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Culture Beat / February 13, 2019

Sexual-Abuse Scandal Rocks the SBC

A new exposé reveals decades of sexual abuse within America’s largest protestant denomination.

Many Americans were shocked to learn of the scope of the sex-abuse scandal by clergy within the Roman Catholic Church and how church leaders covered it up for decades. Likewise, Americans should be equally outraged to learn of an eerily similar scandal within America’s largest protestant denomination — the Southern Baptists.

The Houston Chronicle recently published the first in a three-part exposé entitled “Abuse of Faith,” wherein is chronicled a 20-year history of Southern Baptist leadership essentially ignoring or suppressing complaints of sexual abuse raised against men within leadership positions in various churches. In some instances, individuals accused of sexual assault are still serving in leadership roles to this day.

The Chronicle notes that “more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes.” Moreover, “It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. … That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned.”

Sexual abuse by those in authority is bad enough, but it’s that much worse when it comes at the hands of those in roles of spiritual authority who are supposed to guide and care for individuals’ eternal souls. As one of the victims, who was molested by his youth pastor, put it, “So many people’s faith is murdered. I mean, their faith is slaughtered by these predators.”

While the abuse reported is no less egregious than that within the Roman Catholic Church, there remains an important distinction that makes both addressing the problem and determining responsibility significantly different.

Unlike the Catholic Church’s hierarchical governance model — in which every parish and every priest is directly accountable to a centralized authority that runs all the way to the top in the Vatican — each church within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is essentially an autonomous local congregation that chooses to freely associate and organize with other local Baptist congregations in forming the “convention.” Also, Baptist pastors are not ordained by the denomination; they are ordained by and become members of the local congregation that called them.

Therefore, unlike the Catholic Church, the SBC does not hold near the authority as an organization over individual SBC congregations and their pastors. In other words, pastors answer to their local congregations. The SBC does not have the power to discipline a misbehaving pastor; that authority rests with his local congregation.

The question then is, to what degree should the SBC as a denomination be held accountable for past and present predatory pastors within some SBC churches? There’s no question that this scandal casts a shadow over the entire denomination of Southern Baptists. Secondly, this news should move every congregation to be even more vigilant in taking careful consideration in who they choose for leadership — and then keeping watch over how those leaders steward the position entrusted to them. Finally, and most importantly, it’s a reminder of the universal fallen nature of all humanity and our desperate need for the very Savior these churches worship.

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