on people ranging from the elderly to a 3-year-old child.
This is not an indictment of Southern Baptists, organized worship or religious faith, but of the sexual predators and their enablers in power who have victimized followers of all ages. The report documents numerous cases of sexual abuse, finding that for nearly two decades survivors tried to report “child molesters and other abusers” who worked as pastors or church staff. But convention officials were “guarding information about abuse allegations and lawsuits closely” and “focused singularly on avoiding accountability for the SBC.” The secrecy compounded the trauma by making some victims feel ignored and leaving some abusers at the ministry. Florida was second on the list with at least 58 known predators in Southern Baptist churches. Only Texas had more.
The reforms call for the convention to issue a formal apology, establish a permanent task force to oversee the change, and create a more detailed public database of known predators. The convention should work with its affiliated churches to conduct more thorough background checks on ministry staff and volunteers, and to make these findings easily and widely available in all jurisdictions. The faithful must also demand more of their church leaders. And law enforcement should pursue abuses vigorously without fear of critics crossing a divide between church and state.
Confronting this legacy in a meaningful and tangible way is the only way to restore public confidence in the convention. And as the Roman Catholic Church’s own experience shows, any missteps or missteps along the way will only compound the damage.
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Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and President Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinionated news.