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Dispute Over Abuse Hotline Reveals How Far the SBC Still Has To Go

Southern Baptist Convention
Abuse survivors Debbie Vasquez, from left, Jules Woodson and Tiffany Thigpen turn to watch as messengers vote on a resolution in favor of sexual abuse victims during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California, on June 15, 2022. RNS photo by Justin L. Stewart

(RNS) — For years, Southern Baptist Convention leaders refused to listen to abuse survivors, ignoring their concerns and labeling them as enemies of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

After the release last spring of a major report detailing decades of mistreatment of survivors, Southern Baptist leaders pledged to change.

One of their first steps: setting up a confidential hotline where allegations of abuse could be reported to trauma-informed experts.

The hotline was meant as an interim measure until long-term responses were put in place. But until recently, very little was known about how it operated. That led one survivor and longtime abuse advocate to ask some pointed and uncomfortable questions about the hotline in an online publication.

“I had questions about the process,” Christa Brown told Religion News Service in an interview.

In particular, Brown said she was concerned about the role Rachael Denhollander, another survivor, had with the hotline. A prominent advocate and lawyer, Denhollander has publicly criticized SBC leaders over their treatment of survivors and her activism helped prompt the Guidepost investigation. She has also helped advise abuse survivors and consulted with Christian groups, including the SBC, on how to better care for survivors.

RELATED: Southern Baptist leaders mistreated abuse survivors for decades, report says

Brown argues that Denhollander’s roles as both a survivor advocate and a consultant for the SBC could lead to a conflict of interest. Brown worried survivors who call the hotline might be referred to Denhollander without knowing that she also works with church leaders.

Brown’s Baptist News column led Guidepost Solutions, which oversees the hotline, and the SBC task force working on abuse reforms to release statements about how it works.

But it also prompted a public conflict among abuse survivors and advocates, which played out on social media. Some backed Brown. Others saw her column as an attack on Denhollander.

The conflict also revealed a deeper challenge for Southern Baptist leaders trying to address abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Because SBC leaders mistreated survivors for years, no one trusts them. Every attempt they make at reform is viewed with skepticism, most of it justified.

Brown worries readers missed the bigger point of her column.

“My purpose is not in any way to degrade Denhollander, an individual for whom I hold great admiration and gratitude for all she has done in broadly raising awareness about the dynamics of sexual abuse,” she wrote.

Instead, Brown wanted to draw attention to the lack of transparency about the hotline.

According to the response put out by Guidepost, a small number of trauma-informed staffers respond to callers. Any information collected by those staffers is kept confidential. Guidepost does not investigate any allegations. Instead, they are referred to the SBC’s Credentials Committee.

Guidepost said that on two occasions, out of “hundreds,” people reporting allegations have asked to be connected to an advocate.

The SBC task force also said all reports are kept confidential. No task force member or adviser, including Denhollander, was given information about callers to the hotline.

South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock, who chairs the task force charged with implementing abuse reforms approved last summer, said survivors and advocates have every right to ask questions in this process.

“When concerns are raised, it is important to hear them,” he said.