Gut-Punched by Scandal: Responding to Sexual Abuse in the SBC
A devastating new investigative report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reveals a tragic and scandalous pattern of sexual abuse and cover-ups within Southern Baptist churches over the past twenty years. The scope of the investigation is sprawling, chronicling abuse and its aftermath in SBC congregations across the United States over the course of two decades, and revealing at least 700 victims and 220 abusers. (This number only includes those who were credibly charged with sexual misconduct, and either were convicted of a crime or admitted guilt in reaching a plea settlement). The abusers referred to were pastors, youth ministers, deacons, leaders, and volunteers in their churches when they perpetrated their (sometimes serial) crimes. Their victims were, in almost every case, children.
If you're feeling like the wind just got knocked out of you, you're not alone. It's outrageous and disturbing. So how should we, as Christians, respond to this crisis? Specifically, as a Southern Baptist church, what are the implications for us, and for our network of churches? I'm still processing and reflecting on all this myself. But in light of this gut-punch, let me offer a few thoughts that are crystal clear to me.
- Sexual abuse is an unmitigated act of evil. An abuser drags another human being unwittingly (and often by force) into his own sexual sin, and leaves deep, complex wounds in the hearts, minds, and bodies of his victims. It's heartbreaking wherever it takes place, but the awareness that it is happening in communities built on the gospel of Jesus is particularly upsetting. Sexual abuse cannot be tolerated in our churches, and it will not be met with patience or kindness at the Judgment Seat of Christ on the last day.
- Sexual abuse is clearly a sin, but it's also a crime. The failure of church leaders to immediately report to civil authorities suspected sexual abuse within their congregation is unacceptable. The report reveals plainly that the overwhelming pattern (certainly not every single instance) of SBC churches in response to known or suspected abuse has been the quiet dismissal of the abuser from his or her position. Presumably, the motivation for this hasn't been intentionally to deepen someone's pain or to dishonor God, but rather to avoid embarrassment. But there's a word for this: cowardice. In the event of sexual abuse in a church, the abuser should be the second phone call made; the first should be to the police.
- The victim(s) must be a church's top priority. The failure to come to the aid of victims, and in many cases to leave them suffering silently and anonymously, is shameful. Church leaders should be more concerned with the wellbeing of the victim of abuse than with the image or reputation of the church or denomination. (As it turns out, a church's attempt to protect their reputation in these cases often ends up making them look far worse in the long run.) In the event of sexual abuse in the church, our first priority must be to provide necessary care to its victims. This must be our commitment if we are to "shepherd the flock of God that is among [us]" (1 Peter 5:2).
- Sexual abusers need the gospel, too. None of these men woke up one morning and decided they wanted to ruin their lives, and someone else's, by having perverted sexual desires and pursuing forbidden relationships. Sin is insidious, and it grows in the dark. Those who have perpetrated these crimes against others need the same thing that all sinners need: to repent of their sins, and trust in Jesus Christ for eternal life. In the case of sexual abuse, it's true, the path of repentance includes life-altering consequences (years in prison and a lifetime on the sex offender registry, to name a couple); but the path of repentance still ends in forgiveness and acceptance. If your gospel isn't big enough for a sexual abuser, it isn't the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In light of these truths, we as a church must make a few commitments:
- We will take practical, tangible steps to prevent sexual abuse from occurring in our church (background checks and training for all who work with children; careful vetting of those we place in leadership positions; etc.)
- Should sexual abuse occur on our watch (God forbid), we will contact the authorities to report the crime, and will cooperate fully with any investigation;
- we will come quicly to the aid of the victim, seeking to understand what happened and how, and providing support and care in any way possible (counseling, grief care, etc.)
- we will preach the gospel to the perpetrator, calling him or her to repent and working with him, as far as possible and prudent, to grow in godliness.
While I grieve the abuse that's taken place around the Southern Baptist Convention, I thank God for bringing it to light. Embarrassing as it is to our network of churches, it is surely an act of his grace to shed light upon this evil, and to call us all to account. Please pray with me that churches across the SBC will respond to this scandal with humility, repentance, confession, and a renewed commitment to righteousness and care for those in our congregations.
And let's commit together that in this and every case we won't make the common mistake of choosing the easy road instead of the right one.