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A third-party organization brought in by the Southern Baptist Convention to investigate allegations of systemic sexual abuse within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination found its leaders ignored and even “vilified” the victims, and knew more about the perpetrators than they admitted. The abuses occurred over a two-decade period, accentuating the conference’s longtime image problem as an organization whose conservative leadership remains mired in outdated racial and gender attitudes.

Media reporting in recent years has documented hundreds of cases of alleged abuse by Baptist preachers and others in the convention. The organization might well have mimicked the Catholic church’s initial response of circling the wagons and stonewalling, if not for pressure by reformers within the organization. At a national Southern Baptist gathering last year, thousands of delegates demanded an independent probe. The organization ultimately acquiesced, bringing in the independent firm Guidepost Solutions.

Its lengthy report, released Sunday, confirms some of the worst of the allegations and brings new ones to light. The report says abuse survivors, including children and adult women, were met, “time and again, with resistance, stonewalling and even outright hostility” from convention leaders. Three former presidents of the convention were identified as having protected abusers, and one allegedly committed sexual assault.

The report found that Southern Baptist leaders “were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC” rather than confronting the alleged abusers.

“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action … even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” states the report.

Perhaps most startling — and most reminiscent of the Catholic church’s myriad abuse scandals — is that the SBC knew who the accused were but did nothing to warn the flock. The report specifies that one top staffer maintained a list of Baptist ministers accused of abuse, yet the organization took no action to confront them or ensure they weren’t continuing to pose a threat to their followers.

Some critics within the organization have long called for the convention to create a database of accused ministers so members could protect themselves, but the organization has refused. The revelation that the convention was already engaged in some version of that record-keeping, and had simply refused to share it with members, is especially galling.

The report recommends that the convention create a permanent entity to oversee reforms related to misconduct, that it create and maintain an offender-information system for the Baptist community and that it restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements often used to protect the accused in legal settlements.

Southern Baptist Convention leaders this week expressed a willingness to embrace those and other reforms. If they have indeed heeded the lessons, they will follow through on those promises.

— The St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

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