(RNS) — For three minutes last summer, a call to investigate how Southern Baptist leaders have dealt with sexual abuse was dead in the water.
Then a little-known denominational bylaw and a pastor from Indiana saved it.
“I just had to do it,” said Todd Benkert, pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Indiana. “It was me or nobody.”
About 15 minutes into a morning business session at the Southern Baptist Convention’s June 2021 annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Southern Baptist leaders announced that a motion to set up an independent sex abuse investigation was being tabled.
Because the motion dealt with the internal workings of an SBC entity — in this case, the denomination’s Nashville-based Executive Committee — denominational officials, relying on bylaw 26 of the SBC’s constitution, decided to refer the motion to that entity.
In other words, the Executive Committee would be put in charge of investigating itself.
Then-President J.D. Greear was ready to move on when Benkert stood up at a microphone with a motion of his own, based on another section of bylaw 26.
“I would like the opportunity to make a motion to overrule the Committee on Order of Business at the appropriate time,” he said.
Benkert’s motion was met with applause. Then a second, and then almost all of the 15,000 local church delegates, known as messengers, raised their yellow voting cards in the air — far more than the two-thirds majority needed to overrule the committee.
Those messengers would later approve the abuse investigation. A report from that investigation, released this week, would show that for decades Executive Committee leaders had done everything in their power to protect the institution from liability.
“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” the report concluded.
The report, compiled by outside investigation firm Guidepost Solutions, was an “apocalypse,” according to former SBC ethicist Russell Moore, who had been hounded out of the denomination in part because of his support for survivors of abuse. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called it a sign of God’s judgment on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.