Lessons in the News: Abuse Within the Southern Baptist Convention

“An independent investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention found its leaders mishandled allegations of sexual abuse, intimidated victims, and resisted attempts at reform over the course of two decades. Abuse survivors and others ‘made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC (executive committee) meetings, held rallies and contacted the press…only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC,’ a report on the findings said.”
CNN , 05.24.2

As reported extensively in the news, at the urging of its membership, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has recently released an independent report detailing an institutional cover-up of abuse allegations. The cases outlined in the report spanned multiple decades, and allegations were made against hundreds of individuals within SBC-affiliated congregations across the country.

What We Know

  • A Confrontational Response: For years, reports of abuse within SBC churches were met with resistance and hostility. Survivors were portrayed in a negative light, their allegations were mischaracterized and they were ignored and discredited.
  • Organizational Cover-Up: Senior leaders—working with outside council—controlled the SBC’s response to reports of abuse. Avoiding liability was a clear priority while preventing further abuse or helping survivors to heal was not.
  • Lack of Action: Since 2007, an Executive Committee staff member maintained a list of 703 abusers, and many of those individuals were able to move between churches with impunity. Nine alleged abusers are believed to remain in active ministry.

What We Can Learn
This is a clear case where, for far too long, an organization’s response to abuse focused first and foremost on protecting the organization itself, not on addressing the problem of abuse. And it is unacceptable. As we saw with the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics, institutions will rightly be held accountable by the public for mishandling of abuse disclosures.

Fortunately, there now appears to be a recognition of this problem among the grassroots membership. This recognition manifested itself in an overwhelming vote in favor of investigation. While we wish it had happened sooner, we are heartened by this response, and we believe that it is one more sign of a growing societal intolerance for abuse. Clearly, every organization needs to make abuse prevention a priority at every level. That means ensuring accountability and transparency for all stakeholders so that no case is allowed to slip through the cracks. Here’s part of what that looks like for organizations like yours:

Safety at Every Level
From the board, to the CEO and leadership team, to the entire staff and volunteers too, it is important that everyone takes allegations of abuse seriously and is ready to respond with empathy. Every allegation of abuse should be reported, and there can be zero tolerance for cover-ups, negligence or efforts to marginalize survivors.

Preparation is Everything
It’s also critical to prepare your boards, leadership, volunteers and staff in advance for what they will do when someone discloses abuse. That’s because the structure and culture of organizations can create ‘group think’ or an excessive focus on institutional loyalty—especially in a time of crisis. Below are some resources designed for your boards, specifically, to help them proactively create a consensus about how the organization will respond in a survivor-centered manner in the event of a disclosure: