The pledge falls short of demands by some survivors, including for a compensation fund and stronger independent monitoring.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SCB), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has voted to create a database to track pastors and other church workers credibly accused of sexual abuse and a group, with a one-year mandate, to handle abuse claims.
The vote on Tuesday, which came during the denomination’s annual national gathering in Anaheim, California, follows a report by an outside consultant that detailed decades of mishandling of sexual abuse allegations and mistreatment of victims by the SBC.
Despite allegations against pastors and others repeatedly reaching the SBC executive, accusers were met with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” as officials remained “singularly focused on avoiding liability”, according to the report by Guidepost Solutions released last month.
Among the damning findings was the revelation that staffers on the SBC’s executive committee kept a list of ministers accused of abuse but there was no indication the committee “took any actions” to assure the ministers were not in a position where they could harm others.
The measures fall short of demands by some survivors, which include a compensation fund for victims and a permanent independent commission to monitor the church’s handling of abuse claims going forward. It was also met by opposition from some representatives of the denomination, who questioned the integrity of the outside consultant who conducted the report.
Bruce Frank, who led a task force that recommended the reforms, called the steps the “bare minimum”, saying “protecting the sheep from the wolves” is essential to the church’s mission.
“How are you going to tell a watching world that Jesus died for them … when his church won’t even do its very best to protect them?” Frank asked gathered representatives of SBC churches from across the country, who refer to themselves as messengers. The SBC claims 13 million members in the US and 40 million worldwide.
At least one abuse survivor, Christa Brown, who has advocated for more than a decade on the issue, called the reforms disappointing.
She and other survivors had sought a permanent commission to oversee compliance, whereas Tuesday’s vote created only a one-year term for such a task force, with an option to renew. She also called for a more “survivor-centric” handling of the list of accused clergy.
“I know people like happy endings, but I’m not feeling it,” she tweeted. “I feel grief. It’s better than nothing but that’s such a low bar.”
Meanwhile, survivors Tiffany Thigpen and Jules Woodson told The Associated Press news agency they were overwhelmed to see support for the task force’s recommendations. Woodsen called the measures “a small step and a healthy, healing step in the right direction”.
The alleged abuses committed at SBC churches, and widespread institutional inaction, gained national attention in 2019 when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News released a report on hundreds of cases. Those included several in which the alleged perpetrators remained in ministry.
The scandal echoed that of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been rocked by a deluge of allegations of sexual abuse, spurred by a 2002 report by the Boston Globe newspaper that documented a decades-long campaign of coverups. To date, the US Catholic Church has paid an estimated $3.2bn to settle clergy abuse cases, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks the issue.
On Tuesday, at least one church representative questioned the report. “We have a group that celebrates sexual sin, advising us on how to handle sexual sin of abuse,” Indiana pastor Tim Overton said
He was referring to Guidepost Solutions having tweeted in support of Pride Month. The denomination maintains that homosexuality is “sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent and perverted”, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which supports LGBTQ+ rights.