Just ahead of its annual meeting this week, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released a 52-page report about sexual abuse within the denomination’s churches. The SBC’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, commissioned by President J.D. Greear, published the “Caring Well” report Saturday and will make a presentation Wednesday during the meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.
The “Caring Well” report, produced in collaboration with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), comes after 10 months of research and interviews. In three sections titled “Share,” “Care,” and “Prepare,” the pages offer insights into the sexual abuse crisis, describe effective ways of caring for survivors, and detail how to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.
Though the report isn’t exhaustive, notes the Advisory Group, one goal “is to begin to illuminate the evil that has occurred within our midst by sharing the stories of survivors of sexual abuse.” The report reinforces the SBC’s commitment to “becoming churches that are safe for survivors and safe from abuse.”
Greear calls the report “a good first step at capturing where we have come from and where we must go to serve the vulnerable.” In conjunction with the report’s release, the SBC has announced a “Caring Well Challenge” for churches and is offering a free curriculum that trains people to care for abuse victims.
Survivors’ Stories Take Center Stage in Southern Baptist Abuse Report
Testimonies from victims are printed throughout the “Caring Well” report, adding urgency to the problem and insight into the culture that allows abuse—and silence about it—to occur. Some victims are named, while others remain anonymous, and the report commends their bravery and assistance. Readers are warned that the report contains some graphic content in the form of descriptions of abuse.
Abigail, who was raped on a Southern Baptist college campus, describes having administrators—all men—downplay her claim and discourage her from making a police report. “I can’t remember the facial expressions of the male leadership,” she says, “but I can tell you every detail about their shoes. I couldn’t bear to lift my eyes to meet theirs. I felt so much shame.”
Carol Hogue, the mother of a survivor, describes the impact sexual abuse has on an entire family. After a church organist molested her son, she says, “We all felt the impact and had to work through the pain.”
Churches need a support plan, the report notes, to deal with abuse disclosures and reporting, to handle accused abusers, and to “walk alongside” survivors as they heal. “The survivor must be our top priority,” it says, not the reputation of an individual’s ministry or a particular church body.
The release of “Caring Well” coincides with the sixth and final installment of the Houston Chronicle’s investigation into sexual abuse within the SBC. After the newspaper published the first part of the series in February, revealing that 700 people were victimized in 20 years, it received 350 more stories about abuse and “predatory behavior by officials based primarily in Southern Baptist churches.”
When the abuse scandal broke, Greear listed 10 congregations that might be removed from fellowship with the denomination; seven were quickly cleared. A bylaws workgroup of the SBC executive committee was then accused of acting in haste, leading victims’ advocates to wonder if the issue was being whitewashed.
Report Points Out Failings and Hurdles
Regarding sexual abuse, SBC churches have fallen short in several areas, the report states. Congregations have protected abusers, blamed victims, and perpetuated a culture “where pastors and leaders cannot be questioned and where accusers are seen with skepticism and fear, rather than love and concern.”
Abuse isn’t just a sin, the report notes, but also a crime, so reports must be made to legal authorities. Only those authorities, not churches, should conduct criminal investigations, the report says.
The misapplication of theology has been another hurdle, with some churches teaching that women and children are inferior to men and must submit to their leadership.