A Culture of Abuse and Cover-Ups in the Southern Baptist Convention
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Today, we're starting with a story we've been following for some time now.
Speaker 1: Well, good morning, everyone.
Melissa: On Thursday, the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention met in a special session via Zoom.
Speaker 1: The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. I'm going to officially call our meeting to order.
Melissa: One item on the agenda was "additional funding of the SBC Executive Committee excess legal fees from operating reserves."
Melissa: Excess legal fees. It's a bit of a euphemism but, undoubtedly, a response to the 288-page report released last month by Guidepost, the third-party group whose investigation found that the SBC's highest level of leadership ignored and intimidated survivors of sexual abuse for the past two decades while protecting churches accused of harboring abusers.
Hannah-Kate Williams: The report itself shows just a limited picture of what survivors have been saying for years.
Melissa: This is Hannah-Kate Williams. She's a survivor whose personal story and unrelenting advocacy are crucial for initiating the investigation that led to the Guidepost report on the SBC.
Hannah-Kate: If the report on such a small investigation spanning so few people can reveal that many abusers, to me, it's just further validation that pursuing action against the entire Southern Baptist Convention is what's needed to uncover the truth and protect others.
Melissa: Uncovering the truth and protecting others are Hannah-Kate's primary concerns. Joe Nott of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists and pastor of the Jackson Avenue Baptist Church in Pleasant, West Virginia articulated different concerns during Thursday's Zoom meeting of the SBC executive council.
Joe Nott: When we start telling churches that they should do this or do that to protect children or women and it turns out, which it will, that women and children are still going to be victimized, then someone is going to say, "You did not do enough." When they say that, that is a question of fact, which could support a lawsuit. Not just one lawsuit by one victim but by thousands of victims. We spend $1 million, $2 million, 5 million, $10 million to try to protect women and children. I guarantee you. Women and children are going to be victimized no matter how much we spend. That is going to make us potentially targets of great class-action lawsuits, which could be the end of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Melissa: For many years, reformers within the SBC have warned that Southern Baptist leaders have allowed concerns about preserving the SBC to outweigh all other considerations. Beth Moore, who was an influential Southern Baptist teacher and is a survivor of abuse, was among those who call for public accountability years ago. Here she is on an SBC ethics panel in 2019.
Beth Moore: I was raised in a large family. Not everybody in the family was an abuser and not everybody in the family was abused. Because there was abuse in the family and there was an abuser in the family, the whole family was sick. What I want to say to my own family of Southern Baptist, our family is sick. We need help.
Melissa: After enjoying decades of superstar status within the SBC, Moore's opposition to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and her advocacy for assault survivors left her shunned and marginalized among Southern Baptists. She left the SBC in 2021. She was not alone. More than one million members left Southern Baptist churches between 2019 and 2021. Membership is at a 40-year low.
With more than 13 million members remaining, Southern Baptists are still the largest evangelical group in the United States. How they respond to this moment is deeply consequential for the fabric of American life. We spoke with Robert Downen, a staff reporter at the Houston Chronicle. Robert was part of the investigative team that detailed hundreds of sexual abuses by Southern Baptist Convention leaders beginning in 2019.
Robert Downen: Our goal was to just get a sense of how widespread this problem might be. We ended up finding at least 400 SBC church leaders or volunteers who had been credibly accused of sex crimes or misconduct dating back to 2000. Nearly all of those were criminal charges that ended in convictions. There were a handful that were spelled out in civil lawsuits.
Melissa: Obviously, as a reporter, you undoubtedly hear lots of stories of claims made from individuals. What led you all, however, to really focus in on this investigation?
Robert: Our reporting really did start about as organically as possible. I was a newcomer to Houston. I had been there maybe four months and was working a night cop shift as part of my general assignment beat at the time. I saw that this lawsuit had been moved to federal courts. The lawsuit accused a man named Paul Pressler, who was a former Texas Court of Appeals judge, a massively prominent Southern Baptist, and a one-time White House appointee. He was being accused in this lawsuit of rape by a former youth member.
I just happened to see that lawsuit pop up and did some digging and found a $500,000 settlement that Pressler had settled for assault previously. As that was happening, there were two other big abuse-related scandals going on in the SBC. Frank Page, the executive committee's chairman, had just stepped down because of an affair. At the same time, Paige Patterson, who is arguably one of the most important evangelicals of the last half-century, he was suddenly facing blowback for a series of sermons in which he bragged about coaching a woman to stay with her violent husband.
Melissa: All right, let's pause and listen to what Robert's referencing. This sound is from internet archive user eaandfaith. It's of Paige Patterson speaking at a conference in 2000. That year, he was president of both the SBC and the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Paige Patterson: I had a woman who was in a church that I served and she was being subject to some abuse. I told her, I said, "All right, every evening, I want you to get down by the bed. When you think he's just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene. Not out loud, quietly," but I said, "You just pray there," and I said, "Get ready because he may get a little more violent when he discovers this." Sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black and she was angry at me and at God in the world for that matter.
Melissa: Patterson went on to lead the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, but he was fired in 2018 following credible reports that he'd discouraged women who came forward with rape allegations from pursuing legal action. Robert Downen explained that this high-profile scandal was part of the reason his investigative team at the Houston Chronicle pursued the story of assault and cover-ups in the SBC.
Robert: Between the Pressler case, between those two other scandals, what we could find was out there pretty quickly became evident that there actually was a much bigger story here. That was the first thread we pulled and here we are today.
Melissa: Walk us through some of the key findings of this report.
Robert: The big takeaways for us were just the culture that was detailed and spelled out by Guidepost in the report. That culture was one that, by and large, silenced survivors actively opposed abuse reforms that top leaders were saying publicly were either impractical or impossible because of the SBC structure but, privately, were actually supportive of those reforms as a way to stop predators.
The focus so often so far has been on this small group of top lawyers and leaders and how they were able to really just mislead so many people in the denomination, but contained in that report are just-- If you look at every single one of those findings, it's just like one point of this broader mosaic. It really does just add up to this broad culture that was hostile or distrusting, to put it lightly, of anybody who was an outside voice, who had anything negative to say about the SBC, including that there were sexual predators.
Melissa: Now, to further understand the implications of this report, we also talked with Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She's a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. Her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne, charts the last 75 years of white evangelicalism in the US. I asked Kristin if this investigation and report could lead to genuine accountability.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez: If we go back to 2016, particularly conversations around the election of Donald Trump, that was pointed to as a moment of reckoning. The overwhelming white evangelical support for Trump and the response among evangelicals to allegations of Trump's own sexual assault, particularly in the days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape.
That's when we saw prominent figures like former SBC Bible study teacher Beth Moore come out very strongly against Trump and against abuse and saying, "This is not who we are." The backlash against Moore was brutal and she is no longer in the SBC because of that. That was one moment of reckoning that didn't exactly pan out. We didn't see significant change. Then we had the Houston Chronicle report that revealed 700 victims and prompted calls for this investigation. That was seen as a moment of reckoning.
We did get the investigation out of that. Now, in the aftermath of the report of the investigation, here too, we can see varied responses. Former SBC leader Russell Moore calls this apocalyptic, but we are also seeing pushback against it, discrediting the report itself. We are not seeing apologies to survivors. We are not seeing people take accountability or take responsibility for their roles in covering up this abuse, and so it remains to be seen if this will indeed be a moment of reckoning or if this is just one more instance of resistance and ultimately of pushback.
Melissa: How should we be thinking about the faithful, the congregants, the casserole ladies in the Southern Baptist Church, or the teachers in the Southern Baptist schools? How tarnished are they by this? Are they a distinct population or should we be thinking of the SBC as just one entity?
Kristin: That's a really critical point that you raise because this investigation that was released a little over a week ago was on the executive committee of the SBC. That's a relatively small group of leadership and looking at their mishandling of cases of sexual abuse. However, the report details patterns of responses going all the way down to local church, to institutions, to organizations of repeated patterns where when abuse surfaced and when survivors told their stories, so frequently, these stories were covered up.
Victims were blamed. They were blamed for disrupting the witness of the church, the mission. This was a tension that played out at the local level and also is playing out at the national level, people wanting to discount or discredit survivors in doing so saying, "We need to protect evangelism, the missionary work, all of the good things that the SBC is doing." Now, it's worth noting that it was a grassroots effort that made this investigation happen. It was representatives from local church.
It was these messengers as they're called at the Nashville meeting who pushed for this investigation and then pushed for it to be independent, not under control of the executive committee, and pushed for a waiver of attorney-client privilege, and so the full story could come out. We see folks at the local level pushing for transparency, for reform, but we also know that these problems run deep and can be found at the local level. The real question before us now, I think, is, what will ordinary SBC folks do?
Melissa: Robert, let me follow up on that, Kristin's point that this report is really about the executive committee, which of all these many institutions within the big umbrella of SBC is actually the smallest. If these many hundreds of credibly-accused abusers are based on just an investigation of the smallest part, what does that tell us about, as Kristin said, how deep this may run?
Robert: This denomination, I think it's probably worth taking just a quick step back here to just talk briefly about this structure that allows a lot of these problems to be perpetuated. Unlike the Catholic Church, SBC doesn't have a hierarchy. It functions more like a cooperative of 47,000 churches. While their theology is generally overlapped, there aren't ordination standards.
There aren't really best practices for most things. There's no record-sharing really. If you hang out in Southern Baptist circles long enough, you're bound to, at some point, hear someone make the comment that the Southern Baptist Convention only exists for two days out of the year. What they mean by that is that for two days each year, Southern Baptist Churches convene.
Therefore, that is when the SBC theoretically exists. I think if you understand how the SBC is structured and the ideas of mutual accountability that are really at the core of that structure, then there is this broader question of, yes, we could paint this as the bad actions of a few rogue agents. If these men are supposed to be our representatives, how much of the blame for this problem does matriculate back to us?
Melissa: Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson have both denied wrongdoing.
Melissa: In its initial response to the report, the head of the SBC's executive committee said, "God has blessed the sexual abuse task force and Guidepost with His wisdom in developing this report and offering insight into how we can all take steps to eliminate sexual abuse within the convention. In striving for this goal, we recognize there are no shortcuts. We must all meet this challenge through prudent and prayerful application and we must do so with Christlike compassion." If you want to read the full statement, you can do so on our website at thetakeaway.org. Now, the SBC's annual meeting is coming up, June 14th and 15th. I asked Robert to explain what's on the table and if he had any predictions about the outcomes.
Robert: I hesitate to ever try to predict what will happen at those meetings because there are 14,000-person exercises in Robert's rules of orders. Doesn't matter the size of their church, their ordination, their theological trainings. They can get up to a mic and make a recommendation. You do, of course, always get some kind of oddball ones.
Going into this year, some of the reforms we know are going to get discussed at least is this idea of a database that churches could use to consult when hiring pastors because one of the things that survivors have worn for years is that the lack of communication or consistent ordination standards or really anything had made the SBC a perfect system for predators to flourish. You get to be ordained at a small local church just by convincing a few people that God called you to service, and then you can just take that credential and move all across the country, all across the world really. It gets progressively harder for people to track where you actually were ordained as you just keep moving through that system.
Kristin: As Rob was suggesting, the SBC doesn't consider itself a denomination. They are just a collection of churches that agree to a kind of low bar message of the Baptist faith and message, a kind of theological belief. Apart from that, there isn't this organizational system of accountability. That really came to play in the case of abuse because as survivors would bring their stories of abuse to local churches and then to the SBC, to the executive committee, they were continually told, "We don't have the polity to deal with this. Our churches are independent. We can't hold them accountable. That simply is not the way we do things."
Now, it's worth noting that the SBC was able to disfellowship churches that allowed women to preach or churches that affirmed LGBTQ. They were able to process that, but they claim to be unable to track abusers as they would move from one SBC church to another. One of the things that this Guidepost investigation revealed, one of the most shocking things was that, in fact, the executive committee was keeping a database. They were tracking these abusers, but they weren't intervening. They weren't doing it to protect victims. They were doing it to protect their own institution for questions of liability, and so that was a really shocking finding.
Melissa: Robert, how likely do you think it is that knowledge of these practices really just stayed with the executive council?
Robert: The report last week does kind of show how this small group of people were able to shield the broader denomination from what was happening behind the scenes. At the same time, if Southern Baptist had wanted that information, so much of it was out there. Christa Brown, since the early 2000s, was chronicling cases of SBC abuse and institutional responses. Her website was sent to as many leaders as possible. None seemed to really care.
Like I said, it was all out there. What I think last week's report really speaks to is what happens when people who have a vested interest in protecting an organization are your main news sources on the investigation. When those people have spent decades defining the culture as at war with outside and perceived enemies, you do get this culture where they can just ultimately lie and you can take solace in knowing that what they said is the truth while being actively misled on a problem of profound consequences.
Melissa: Kristin, I'm wondering, is there any discourse about stopping abuse?
Kristin: Yes, among some. This points to the larger reckoning here. Why are we encountering such levels of egregious abuse within a religious organization and not just any religious organization, but the Southern Baptist Convention has been at the forefront in American society for pushing for sexual morality. That has been an organizing principle. The SBC since the late '70s, through the conservative resurgence, the leadership of Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson, both men who have been implicated in abuse and covering up abuse now, has really dictated the direction of the SBC.
Very conservative, upholding patriarchal authority, the submission of women, and very strict norms of sexual morality. This is the institution that is now, as we see, credibly accused of covering up for decades, their own pastor's abuse of women, of children, in some cases, of men as well. This is a crisis of faith for many survivors. It has been for a long time. They've known that this is the real SBC, that this is part of who the SBC is. Now, the rest of the church gets to see this is who they are.
Melissa: When we return, we'll talk with two women who survived sexual abuse within the SBC and have been courageously leading the movement for accountability.
Christa Brown: No one should ever forget the human cost of what it took to get this country's largest Protestant denomination to even approach the threshold of beginning to address clergy sex abuse because there are many, many survivors who don't survive. There are many victims who don't survive. This takes an enormous toll on people and the cost is just unfathomable.
Melissa: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway.
Melissa: We're continuing to talk about the recent report, detailing how leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention ignored and intimidated survivors of sexual abuse for decades while protecting known abusers. Christa Brown is a retired lawyer and a survivor of sexual assault by a predatory Southern Baptist preacher. For more than two decades, Christa has been speaking up about the abuse she suffered as a young teen at the hands of her youth minister. She repeatedly tried to warn church leaders of potential predators in their midst. She was ignored, rebuffed, and shunned. Learning about Christa's experience left me seething. I wanted to know if Christa is angry.
Christa: Thank you for your anger because I think that is a righteous anger. I feel it too and I have felt it for years. That anger is what helps you give me hope because I believe that anger is a reflection of a faith I still hold in the shared bonds of a caring humanity. I am grateful for that.
Hannah-Kate: I would just echo the anger and the sadness that both you and Christa have expressed.
Melissa: This is Hannah-Kate Williams. Hannah-Kate alleges she was abused by her father throughout her childhood. He was a student and an employee of Southern seminary. When Hannah-Kate told church leaders about the abuse, they worked to undermine her credibility and character.
Hannah-Kate: I have seen a lot of what was in the report. I've seen that firsthand for almost two decades of my life. I take no joy in having to tell the wrongdoings of people that are in my community. However, there is a deep sense of relief in knowing that others can be freed from this oppression. It's a tension between anger. As Christa stated, anger is righteous. It's a tension between that anger and also just deep sadness that this is where we have to be.
Melissa: The Guidepost investigation reveals that Southern Baptist Convention leaders "were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC," and "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." Still, survivors refused to remain silent and have doggedly pursued accountability. Here again is Hannah-Kate Williams and Christa Brown.
Hannah-Kate: The most tangible step that the Southern Baptist Convention can take at this moment is to publicly affirm that they will no longer use the statute of limitations against any survivor, past or future, as a defense against the survivor when they bring a complaint or an allegation.
Christa: There's a lot that needs doing for accountability, but at a minimum. The Southern Baptist Convention cannot abdicate its own moral responsibility. It must name the names of those pastors and ministers who are credibly accused of sexual abuse. It must take on the responsibility for making those assessments and making those investigations and naming those names.
They must keep those records and make those records public when a pastor is determined to be credibly accused. Number two, if they feel some repentance or remorse for this long travesty of what they have allowed, well, repentance requires restitution. I believe that part of institutional accountability would require that they create a survivor restoration fund to be administered by an independent master to pay restitution to all those survivors.
It is all well and good for them to talk about what they will do in the future, to say that they will do better in the future, and maybe even to actually do better in the future. There must also be a reckoning with the past and with the enormous harm that they allowed on their watch because no one should ever forget. Southern Baptist leaders knew. They knew that pastors were raping kids and congregants. They knew. They let it happen. They chose to do nothing. They knew. They let it happen. They chose to do nothing.
Melissa: In 2021, Hannah-Kate filed suit against multiple entities associated with the Southern Baptist Convention citing "years of sexual and physical abuse" and saying SBC officials "engage in a concerted effort to discredit, malign, and threaten her." Despite the sometimes terrifying resistance she encountered, Hannah-Kate took the floor at the 2021 SBC national convening and pleaded with leadership to open an investigation into sexual abuse allegations. I asked where she found the courage.
Hannah-Kate: I have seen the example of Christa since I was just a kid. Christa was the only voice speaking into the Southern Baptist Convention's abuse that I ever witnessed as a child. She was at the convention where I attended with my abuser and she was speaking out truth. She was maligned and she was called crazy and she was disbelieved. It's honestly because of her example that I'm even alive today. When I see people threatening me, when I see people saying that I'm crazy, that my voice doesn't matter, I think back to being a kid and seeing Christa having the only visceral reaction to the abuse. I think she's why I keep going.
Christa: Hannah-Kate, I love you. I feel as though across time and space that we stand together shoulder to shoulder. This fight, it is a long, long game, a multi-generational, ultra-marathon relay, and we are in it together. As much as you say that you looked to me, I also look to you because I know that you are the future of this fight and I am so grateful for you.
Melissa: The Justice Department estimates that as many as 80% of sexual assaults are unreported, in part, because survivors are so commonly met with disbelief and blame. For the survivors of abuse perpetrated and concealed by the religious community, the agony is compounded.
Christa: Everything I knew turned its back on me and, yes, that has an effect. When I came forward again as an adult, oh, my gosh, the hate, the pure raw hate that was spewed at me, the vitriol, was overwhelming. It is as though the whole of the faith community becomes a complicit partner in this horrific nightmare so that, for me, faith is forever, I think, neurologically networked with this nightmare of child rape. I do, however, still consider myself a person of faith. My faith is not like many other people's faith. It's certainly not like the faith of someone who would proclaim themselves a Southern Baptist, but the world is filled with mystery and wonder and awe. I feel that and I am grateful that I still can feel it.
Hannah-Kate: It destroyed my hope. It destroyed any sense of security I had. Then to get out of the abuse from a physical standpoint and still be emotionally, psychologically abused, not just by my abusers but by their entire culture and denomination, it shifted a lot about my faith. I'm thankful that I still have faith because my faith is different than that of the Southern Baptist Convention.
My faith does not rely on power. It does not rely on winning the culture. It doesn't rely on kicking people down. My faith believes in justice. Through that justice, there is mercy. Through that justice, there is hope. Through that justice, there is accountability. People are safe and people are protected, but that faith is not something that you can find in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Melissa: What are the tools for survival and healing that you have employed and continue to employ?
Hannah-Kate: I am learning that I have reasons to live outside of being an object. Abuse will make you think that you were a means to an end. It will train your thought in that when you're surviving the abuse. Then also when you're outside of the abuse advocating for change, it is hard to believe that you have a purpose when your whole life, you have been kicked down and used just for someone else's demonic purposes.
You have to find the things in life that remind you of joy. You have to find the things in life that fuel your compassion, that spur your heart towards mercy, that continue to make you angry at injustice. That just reminds you that the sun is shining even when the clouds are heavy. Because when you do that, you have the chance to set others free. You can't set others free if you don't have the fuel to keep fighting.
That's something that I'm learning and I've really learned through Christa's advocacy. I would just say that if anyone is listening and they are still trying to figure out how to get out of toxic or abusive situations, keep fighting. It took 24 years for me to get out of the abuse, but I'm here and I'm alive. I have a voice and I have a future and you can too. There are people out here on the outside who will fight for you and love you and care for you because you're worth that.
Christa: I don't mean to get all biblical here, but--
Melissa: I think that's fine. I invite a little hermeneutics here.
Christa: "I look to the hills from whence cometh my help," because I do. That is literal. I have the great, good fortune nowadays to live in Colorado. I look to the mountains. I am out in the mountains. I hear the stillness and the quiet and this brings me enormous peace. I look for beauty consciously. I think you have to kind of train your mind some. Train yourself to look for beauty. I am so, so, so very grateful for the family that I have created in my own life as an adult, my husband, my daughter who is amazing, [chuckles] my son-in-law, my grandsons. I am so very grateful. I have been through hell and I am here. I feel graced by every single day that I get.
Melissa: Christa, Hannah-Kate, thank you for surviving. Thank you for speaking. Thank you for persisting and fighting. Thank you for joining us today on The Takeaway.
Christa: Thank you, Melissa.
Hannah-Kate: Thank you.
Melissa: Now, the SBC told us that Guidepost, the third-party organization that conducted the investigation for this report, has opened a confidential hotline for survivors to report abuse. The SBC is describing this as a stop-gap measure before more meaningful reforms can be passed at the June meeting. While the third party won't be investigating any allegations at this time, they hope it will be a resource for survivors. The hotline can be reached at 202-864-5578 or SBC hotline at guidepostsolutions.com. This is The Takeaway.
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