By Carrie Brown McWhorter
The Alabama Baptist
On the issue of sexual abuse Southern Baptists must ensure accountability for perpetrators and consolation for victims. That was the message echoed over and over from the stage, in panel discussions and in the hallways as the denomination gathered in Birmingham for the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting.
“We have to take a stand for those who have become victims. We have to hold those accountable who have hurt them. We have to get this right for our churches to be a safe place for the lost,” said child sexual abuse survivor Stephanie Davis, whose story of abuse by her childhood music minister was shared in a video during the convention’s closing session June 12.
When Davis told someone what was happening to her, “God’s people failed” in two significant ways, she said.
The music minister left the church to go to seminary and continued moving from church to church until as recently as last year. And no one ever talked to Davis about her trauma.
‘Give us the courage’
“Their silence screamed that I had caused everything that had happened to me,” she said.
Such stories highlight “sins of omission and commission,” said SBC President J.D. Greear, and Southern Baptists must take a different path forward.
“Give us the courage to make the changes that genuine repentance requires,” Greear prayed during a time of lament that began the Wednesday afternoon session. “Forgive us of our negligence, our fear, greed, pride, selfishness — any motive that has caused us to be complacent not compassionate … [to] so many in our communities who have experienced abuse.”
Addressing more than 8,000 messengers to the SBC, Greear said “the failures of the way of man brought us to the place we are as a denomination on this issue of abuse” and only a movement of God can change the trajectory.
“It’s not just policy. It’s not just statements and changes. It’s the spirit of God working in us,” Greear said.
SBC churches have failed in a number of ways, Greear said, including failing to train leaders at the congregational and associational level, failing to care for survivors and failing to report abuse to civil authorities.
“SBC polity has never precluded accountability,” he said. “Some actions are not only immoral they are illegal. Someone who has abused another should never be in [a position] where they could do that again and if they are truly repentant they will understand that.”
In both his presidential address to the convention June 11 and in the report to the convention on next steps, Greear addressed complaints that the issue of sexual abuse is a distraction. Prevention of abuse and care for the abused is a gospel issue, he emphasized.
“Why would the lost trust us with the message of salvation if they cannot trust us with the safety of the vulnerable? … Didn’t Jesus leave the 99 to go after the one? Even one victim is one too many.”
Greear outlined eight “action steps” the SBC needs to take beginning with the “right heart” and including training, resources and ministry screening processes.
Another step is the “right governing documents,” he said. Governing documents will be one of the assignments for the newly created standing Credentials Committee (see https://thealabamabaptist.org/new-process-for-disfellowship-of-sbc-churches/).
Greear also introduced the Caring Well challenge, an educational resource to help churches increase awareness and prevention of sexual abuse and improve care practices for victims and survivors.
Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said SBC entities, seminaries and churches have committed to the Caring Well challenge, which was introduced at the SBC meeting.
Messengers were provided free materials to get started and Moore said more than 100 churches signed up June 12.
There’s no excuse for a church of any size not to participate, Greear said.
“You don’t have room not to include this in your calendar. The impact of this moment on our gospel witness is too critical for you to minimize, to postpone or to ignore this,” he said.
Greear said the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group remains committed to providing SBC churches with resources to walk through the process of education.
‘Shape our future’
“We cannot change our past but we can shape our future,” Greear said. “Jesus said if you love me feed my sheep. This is the moment for us to love our Savior and serve His children.”
For more information on SBC news related to church sexual abuse, visit tabonline.org/church-sexual-abuse.