Culture Friday: Abuse in Baptist churches

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: Culture Friday.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: This week the Houston Chronicle published a blockbuster report after a six-month investigation. It found that since 1998 some 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct.

More than 200 offenders were either convicted or took plea deals. Dozens of cases are still pending. They include pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons, church volunteers.

At least 35 of them were able to find new church jobs.

And in some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about the allegations.

EICHER: Now, I do want to put those numbers in context. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. More than 15 million members. Almost 50,000 churches.

So 380 credibly accused perpetrators is a large number. But by way of comparison, it isn’t comparable to the scale of what has come out of the Catholic Church over the last two decades.

With that said, and I know my special guest today will agree, one case of abuse is one case too many.

I’d like to welcome now Russell Moore. He’s the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He joins me from his office in Nashville. Good morning to you.

RUSSELL MOORE, GUEST: Good morning, Nick. Thanks for having me.

EICHER: Well, let’s go back to Sunday when the story first came out. I’m curious what your experience was. Did you know that a story was coming? How did you react as you read it? And now that, frankly, you’ve had some time to digest it a bit, what’s your reaction?

MOORE: Well, I knew that there was a story coming. Obviously I didn’t know what was going to be in the story, but my reaction to it really was a continuation of a simmering rage that has been just underneath the surface really for a long time, because although there was a lot in the story that was new investigation, there was also an underlying subtext that many of us have been talking about for a long time.

And especially over the last couple of years when there have been some very high profile sorts of uncoverings that have taken place within church life.

And the reason why I say rage is because sometimes people within church life will say, well, you have Harvey Weinstein sort of situation going on in Hollywood and you have the Catholic Church scandals, and you have all of these places, there’s no safe harbor in global life away from this sort of depravity.

But gospel Christianity ought to be held to a much higher standard when it comes to a church being a place safe for people. And so when you have predators coming in and actually using the name of Jesus in order to destroy people’s lives, there’s nothing worse than that.

EICHER: Let’s talk about the reform proposals the SBC considered in 2008. I’d like for you to talk about what they were and why they were not adopted.

MOORE: Well, there was a proposal to have a database of all abusers, and that was rejected at the time because each Southern Baptist church is, of course, autonomous, so all that the national denomination knows is what would be reported by any church. And so there was this sort of dismissal of any effort in that direction because of church autonomy.

My approach and J.D. Greear—who’s the newly elected president of the SBC as of last year—who has taken this very seriously from day one, has put together a study committee that’s really spending a huge amount of time with people outside, not just the denomination, but outside the church itself — law enforcement experts and psychiatric experts and survivor community — in order to say what can we do that will actually, from the national level, catch this.

So not starting with, “Here are all the things we can’t do,” but starting with what are all the things we can do. And so that’s part of it.

There’s also the part of seeking to equip churches better to say here’s how you investigate, here’s how you train, here’s how you equip, and here’s how you make sure in every case there is mandatory reporting of any incident that takes place, no matter the scale of it. So there are many facets of this that are taking place right now, that are being worked on right now.

EICHER: Well, as you said, Dr. Moore, one of the distinguishing features of Baptist polity is local church autonomy. As you know, critics say that structure creates a climate ripe for abuse. Is that a fair argument at all?

MOORE: Well, I think that one could say autonomy creates the climate, but then one would have to say, well, we have the Roman Catholic Church, which is of course a top-down hierarchy in which there is conspiracy and coverup and awful abuse.

So the problem isn’t, I think, the structure. The problem is how that structure is being held accountable in both cases and, really, in all cases. Autonomy is not an excuse for inaction and the SBC has held autonomous churches accountable, for instance, for doctrinal error.

And so if a church is teaching something that is outside the confession of faith, the denomination has no ability to correct that church’s teaching. But the denomination can withdraw fellowship from that church. The same should happen here. If there are churches that refuse to do their due diligence in protecting vulnerable people, they should not be part of the cooperating structure of the Southern Baptist Convention.

EICHER: I want to circle back to something that you said right at the beginning about the simmering rage that you’ve been feeling about this and about how you reject the idea that, “Well, it’s just so pervasive and it’s just going to happen.”

You don’t seem to be accepting the idea. Are you hopeful, though, that things can turn around and that the church really is a safe harbor in very dangerous cultural waters?

MOORE: I’m not hopeful in terms of there are times when I hear infuriating idiocy from some sectors about these issues — dismissing them, not taking them seriously. Sometimes I hear a naïveté from people who assume that the church or at least their particular church would be invulnerable from these things.

What I’m hopeful about is the fact that I’m hearing, anyway, from many, many pastors and leaders who are wanting to make sure that their churches are safe and wanting to make sure this is addressed head-on. I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m hearing from more and more pastors who are intentionally in their preaching and teaching speaking to survivors of trauma and saying this is not your fault and you’re not to blame here. And who are putting into place practices within the congregation for mandatory reporting, compassionate care for those who have survived.

I’m also encouraged by the reinvigorated voices of Southern Baptist women. There are women all over the denomination who are speaking very clearly and leading very well, not just through this moment this week, but really over the past two years in these conversations. And that’s, I think, an important piece of it.

I was meeting—as part of this process that we’ve been undergoing over the last couple years—meeting with a group of Southern Baptist and other evangelical women from every possible age group, every possible size church, and one of them said, you know, when some of these awful abuse realities, whenever one of those comes to light, I sense that some male evangelical leaders — and, she said, I’m talking about the good ones — are often shocked and rattled. None of us are shocked. And the entire room full of women nodded their heads at the same time. That’s really heartbreaking.

EICHER: Before I let you go, Dr. Moore, and just speaking parent-to-parent here — and, of course, my kids are a good bit older than yours are — but we have to acknowledge that no system will ever be completely foolproof to protect my child from an abuser. What have you done with your own children to make them cautious about possible abuse but not afraid to trust adults, particularly in a church setting where they feel safe?

MOORE: Well, I think one of the things that predatory people use is not only a sense of trust but also a respect for authority. And so what we have attempted to do as parents is to constantly teach the limits of authority in order to say if anything ever happens with any adult or with anyone that makes you feel the least bit uncomfortable, come and talk to us about it, because one of the things we know is that groomers and predators often will count on shame to say your parents won’t believe you, or to say this is your fault. This is your fault, too. And to deconstruct that from the very beginning. So if anything makes you feel the least bit weird, tell us about it.

But I think another key piece for parents is to make sure that in their churches they’re asking what are the policies that are put into place. And so if you’re in a congregation, you would want to ask what are all the ways that my church is training volunteers and leaders to be able to recognize abuse, to be able to prevent abuse? What are the levers of accountability that are happening within this congregation? And also to be able to say when there is a situation of potential abuse, what is the church’s policy of mandatory reporting, of handling this right away. And, again, if a church acts as though that is not something that would ever happen here, then that is a very dangerous place to be.

EICHER: Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Dr. Moore, thanks for taking the time to visit today. I know it’s been a busy week.

MOORE: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

(Mark Humphrey/AP) SBC headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. 

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