My soul is troubled by the Houston Chronicle’s report of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The news is shocking and shameful. The Chronicle was able to document abuse of over 700 victims over the course of 20 years. This kind of abuse is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and an affront to Christianity.
Worse still, the report is able to make the case that the abuse is not a series isolated events. The abuse is systematic.
Pastors who abused children and youth in their care were able to secure employment at other SBC churches after their abuse was known. Further, some of the abusers were known to leaders within the denomination who either failed to handle the allegations of abuse properly or covered up the allegations.
In the wake of this betrayal of the gospel, the SBC must do things differently. First, there needs to be an independent investigation of the reports of sexual abuse.
Because leadership within the SBC is accused of complicity and failure to handle reports of sexual abuse correctly, no internal investigation will be taken seriously by our people or the world at large; nor should it be. The SBC leadership has forfeited its credibility on the issue. After an independent investigation, those who are responsible must be held accountable.
There are systemic steps the SBC must take to prevent future abuse, however, one of the biggest issues revealed in the Houston Chronicle report is not systemic. It is not a systemic issue when a person fails to call the authorities in the wake of sexual abuse. It is not a systemic issue when a person covers up allegations of abuse. These are personal failures. These kinds of personal failures cannot be tolerated in our leadership.
There are several steps the SBC can take to help prevent abuses from happening in the future. The SBC needs to rethink its ordination practices. It is far too easy to become an ordained SBC pastor. If a person desires ordination as a Baptist minister, all that is really necessary is a majority vote of an SBC congregation. It is also far too difficult to have a minister defrocked. To my knowledge, there is no denominational procedure for revoking the ordination of a Baptist minister.
As suggested by many others, the SBC needs to keep a list of ministers who are known abusers. The list must be public. It must be available to every search committee and every member of a congregation. The procedure for getting on the list must be clear. There also must be a process for individuals to challenge being put on the list, as rarely there will be people who are falsely accused. Hiring someone on the list must be seen as a threat to the members of the congregation and the SBC itself.
SBC congregations need a better hiring process. While it has been known for some time that the hiring process for pastors in SBC life is cumbersome, the Chronicle’s revelations prove that it is dangerous. A process needs to be created that values the autonomous nature of the local congregation, the privacy of the minister, and the welfare of the church. While we can hope and pray for such a process to be created, there is a step local congregations can take. The most important step an individual congregation can take right now is to do a criminal background check on those who they intend to hire. Failure to do so invites disaster.
The actions the Chronicle report have catalogued bring shame on our witness and may harm the public’s perception of the gospel. The report must be taken seriously and action must be taken. Now is a time for serious leadership to emerge on this issue. I pray that it does – soon.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Layne Wallace is senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.)