The Houston Chronicle’s Report on Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse, and the Lessons for All Evangelical Churches

On Sunday, the Houston Chronicle released the first of a three-part series titled “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reform.”

Below are a few excerpts from the article—though please read it for yourself. (And remember, while this article and the investigation focuses on Southern Baptist churches, it largely applies to all evangelical churches.)

In June 2008, [Debbie Vasquez] paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

…Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

…[since 2008] more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It's not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

…The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit.

• Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors' studies and Sunday school classrooms. A few were adults — women and men who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.

Read the whole report.

How Should the Church Respond?

First, let me state that I know many fine Southern Baptist churches as well as godly Southern Baptist pastors. I would never single out Southern Baptists, but since the article was about them I have no choice. All I can do is remind you that the lessons learned should be taken to heart by all evangelical churches.

Abuses such as those detailed in the article break the heart of God, and they should break ours as well. The church should be leading the way in helping and protecting the vulnerable and abused, not protecting and helping predators.

I highly recommend churches consider ways to be more proactive in preventing abuse. One resource that’s been recommended to me is GRACE, Godly Response to Abuse in the Church Environment, which provides a Safeguarding Program to help churches implement best practices to protect the vulnerable. (See this interview with the founder of GRACE.)

The Houston Chronicle set up a database that allows people to search for SBC pastors by name to see if they’ve been convicted of sex crimes. (It’s tragic that such a thing is necessary, but if it saves children and women and churches from sexual abuse,  I’ll be grateful they did.)

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, has written a good treatment of the article:

This report is alarming and scandalous, and the courage and grace of these survivors is contrasted with the horrific depravity of those who would use the name of Jesus to prey on them.

First, we must see with clear eyes what is before us. All rape and sexual exploitation is evil and unjust. Sexual abuse is not only sin but also a crime. All of it should be prosecuted in the civil arena, and all of it will be brought before the tribunal of the Judgment Seat of Christ. But nothing is worse than the use of the name of Jesus to prey on the vulnerable, or to use the name of Jesus to cover up such crimes.

We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden.

Read the rest.

Trevin Wax, who works with the SBC’s Lifeway Resources, is also outspoken in calling for reforms, and in his article cites other Southern Baptist leaders who are doing the same.

A Sacred Trust

Most of the sexual abuses in the article relate to children, and certainly that is the most horrific kind of abuse. However, calls for reforms in all churches need to extend to church leaders who are involved in immoral consensual sex with adults.

I wrote in a past blog something that bears repeating here. Ministry is not just a task. It is a sacred trust between the under-shepherd and the flock that has been entrusted to him by God. To misuse and violate that trust to achieve sexual conquest, or even emotional dependence, is a particularly deplorable behavior. Every time a Christian leader’s sexual sin is passed off as “an unfortunate indiscretion that came at a vulnerable point in his life,” responsibility is avoided or denied, and others—especially the members in the local church—are taught that emotional needs and inadequacies justify immoral entanglement.

Even the secular counseling profession considers it the highest breach of ethics to enter into a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a client. Indeed, sexual involvement with one who has come to seek emotional help or spiritual guidance should not only be considered fornication or adultery—it should be considered sexual abuse.

Any sexual activity that comes out of a ministry context is comparable to the child sexual abuse that’s at the center of the report, where the supposedly mature and stable adult figure takes advantage of his or her authority and credibility to initiate or allow a sexual encounter with the immature and vulnerable. In such cases, the person in ministry is a predator. And it is all the worse because we are trusted representatives of Christ.

When an Abuser Finds Another Ministry Position

The article highlights the problem of abusers who are hired by other churches and again placed in positions of authority. This is one of the worst things I’ve seen in churches. For example, a pastor has an affair and devastates the church, and then it comes out that the same thing happened at his previous church (sometimes churches). Either the pastoral search group/elders didn’t bother contacting leaders of the former church or they didn’t ask the right questions (or if they did, they weren’t told the truth). Everyone ends up suffering for this.  

There are a few reasons this happens:

First, leaders at both the previous church don’t want to look bad because it happened under their watch, and they should have known. Or perhaps they didn’t take seriously the warning signs.

Second, leaders don’t want their church to experience scandal or for members of the congregation to lose confidence in the leadership, so sometimes they let the pastor announce that he “feels led” to take on a new ministry position in another part of the country.

Third—and this one bothers me just as much as the other two—leaders don’t want to subject themselves or their churches to possible legal liability by sharing information that could result in their old pastor not getting a new ministry job elsewhere. When we fail to do right out of fear for personal consequences, while subjecting others to potentially terrible consequences, that is wrong with a capital W.

So the result of devastation at one church is silence, leading to repeated or greater devastation at the next church…and sometimes the next and the next. It’s maddening.

Sadly, this isn’t limited to sexual immorality. There are many areas, but a prominent one is financial immorality. Some church leaders are quietly dismissed for financial improprieties. But had they been more noisily dismissed, perhaps hundreds or thousands of others in future churches and ministries could have been spared, and the reputation of Jesus and churches would not once again be dragged in the mud. (For more, see my past blog on Are We Shooting the Wounded or Acting in Love By Not Soon Restoring Fallen Leaders Back to Ministry?)

A recent insightful Gospel Coalition article asks another pertinent question in the arena of abuse: How Do Churches End Up with Domineering Bullies for Pastors? Please don’t think I am trying to pile on pastors. I was a pastor, and many of my best friends are pastors. I know well and deeply respect dozens and dozens of pastors, and have had rich conversations with hundreds of them. But these good men, not claiming perfection for themselves, would be the first to say that they wish abusive pastors of every variety were removed from church ministry. When they are not held accountable by their fellow pastors and lay leaders, they can do great damage to churches, and sometimes irreparable harm to individuals who suffer abuse at their hands.  

Tim Challies offers some wise and extremely important thoughts about “Why We Must Emphasize a Pastor’s Character over His Skill.” 

Please, pray for your pastors. Respect and encourage them. And recognize they too—for their sake and the sake of their churches—need to be held accountable. They need to have people speak truth into their lives. May pastors and all who are part of Christ’s truth ponder these passages, beginning with one that reminds us who the head of the church and the only Good Shepherd and Chief Shepherd really is:

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2-4).

“It’s time for judgment to begin with God’s own household. But if judgment starts with us, what will happen to those who refuse to believe God’s good news?” (1 Peter 4:17).

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

For more, see Randy’s booklet Sexual Temptation, which contains clear, preventive guidelines to avoid immorality, and also has a specific section for pastors and church leaders. See also his book The Purity Principle.

Photo by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries