Southern Baptist leader bemoans abuse crisis, vows action

Jim Hill of Denver, Colo., from left, joins Shawn Summers and Ella Summers, both of St. Louis, Mo., in handing out information outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting Tuesday, June 11, 2019, during a rally in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Sharing a stage with tearful survivors of sex abuse, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention apologized Wednesday for the abuse crisis besetting his denomination and outlined an array of steps to address it.

"We are broken-hearted and angry," said the Rev. J.D. Greear as the largest U.S. protestant denomination neared the end of its two-day national meeting. "Give us the courage to make the changes that genuine repentance requires."

In an impassioned speech, preceded by prayers of lamentation, Greear blamed the crisis on years of cover-ups. He praised a new anti-abuse curriculum being offered to all SBC churches and seminaries, and he said the SBC must do better in screening potential pastors.

"Father, forgive us," he prayed after calling out a litany of sins.

The Rev. Russell Moore, head of the SBC's public policy arm, said the abuse crisis is a result of satanic forces at work in the church.

"The vital question is what we will do next," Moore said during an address.

Moments earlier, dozens of abuse victims and supporters stood during a prayer for survivors of sexual misconduct. Some wept openly.

Abuse survivor Stephanie Davis stood onstage and received a standing ovation after a video presentation in which she recounted her experience. Davis said she was abused as a teen by a music minister who went on to seminary and kept working in churches until last year. "No one ever told me it wasn't my fault," she said.

"We have to get this right," she said in the video, urging the church to stand with victims and to hold abusers accountable.

On Tuesday, the opening day of the meeting, delegates approved the SBC's first-ever measures aimed directly at combatting sex abuse committed by clergy and staff. One provision establishes a permanent committee to review allegations of abuse at member churches and recommend action if warranted. Two other proposals, if ratified again next year, would specify that churches could be expelled from the denomination for mishandling cases of sexual abuse or racial discrimination.

The committee assigned to review abuse cases will have four women among its nine members. But delegates voted down a motion to replace one male member with Susan Codone, an engineering professor and sexual abuse survivor whose personal story was featured in recently released ABC report.

Some activists and abuse survivors remain skeptical of the SBC's commitment to a tough anti-abuse approach, and are urging swifter action to create a database listing credibly accused abusers that could be shared among the SBC's 47,000 member churches.

Xavier Torrado, secretary of the Southern Baptist branch in Puerto Rico, said additional training and new resources that were approved to combat sexual misconduct were vital.

"We've known for many years that the pastors didn't have the skills or the resources or the knowledge of how to address this," said Torrado, whose job will now include teaching ministers about the new measures.

Christie Crawford, a mother of five whose husband Matt Crawford is a pastor at a two-campus church in Tallahassee, Florida, said the denomination's actions this week would let congregations know that protecting children from abuse is both important and required, as is reporting possible misconduct.

"I think that what we've done and said will empower people," she said. "It will cause people to be more vocal at the local church level if they see things that make them uncomfortable."

Crawford's church, City Church Tallahassee, already has requirements including background checks and a six-month waiting period for anyone wanting to volunteer with minors, she said. "The world that we live in ... is a place where all parents have to be vigilant because of the dangers that are lurking," Crawford said.

The SBC's meeting comes as U.S. Catholic bishops convene in Baltimore to address a widening sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, the largest denomination in the U.S. It had 76.3 million members as of last year — down from 81.2 million in 2005.

The Southern Baptist Convention says it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year.

Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the SBC's 2018 national meeting in Dallas, after which Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem.

Pressure on the SBC intensified in recent months, however, due in part to articles by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News asserting that hundreds of Southern Baptist clergy and staff have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, while leaving more than 700 victims with little in the way of justice or apologies.

Crary reported from New York.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.