SBC sexual abuse crisis: Caring Well Conference continues conversation

SBC sexual abuse crisis: Caring Well Conference continues conversation

By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist

The church will never be “accidentally excellent” at protecting the vulnerable from abuse and caring for those who have been abused. 

That was the message emphasized over and over at the Caring Well Conference, an event organized by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) held Oct. 3–5 near Dallas, Texas.

A capacity crowd of 1,650 pastors, ministry leaders, church volunteers, abuse survivors, counseling professionals and others concerned about protecting children and adults from abuse and its aftereffects attended. They heard survivors’ gut-wrenching stories of abuse at the hands of those they trusted — pastors, church members, fellow seminarians, fathers — and the failure of those entrusted with leadership to take action to help them.

“We’re not here to control the message,” ERLC executive vice president Phillip Bethancourt told attendees as the conference opened. “We’re here to equip the church.”

‘Gospel issue’

In keynote addresses, panel discussions and breakout sessions a variety of voices from inside the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as well as the convention’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group and many who work to help survivors set out to do just that.

“The church’s response to sexual abuse is a gospel issue,” ERLC president Russell Moore said. “Brothers and sisters, if you think that responding to church sexual abuse is a distraction from the mission of the church you do not understand the mission of the church.

“Jesus says, ‘I love, I tend, I care for my flock,’” Moore said, pointing to John 10 and Jesus’ description of Himself as the Good Shepherd. The Church must shepherd congregations, he said, doing everything possible to prevent abuse, training people to recognize abuse, ensuring reporting standards are practiced and caring for the survivors of trauma.

“Why? Because that’s what Jesus does,” Moore said.

Susan Cadone, abused as a teenager by the youth pastor and later the pastor of her church in Alabama, said believers who have experienced trauma are held back spiritually and “God is calling us to do this better.”

She challenged pastors to change the culture in their churches. 

Sermon topics

“I have yet to hear a sermon about sexual abuse or sexual violence,” she said. “The silence from the church is deafening.”

Boz Tchividjian, an attorney and former prosecutor who has focused on sexual misconduct and child abuse and founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), which helps churches investigate and respond to sexual abuse in their congregations, said individuals within the SBC family have sounded the alarm on church sexual abuse for years. However, he said, the issue came to the forefront only after two Texas newspapers published an investigative series on the crisis, including a database of some 380 perpetrators who committed crimes against 700 known victims. 

“Imagine [if] the Southern Baptist Convention learned that in the past 20 years over 700 babies had been murdered at Southern Baptist churches around the country,” he said. “Imagine [if] people had been telling leadership about this for years only to be ignored and sometimes vilified. … What would happen?

“I think that either the entire denomination would implode or at least its entire system would have to be dismantled — leadership, beliefs and polity.”

Too many survivors have lost the community of the church because they “simply stepped forward and exposed abuse,” Tchividjian said. “Parents have had churches turn their back on them simply because their child was abused inside the church. My hope is in the God who brings beauty out of all this mess.”

‘Call abuse what it is’

In his address on abuse and the future of the SBC, Bethancourt said the convention “won’t have a future unless we’re willing to call abuse what it is.” 

“As pro-life advocates [we reject] the refusal of people in our culture to not call abortion what it actually is,” Bethancourt said. “What we know is that when people use euphemisms to minimize the severity of what is happening it results in robbing the dignity of the unborn and failing to hold people accountable for their actions.”

We know wrong has been done when a counselor commits sexual abuse against a counselee or a coach abuses a student, he said.

“When it’s pastor to a member of the congregation it’s not just a moral failing — it is clergy abuse.”

SBC President J.D. Greear said one of the myths about clergy sex abuse is that the church is best equipped to handle allegations internally, which is often justified using 1 Corinthians 6, Greear said. 

There is a difference between civil and criminal cases, however, and “Scripture recognizes that distinction,” he said, citing Romans 13.

And for those who would argue grace requires “giving the accused the benefit of the doubt,” Greear asked, “What about benefit of the doubt for the one bringing the accusation? … If one of my children were abused how would I want the situation to be handled?” 

And even if an abuser repents, Greear said, the Christian understanding of grace never permits a sexual abuser a second chance to abuse others. 

“Someone who has abused should never be in a position to abuse again and if they are truly repentant they will understand that,” he said.

Background checks

Another alarm sounded at the Caring Well Conference is that criminal background checks are a first step but cannot replace careful background inquiries into prospective new church staff members or volunteers

Kimberlee Norris, an attorney and co-founder of MinistrySafe, an organization that advises churches and ministries in best practices to prevent sexual abuse, said only 10% of sexual abusers have interacted with the criminal justice system. 

Chris Underwood, associate pastor for congregational care and missions at Highland Baptist Church, Florence, was challenged by that statistic, he said. Though his church performs background screenings for children’s workers he said he now realizes “that’s not enough.”

And in terms of handling a crisis, Underwood said, “we’ve already made the decision we’re not going to manage a crisis if something does happen at our church. We’re not going to be the investigators. We will report.”

Long-term care

The biggest challenge Underwood said he took away from the conference concerns long-term care.

“What about the person, the woman or the child or the man who has endured the abuse who is maybe disillusioned with the church,” Underwood asked. “How do we provide care for them?”

Amy Whitfield, who started as associate vice president for convention communications of the SBC Executive Committee on Oct. 16, said caring well for survivors is a shared responsibility.

“One of the phrases you hear a lot in Southern Baptist circles is that we believe we can do more together than apart,” she said. “If we really believe that (then) it means doing things that are hard together as well.”