(RNS) — For decades, leaders of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination mistreated survivors of sexual abuse, labeling them as troublemakers and enemies of their church while claiming there was little the leaders could do to address abuse in local congregations, often in the name of protecting their vast missionary operations.
Then, in the summer of 2021, Southern Baptists had had enough.
Angered over a groundbreaking newspaper investigation of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and over concerns that SBC leaders continued to mistreat survivors despite promising to do better, Southern Baptists overruled their leaders, called for an in-depth investigation into their actions and, after receiving the report of that investigation in 2022, passed a series of reforms aimed to help prevent abuse and to care for survivors.
Among those reforms: building a “Ministry Check” database to track abusive pastors, providing care for survivors, training churches on how to prevent abuse and resourcing a committee charged with expelling congregations that knowingly mishandle abuse allegations.
Putting those reforms into practice will be difficult and will take decades of rebuilding trust, something abuse survivors have long known.
“I have understood from the beginning that this is a long game,” said Jules Woodson, an abuse survivor who has spoken to the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, charged with implementing reforms in the SBC.
That task force has come under fire recently for a lack of transparency over a temporary hotline, set up to collect reports of abuse, and for the slow pace of implementing reforms. That’s raised questions of whether a volunteer committee — made up mostly of pastors, often from larger churches — has the capability to get the job done.
In early February, the task force — which is due to make recommendations to the SBC’s annual meeting in June — released an update saying it will likely need more time.
“Given the scope of its assignment, we do anticipate and have begun discussions about the need to extend the ARITFs work beyond the 2023 annual meeting in New Orleans,” the task force said in a statement posted on its website. “We are acutely aware of the depth of process we must undergo and vigilantly follow-through.”
South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock, who chairs the task force, told Religion News Service in an interview that he’s increasingly aware of the complexity of addressing sexual abuse — and that it is a long-term project.
Blalock served on a previous abuse task force from 2021 to 2022. That task force had a more straightforward task — choosing a firm to investigate SBC leaders and then delivering a report, along with recommendations for reform, to the annual meeting. That previous task force’s work ended in June 2022 after a report from Guidepost Solutions was delivered to the convention.
“Last year we had one main objective,” he said. “We had to be careful in how we did it, but it was pretty forthright.”
At the annual meeting, a set of reforms was approved by an overwhelming majority. Then a new task force was set up, with Blalock staying on to provide some continuity.
The biggest task — and the one getting perhaps the most attention — is setting up a “Ministry Check” website, a database to track pastors who were convicted or credibly abused of abuse.
“On the surface, it sounds pretty simple,” said Blalock.
As the task force has dug in, things have become more complicated. The task force needed to find a firm to build the site that had a trauma-informed approach to working with the stories of survivors and needed to make sure only credible accusations and convictions were added to the database. The task force also needed cybersecurity expertise — to make sure any data on the site is safe from hacking and no private information about survivors could be made public.
And members knew the task had to be completed in a timely manner to show change was being made in the convention.
For years, SBC leaders had said creating such a database was not feasible, said Blalock.
“We’ve learned it’s not impossible,” he said.
Blalock said the task force has also realized the reforms will require hiring staff to help with caring for survivors and with helping the SBC’s credentials committee, which receives reports on churches that have mishandled abuse. Already, he said, an overwhelming number of cases of abuse have been reported to that committee.
The other challenge for the task force is dealing with the human tendency to try to get back to normal once the urgency lets up. Combating that requires reminding church leaders and people in the pews of the importance of preventing abuse and of caring for survivors.
Both will require time and money, Blalock said. That can be a challenge in the SBC, where every church is autonomous, decisions are made on a local level and all the funding is voluntary. Most churches donate to Southern Baptist ministries through the convention’s Cooperative Program, whose primary focuses are missionary work and training pastors. There’s been resistance to spending money for overheard or oversight of the denomination’s work — with churches preferring that money go to missions and evangelism rather than oversight.
“It’s not going to be cheap,” said Blalock, referring to paying for reforms. “But our approach all along has been to do the right thing. We believe that last year, Southern Baptists got the information (about abuse) and took a vote to do the right things. And we are doing what they asked us to do.”
Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI detective who set up the Office of Child Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said a volunteer committee like the SBC task force can do some of the work of implementing abuse reforms. But hiring the right staff is important too.
“You always need somebody in charge,” she said. “Because you are talking about not only helping people to heal but preventing future abuse. There’s a tremendous amount of work.”
One of the keys to any reforms for addressing abuse is getting the cooperation and compliance of churches. In the Catholic Church, said McChesney, this was done on a diocese level and there were consequences for noncompliance.
For Southern Baptists, almost all of the cooperation with the reforms will be voluntary. Because of that, task force members have been meeting with state and local Baptist leaders to try to get their buy-in. That will be a long-term process, said Blalock.
The challenge facing Southern Baptists in making reforms stick became clear recently when former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who was credibly accused last year of a past sexual assault— which he covered up for years — made a recent defiant return to the pulpit at Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida, after a group of pastors declared him restored to ministry.
Hiland Park and another church that invited Hunt to speak have been reported to the SBC’s Credentials Committee, according to Baptist Press, a denominational publication. That committee will decide whether or not those churches are in “friendly cooperation” with the denomination.
In response, Hiland Park issued a letter that defended Hunt, saying there was no proof he had been abusive and criticizing Guidepost Solutions, saying the consulting firm had unbiblical values and used a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to allegations against pastors.
Church leaders also warned they were discussing their “legal recourses.”
Investigators from Guidepost had determined that allegations Hunt — a former SBC president and longtime megachurch pastor — had sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010 were credible, according to the group’s report to the SBC. Hunt denied the allegations at first and then later claimed the encounter was consensual.
For abuse survivors, watching the reform process unfold has been difficult and stressful.
Tiffany Thigpen, a longtime advocate, said that for years, she and other survivors were shut out and ignored by SBC leaders. That began to change last year at the SBC annual meeting when the reforms were passed and delegates at the meeting, known as messengers, passed a resolution apologizing for mistreating survivors.
Now survivors are in wait-and-see mode, she said. There’s some hope of change but building trust will take time and transparency. She and other survivors were angered in recent months that the task force had not been proactively providing updates about its progress — or about a temporary hotline set up to take reports of abuse.
With no transparency about that hotline, she said, survivors were mistrustful and angry.
“I was really clear about the damage that caused for all of us,” said Thigpen, who also spoke to the task force. She said she and other survivors have had to become experts in navigating SBC politics and polity — which can be complicated and slow-moving.
“This is like pulling teeth,” she said.
At times, Thigpen and Woodson said they and other survivors wonder if pushing for reforms is worth the cost. There is a toll to constantly being in the spotlight and retelling their stories. No one wants to be defined by the worst days of their life, said Woodson.
But the alternative is to risk that the SBC or other church groups will move past their abuse crisis and try to get back to business as usual.
“You cannot let your guard down,” said Woodson. “We are talking about people’s lives that will be forever impacted by this. The minute you let your guard down and the minute you think you have this problem solved — we are not safe.”