The report, released by Guidepost Solutions – a third-party organization contracted to do the study – says the SBC's Executive Committee (EC) resisted, stonewalled, and was even outright hostile to victims of the alleged sexual assaults. "Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC's response to these reports of abuse … and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC," the report said.
Ordained SBC pastor Dr. Alex McFarland says his heart hurts after reading the conclusions. "It's always unfortunate when it comes out that trusted spiritual leaders, pastors have betrayed the trust of people," he tells AFN. "And even worse, [they have] betrayed the guidelines of the Word of God."
The report's findings are "horrific," says Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist-Dallas. "I believe the church ought to be the safest place in the world for everyone, especially for women and children – and nobody should be a victim in a church," he argues. "Frankly, I think some churches are way too lax in how they handled this issue."
The Texas pastor says it's a two-fold tragedy – first for the victims … and then for the witness of the Church.
"I'm afraid that it just makes some people even more cynical toward the Church," Jeffress laments. "I believe most churches are safe places and are filled with godly people who want to do the right thing – but we have to remember that there are always wolves in sheep's clothing out there."
Autonomy an obstacle
The Guidepost report offers several suggested reforms, including the creation of what might be described as a permanent sexual abuse prevention task force that would work to reduce the number of assaults in SBC churches. But both McFarland and Jeffress explain that the way the denomination is set up, implementation of those reforms could be very difficult.
"Because of the nature of the Southern Baptist Convention," McFarland explains, "it's just not really appropriate to demand that there be a top-down agency to whom all churches or ministries answer – because that's just not the kind of organization this is. Again, it's a voluntary, fraternal collective."
That autonomy, Jeffress adds, means each individual church has to develop and maintain strict safeguards to weed out potential abusers. "But … every church, regardless of what the Southern Baptist Convention does, can make [their church] a safe place for children and women," he urges.
McFarland notes that critics from outside and inside the denomination are comparing the culture in the SBC with that of the Catholic Church, where some 19,000 parishioners were abused over the decades by about 6,800 priests. This situation within the SBC is similarly and undoubtedly tragic, he says – but it's also different.
"Nearly 50,000 [Southern Baptist] churches are meeting every week [with] nearly 15- to 16-million people – and you've got reports of 703 abusers with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time.
"It's wrong, it's unfortunate, it's tragic – but [in comparison], this is a minuscule proportion," McFarland concludes.
Editor's note: The SBC offers two options to report an instance of abuse – by phone at 202-864-5578 or SBChotline@guidepostsolutions.com. Survivors will be notified of the available options for care and will be put in touch with an advocate. All information will remain confidential.