At least five sexual abuses cases with Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) ministry and church connections have come to light in June — before, during and after the June 11–12 SBC annual meeting that was focused heavily on the topic.
On June 9, Tennessee pastor and author Robby Gallaty, who leads the multisite Long Hollow Baptist Church near Nashville, announced to his congregation that a 2018 summer intern at the church had been arrested on a statutory rape charge involving a student.
The next day, a New York Times article detailed the experiences of an 11-year-old girl abused by a children’s minister at the Village Church in Texas. The girl’s family claimed the church had distanced themselves from the family and failed to notify the congregation of the abuse allegations until the minister, Matthew Tonne, was indicted, charged and arrested.
During the week of June 10 news broke that a camp staffer at a LifeWay Christian Resources children’s camp in Arizona had been arrested and charged with multiple felony counts of child molestation.
Since the annual meeting, a Southern Baptist pastor in Texas who resigned after confessing to sexual abuse was arrested and a Louisiana pastor was arrested on 10 counts of first-degree rape and other charges related to his abuse of an 11-year-old girl.
With more intentional focus on preventing sexual abuse and caring well for victims within Southern Baptist congregations, leaders of churches, associations, state conventions and entities at all levels are working to be thorough in their preventative measures as well as more transparent when sexual abuse situations occur.
LifeWay, for example, conducts both reference and criminal background checks for all seasonal and full-time staff at its camps, and all staff are required to take sexual abuse training, according to a release from LifeWay acting CEO Brad Waggoner. Churches attending camp certify that all adult volunteers and chaperones have passed a background check.
“We are grieved our safeguards did not prevent this from happening,” Waggoner said about the recent allegation. “We are committed to continually evaluating and updating our policies and procedures to ensure we are doing everything we can to prevent this type of event in the future. LifeWay will continue to be vigilant about the security and safety of the children and teens who attend LifeWay camps and events.”
Waggoner also commended the alleged victims for their “bravery” in reporting the alleged abuse, saying he was “heartbroken” for them and their families.
“Our primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of all our camp participants,” Waggoner said in a news release. “We also want to come alongside the families and their church and walk with them through this ordeal. We have alerted the six churches that attended this camp about the events that took place and included information that would enable them to report any additional incidents.”
Gallaty said his church also had procedures in place to protect children from abusers.
“As with all our employees, every intern we hire must pass a strict background check and interview process before they can serve with our church family. It sickens me that our processes and safeguards didn’t prevent this from happening,” Gallaty said. “We’re doing our best to uncover how this relationship developed and will do everything in our power to keep this from ever taking place again.”
Gallaty said he reached out to the victim and her family and asked for prayers for all affected.
“Our primary concern has been, and continues to be, for the victim and her family,” he said. “We hope to support them with love, support, counseling and prayer. Please join us in praying for them as well.”
Gallaty said the church is now restricting interns from befriending students on social media, has updated transportation policies and has developed a comprehensive Child Protection Policy which includes an extra layer of safeguards, accountability and training.
Following a Baptist21 (B21) panel discussion June 11 in Birmingham, Village Church pastor Matt Chandler addressed his church’s handling of the sexual abuse case reported in the Times.
B21 is a pastor-led network that focuses on addressing issues relevant to Southern Baptists in the 21st century. Prior to June 11 Chandler had not commented publicly on the allegations.
Chandler acknowledged the church did not handle the case perfectly but did “the best we knew how.” According to Chandler, church leadership “double reported” the abuse — the church worked with the family to report the incident and the church also reported — to the police department and worked with the local authorities to inform all the parents whose children had attended that particular summer camp.
Church leaders were told by those working on the case that “there were things we could and couldn’t say,” and they were asked not to release Tonne’s name because it might impede the investigation, Chandler said.
Chandler said he is in a “period of introspection” and noted, “We are an imperfect church with imperfect people. We make mistakes; I am painfully aware of my limitations. They are numerous. But when it comes to reporting as soon as we heard, taking our cues from the detective and family, I’m not sure how we could have done it differently.”
While every situation involving sexual abuse is different, Mary DeMuth, an abuse survivor and author of “We Too,” cautions against “unhealthy” ways church leaders may respond when someone reveals a problem.
“Don’t commit a secondary violation with a response … simply listen,” she said. “If someone confesses something difficult, err on the side of belief.”
DeMuth spoke during a panel discussion held in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting June 10 in Birmingham.
Phillip Bethancourt, vice president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, moderated the panel and opened the discussion by asking how a congregation can navigate an abuse problem within the church.
Nathan Lino, senior pastor of Northeast Houston Baptist Church, Houston, Texas, then shared about a former student pastor accused of abusing a youth at his church. Lino outlined the steps that were taken to document the abuse and report it to the authorities and media.
“We terminated the person that day,” Lino said. “The church did well because we acted so quickly … to bring the darkness into light.”
Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, addressed how to support and provide help for a victim of abuse once the problem is exposed. “First thing to do is to listen … let the survivor know what the next conversations are in the process,” he said. “… there often are more survivors.”
Samantha Kilpatrick, a lawyer in Raleigh and a former prosecutor who advises churches on abuse, recommended preparing for a problem ahead of time and seeking professionals in these areas.
“Know the laws in your states,” she said, “contact social service agencies, law enforcement, attorneys … know reporting rules.”
Bethancourt also pointed those in attendance to the new SBC sex abuse report that churches may reference for further information.
Alabama Baptist churches also have resources available through the State Board of Missions — https://alsbom.org/safe/
Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com), news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, TAB