A 288 page report has found that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has known for years about sexual abuse occurring within its ranks, and that their response was not to hold abusers accountable and make their crimes publicly known, but rather to “singularly” focus on avoiding legal liability for the cases of sexual abuse.
The report stated that the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC) had been keeping a list of Baptist ministers accused of sexual assault since 2007, but had not shared the existence of the list with anyone. The EC has since released a 205 page list of the names of those accused of sexual abuse in response to the report.
The report’s primary findings were that:
- Allegations of sexual abuse extended as high up as the SBC President
- Abuse allegations were mishandled and victims were mistreated
- Victims and advocates of victims were intimidated
- Sexual abuse reform initiatives were met with resistance
Sexual Abuse Allegations Extended All The Way Up To The SBC President
The report stated that an SBC pastor and the pastor’s wife reported in 2010 that SBC President Johnny Hunt had sexually assaulted the pastor’s wife. Hunt, according to the report, had allegedly groomed the wife while he was SBC President. The report stated that its investigators found that the pastor and wife were “credible,” and that their report had been corroborated by a counseling minister as well as three “credible” witnesses.
The husband spent 25 years as an SBC pastor and considered Hunt, who is 24 years older than the pastor and his wife, and with whom he shared a professional relationship, a mentor. Before the assault, according to the report, Hunt paid an unusual amount of attention to the wife, making comments relating to her appearance, sexual comments, and touching her in unwelcome ways, such as kissing her hand.
The assault, according to the report, occurred at a beach condo where the pastor and his wife took a vacation. The couple had previously vacationed at the same beach, and when the pastor told Hunt they wanted to return to the same beach and wanted to secure a condo, Hunt gave the pastor the phone number of a condo owner in his condo complex. The pastor eventually unknowingly ended up booking a condo next to Hunt’s condo.
After discovering their condos were next to each other, according to the report, the wife invited Hunt over to her balcony, which was in the shade, as opposed to Hunt’s balcony, which was in the sun. After moving to the living room, according to the report, Hunt allegedly pulled the wife’s shorts down, turned her over, and stared at her backside, making sexual comments about her body. The wife asked him if she could turn back over, and Hunt said yes. When the wife turned over and started pulling her shorts back up, Hunt allegedly pinned her to a couch, pulled her shirt up and assaulted her sexually with his mouth and hands. Hunt allegedly stopped and stood up, but then forced himself upon her a second time, groping her, attempting to pull her shirt down, and kissing her “violently.”
Hunt, the pastor and his wife, according to the report, met at the pastor’s church later, accompanied by counseling pastor Roy Blankenship. During this meeting, Hunt allegedly mischaracterized his sexual assault of the wife, saying he merely lightly kissed her, touched her breasts through her clothes and tried to pull her shorts down. When the wife tried to give her version of what happened, according to the report, Hunt and Blankenship “spoke over her.”
According to the report, Blankenship later “forbade” the couple from talking about the assault, telling them that they couldn’t ever talk about it, and if they did, it would have a negative impact upon the Southern Baptist Convention’s churches.
Abuse Allegations Were Mishandled And Victims Were Mistreated
The report found that the EC’s primary concern when handling various allegations of sexual abuse was avoiding potential legal liability relating to the abuse.
The report found that the EC’s response to sexual abuse allegations was mostly led by senior EC staff members such as EC General Counsel and Interim President D. August “Augie” Boto, and the SBC’s outside counsel: James Jordan, James Guenther and the law firm of Guenther, Jordan & Price. These senior EC staff members and outside counsel, according to the report, were able to control decisions about how the EC would handle allegations of sexual abuse because of their longevity and status within the SBC.
Since their primary concern was allegedly avoiding liability, according to the report, those who alleged abuse were often told that the SBC didn’t have the power to act, or were simply ignored. Guenther, according to the report, told EC staff that they shouldn’t give anyone details or information about abuse reports because doing so would cause the EC to assume a legal duty to act further upon the reports.
The abuse reports’ existence was not shared with EC trustees, according to the report, which states that, since 2007, a member of the EC staff who worked for Boto had been keeping a list of Baptist ministers accused of sexual assault. The list allegedly included names, years of reports, news articles that were relevant, states and denominations. Boto, in an email, according to the report, acknowledged the existence of the list, saying that they might post the list some day but would have to examine “potential liabilities” that would ensue after posting the list before doing so.
Despite the list, there was “no indication” that anyone within the SBC, according to the report, took any action to make sure that any ministers accused of sexual abuse were removed from positions of power within the WBC. The most recent list that the EC staff member prepared, according to the report, contained 703 accused abusers’ names.
The report found that nine people on that list, at the time of the report’s release, remained in ministry or connected to ministry, and that two of those nine people were still associated with SBC churches.
Victims And Their Advocates Were Intimidated
The report found that some EC leaders, instead of focusing on the ministers accused of sexual abuse, instead turned against their accusers. Abuse survivors were allegedly referred to as professional victims, accused of trying to “burn things to the ground,” accused of “having a hidden agenda of lawsuits,” and referred to as “opportunistic.”
Boto, according to the report, referred to the attention paid to abuse allegations as “a satanic scheme” in an email.
“This is the devil,” Boto allegedly wrote.
The EC, according to the report, used its Baptist Press (BP) publication to “mischaracterize” abuse allegations. The report states that an SBC entity senior executive, Jennifer Lyell, in March 2019, was asked by SBC entity heads to talk about her sexual abuse by her former seminary professor so the account could be published in BP. BP, according to the report, changed Lyell’s account so it read like Lyell had a consensual sexual relationship with her alleged abuser, describing the relationship as a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
According to the report, the draft article had been reviewed by BP personnel and outside counsel, after which suggestions had been made regarding the article’s language.
“I’m thinking if we switch the focus to [accusations related to an inappropriate relationship] may be the way to go – without specifically getting into abuse or assault,” read one internal BP document cited by the report.
According to the report, about 20 minutes before the article went live online, Lyell was called by a BP employee who told her “the lawyers” made them remove all uses of the words “nonconsensual” and “abuse” from the article, saying this decision had already been made and was “not a matter for debate.”
Lyell, because of this alleged mischaracterization of her abuse in BP, according to the report, then became the subject of “vicious” attacks, being accused of being a “bitter jealous woman” as well as “an adulterer,” with some suggesting she be fired. Lyell, according to the report, expressed concerns about the article, but the article wasn’t retracted with apology until October 2019 after Lyell had pleaded for “months.”
Another article, according to the report, had been “sanitized” before being published. The draft of the article allegedly contained quotes from advocates for sexual abuse survivors who had criticized the way SBC handled allegations of sexual abuse. The final, published version of the article, according to the report, failed to contain any references to one of the advocates and failed to contain any claims that survivors of sexual abuse had been failed by the SBC.
The report found that while victims and advocates were intimidated and mistreated, abusers had been protected and supported by senior SBC leaders:
- Steve Gaines, former SBC President, allegedly admitted to delaying reporting a staff minister sexually abusing a child out of “heartfelt concern and compassion” for said minister.
- Jack Graham, former SBC President, while he was a pastor, allegedly let someone accused of abusing young boys be quietly dismissed without reporting the abuse to the police.
- Paige Patterson, former SBC President, allegedly told a student to not report a rape, and allegedly emailed that he intended to meet alone with a student who had reported abuse in order to “break her down.”
- Boto had testified as a character witness for a gymnastics coach who was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor.
Sexual Abuse Reform Initiatives Were Met With Resistance
The report found that many efforts towards sexual abuse reform were met with resistance by the EC, usually because of legal liability concerns:
- An SBC accused molesters database was proposed in 2007 but rejected in 2008 because of church autonomy, even though SBC’s outside counsel gave Boto a memo talking about how the database could be created consistent with church autonomy.
- Boto opposed and delayed a 2014 proposal for an SBC sexual abuse education conference, which ultimately never occurred.
- SBC President J.D. Greear mentioned the names of churches which the Houston Chronicle cited in a series of articles regarding sexual abuse, and was criticized for this by EC leaders and trustees. Outside counsel warned Greear that doing so could end up with the SBC being sued for libel. Boto even ended up calling one of the churches, apologizing for the actions of Dr. Greear.
- Boto displayed resistance to the existence of a Credentials Committee since it could lead to the SBC becoming vulnerable to claims of legal liability.
- EC leaders and their outside counsel suggested changes to a report on sexual abuse in order to avoid legal liability, including the removal of the word “crisis” when sexual abuse was referred to.
- EC members, including former EC President Ronnie Floyd, expressed opposition to a task force which would investigate how the EC responded to allegations of sexual abuse, trying to prevent the motion for the task force.
Southern Baptist Sexual Abuse Lawyers
Nadrich & Cohen is actively representing victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the SBC. We have tremendous experience and expertise representing victims of sexual abuse, including victims of the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America. We have the experience and know-how to hold the SBC accountable for their years of protecting sexual abusers and intimidating their accusers.
We represent survivors of sexual abuse on a contingency fee basis. This means that, if we represent you, we will never charge you any fee at all unless and until we obtain financial compensation for you. The only fee we will ever charge you is a percentage of any financial recovery we obtain for you. In other words, if we don’t win your case, we won’t charge you a penny.
Call us today for a free consultation if you or a loved one was sexually abused by anyone associated with the SBC. You may be eligible for financial compensation in a lawsuit against the SBC.