(RNS) — At their annual meeting last month in Anaheim, California, Southern Baptists passed a series of reforms to address sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Local church delegates, known as messengers, also passed a resolution, calling on states to make pastoral sexual misconduct a crime. Such misconduct is “a clear abuse of authority and trust,” the resolution states, similar to the trust placed in doctors, teachers, therapists and other helping professionals.
Since many states prohibit sexual relationships between those helping professionals and their patients or clients — they should also treat sexual relationships between pastors and members of their flocks as crimes, not simply a moral failing, according to the resolution.
Getting local churches to embrace that idea may be difficult.
Many still have a hard time seeing sexual misconduct by pastors as abusive. Particularly when the one abused is an adult, Baptists and other faith groups often view the survivor as the tempter — a sinner who led a holy man astray — rather than as a church member in need of care. Meanwhile, the fallen pastor is just another sinner who needs Jesus, said Andrew Hébert, pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas.
“There’s been an assumption that this is a brother who needs to be restored — rather than realizing this is a wolf who’s trying to attack the sheep,” said Hébert. “The sheep need to be protected.”
Hébert served as vice chair of the Southern Baptist Convention’s sex abuse task force, whose work helped lead to the reforms passed this summer. He said Southern Baptists have often treated pastoral misconduct as a “moral failing” or an affair between consenting adults.
“I think today, we’ve come to know that actually is an abusive situation,” he said.
Not all Southern Baptist leaders agree. A recent report by Guidepost Solutions, which found that SBC leaders had mistreated abuse survivors and downplayed the issue of abuse for decades, has come under fire for describing sexual misconduct as abuse.
Mark Coppenger, a former SBC seminary president, dismissed that report as overblown during the annual meeting in June and in a follow-up interview. He was particularly skeptical of the story of Jen Lyell, a former SBC publishing executive who reported long-term abuse by a former seminary professor. The Guidepost report criticized SBC leaders for describing the abuse as an immoral relationship — something they later apologized for. The SBC’s Executive Committee also reached a settlement with Lyell.
“I do think the Jennifer Lyell thing is really sketchy,” said Coppenger.
A number of SBC pastors have also shared a recent article from a conservative outlet, The Daily Wire, critical of Lyell and Guidepost. The article questioned claims that Lyell had reported her abuse to police. However, Maj. Mark Timperman of the Jeffersontown, Kentucky, Police Department told Religion News Service in a phone call that Lyell had reported the abuse but declined to press charges. In a statement posted in response to The Daily Wire story, Lyell said she had provided documentation of the abuse allegations to the SBC’s Executive Committee and that several church leaders had corroborated those allegations.