(RNS) — In fiery comments to an online meeting Thursday (June 2), a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee warned that taking steps to prevent abuse in churches would lead to ruin.
“I am terrified that we are breaching our long-standing position of being a voluntary association of independent churches, when we start telling churches that they should do this or do that to protect children or women,” Joe Knott, a North Carolina attorney and longtime committee member, warned.
When those efforts fail, Knott continued, that will lead to lawsuits.
“I guarantee you women and children are going to be victimized no matter how much — and that is going to make us potentially targets of great class-action lawsuits, which could be the end of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Knott added.
Committee members were meeting to consider several recommendations arising from a recent report on how SBC leaders have responded in recent decades to sexual abuse in their churches and other institutions. The report, made by the third-party investigation firm Guidepost Solutions, found that leaders at the Executive Committee had focused for decades on trying to protect the SBC from liability for abuse in local churches.
“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 due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” investigators wrote.
The report also found that former SBC President Johnny Hunt had been credibly accused of sexual assault and that Executive Committee staff had kept a list of abusers. Hunt has denied any abuse and instead claimed that he had a consensual sexual encounter outside his marriage.
In response to the report, an SBC task force on sexual abuse recommended a number of reforms, including starting a website for tracking abuse, offering more training for member churches and adding staff who can facilitate responses to abuse allegations.
The task force asked the Executive Committee to recommend setting aside $3 million to fund such reforms. Knott’s comments came after a vote to amend the proposed SBC budget to provide those funds. That budget will be presented for approval at the SBC’s annual meeting in Anaheim later this month.
Knott’s comments were met with a friendly but firm rebuke by California pastor Rolland Slade, the chair of the Executive Committee, who said that one victim of abuse is too many.
“I don’t want us to say, well, we didn’t have enough money and so we, therefore, didn’t protect a little one that was vulnerable,” said Slade.
“I know it can’t be about the money. It’s got to be about the people.”
Slade supported the abuse investigation, including a decision to waive attorney-client privilege, which allowed investigators to see communication between committee staffers and their lawyers. The committee’s decision proved crucial in the investigation.
Knott was one of several committee members, most of them with ties to a group called the Conservative Baptist Network, who opposed waiving privilege. During meetings last fall, he warned that doing so put the SBC at risk.
Before approving the budget amendments, the committee ratified a statement that apologized for past comments made by former Executive Committee vice president David August “Augie” Boto. Boto was singled out in the Guidepost report for dismissing abuse survivors’ complaints and telling one survivor activist in the mid-2000s that the Executive Committee did not want to hear from her further.
“The SBC Executive Committee rejects this sentiment in its entirety and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors,” the committee said in a statement in late May.
A previous vote approving that statement was ruled out of order, prompting the committee to ratify the statement. Knott voted against approving the statement and asked that his no vote be recorded in the minutes.