SBC Executive Committee hires firm to investigate allegations

As calls for an independent third-party investigation into recent actions of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee ramped up this week, EC president and CEO Ronnie Floyd announced a firm has already been hired.

Guidepost Solutions was selected “after a week of deliberately working through the details of this outside review and selection of a firm,” according to a June 11 afternoon news release from the EC.

The push for an independent investigation follows the release of letters from former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head Russell Moore, statements by SBC leaders and audio files of meetings where leaders discussed the SBC’s response to sexual abuse.

And while Floyd indicated June 10 he supported the calls for an investigation, some initial responses to Moore’s allegations created questions prior to the Guidepost Solutions announcement about whether the EC should be allowed to choose its own investigators.

“While I appreciate the movement toward securing ‘3rd party investigators,’ is the EC really the body that should be hiring those that will investigate themselves?” asked Jeff Johnson, a counselor in Michigan. “This lends itself to appearance of covering-up the allegations. Let’s have movement toward transparency.”

Following the announcement June 11, Griffin Gulledge, pastor of Madison Baptist Church, Madison, Georgia, posted to Twitter:

“When I was a kid and I did the wrong thing, my mom would make me go outside and pick my own switch. I always picked the one that would hurt me the least.

“I appreciate the EC taking action and engaging a law firm, but I don’t think they should be in charge of the investigation against themselves, or control its funding,” he said in the tweet. “You can starve an investigation through budget restriction. Too little, too late. We need a special task force.”

While it is unclear from the news release who all made the decision related to hiring the firm today, the release states that Executive Committee chairman Rolland Slade provided input in the process. Slade told Religion News Service on June 9 he would call for an independent investigation at the group’s scheduled meeting June 14 in Nashville, saying: “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

Recent calls for action

Ronnie Parrott of Christ Community Church, Huntersville, North Carolina, and Grant Gaines of Belle Aire Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, announced June 5 they were preparing a motion to make at the annual meeting to call for the newly elected SBC president to appoint a task force for the purpose of hiring “a third party to investigate the allegations made against the [E]xecutive [C]ommittee of the SBC” in Moore’s letters.

On June 7, EC member Jared Wellman, pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church, Arlington, Texas, issued a call for an investigation as well, tweeting: “The EC is objectively and desperately in need of a third party investigation.”

Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, told Religion News Service on June 7 he too would support an independent investigation of the SBC Executive Committee.

“I believe facts are our friends, and so is the truth,” he said. “When accusations of such a nature are raised, I can’t imagine anyone not wanting the truth out, unless they happen to be hiding the truth. If people made mistakes, they need to own those mistakes and ask for forgiveness.”

According to the EC news release, Guidepost Solutions has been engaged to review the following matters:

•Review recent allegations against the SBC Executive Committee of mishandling sexual abuse cases and mistreating sexual abuse victims; the allegations of a pattern of intimidation; and
•Review and enhance training provided to SBC EC staff and its board of trustees related to these matters, as well as its communications to cooperating churches and congregants in cooperating churches.

Previous SBC entity investigation

The move of needing a third-party investigation is not without precedent in SBC life.

In late July 2018, then-International Mission Board president David Platt announced a “thorough, outside, independent examination” of the IMB’s handling of past allegations of physical and sexual abuse of a child and sexual harassment and assault. The IMB board of trustees were tasked with selecting the firm for its review.

The IMB investigation was announced following the arrest of Mark Aderholt, who served with the IMB from 2000 to 2008. Aderholt was arrested July 3, 2018, on charges of sexual assault of a child under 17.

Aderholt was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old in 1996–97 while he was a 25-year-old student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. (In a plea deal a year later, Aderholt pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily injury and turned himself in to authorities July 2, 2019, to begin serving 30 days in jail and 24 months’ probation.)

IMB officials told Baptist Press after Aderholt’s arrest that their staff learned of the allegations in 2007 and conducted an internal investigation at that time. However, Aderholt resigned from the IMB before the board of trustees could take action, so the allegations were not reported to authorities. (Read more on the Aderholt case here and here.)

Because Aderholt continued serving in Southern Baptist life until his 2018 arrest — on two church staffs in Arkansas and the South Carolina Baptist Convention — IMB policies regarding abuse were part of the outside review.

‘We must do better’

In a statement, Platt said, “We must do better. In the IMB. In the SBC. In any church and any ministry, we must do everything we can to protect children and adults from abuse and harassment, and we must do everything we can to hold anyone who is guilty of these things fully accountable.”

According to the IMB, its board of trustee officers interviewed numerous potential outside investigators for the external examination and selected Gray Plant Mooty, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to conduct the examination.

“With experience conducting hundreds of investigations and policy reviews regarding issues and allegations of sexual abuse, misconduct, harassment and similar matters for organizations across the United States, Gray Plant Mooty is highly qualified to conduct the independent examination,” Lisa Lovell, an IMB trustee officer and a member of the examination task force at the time, said about the selection.

Gray Plant Mooty released its report May 22, 2019. The GPM report found that “IMB’s child abuse and sexual harassment (including sexual assault) prevention and response efforts have improved over time. There is, however, much room for improvement if IMB is to meet its goal of adopting best practices for prevention of and response to child abuse and sexual harassment (including sexual assault).”

GPM identified a “number of significant concerns with IMB’s handling of past cases” and said IMB’s policies and procedures at that time fell “short of contemporary best practice standards.”

In conjunction with the release of the GMP report, current IMB President Paul Chitwood, who succeeded Platt as IMB president in November 2018, issued a statement, noting in part, “To be successful, Southern Baptists must partner with one another in diligently demanding the highest standards to respond to these incidents. We want to go beyond minimum legal standards. We must be the leaders in best practices that set the standards others follow in these areas. Therefore, as the IMB continues our work in these areas, I call on every Southern Baptist entity and every Southern Baptist church to join us.” (Read Chitwood’s full response to the report here.)

The IMB took steps to improve, including the hiring of Somer Nowak in February 2019 to oversee and manage prevention and response efforts for child abuse and domestic violence.

Update and Editor’s Note (June 11, 5 p.m.) — About an hour after this story was posted Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and abuse advocate who has advised SBC leaders in the past, responded to the SBC EC news release on Twitter affirming the Guidepost Solutions firm but issuing a warning at the same time. “Guidepost is a truly independent, international firm that specializes in policy and cultural analysis and ethical compliance, with leaders that have a strong background in religious dynamics. … The ability to do what they are capable of will depend on the EC letting them do their job,” she said in part. “The scope should be broadened to include … all paid, appointed or elected leaders or staff of the Convention. … The EC has NOT committed to waiving privilege so that Guidepost has access to all data and information. This step is absolutely critical, but the EC alone can make this move, and any firm hired would be inhibited by a refusal to do so no matter how good the firm. … The EC has NOT commissioned a public report on the findings and recommendations. This is a critical component of accountability and transparency that must be included in the commission. … Ask for waiver, an extended scope and a fully public report. Only the EC can make those decisions, and they are critical pieces of this assessment and training.”

 

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