By Jay Reeves and David Crary / Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The Southern Baptist Convention opened a national meeting Tuesday dominated by discussion of a large-scale sex-abuse crisis. Delegates were considering prevention measures and a proposal making it easier to expel churches that mishandle abuse cases.
The Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, said the SBC faced a “defining moment” that would shape the church for generations to come.
“This is not a distraction from the mission,” Greear said of the fight against sex abuse. “Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church.”
The SBC’s meeting comes as U.S. Catholic bishops convene in Baltimore to address a widening sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist Convention says it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the U.S., with 76.3 million members as of last year — down from 81.2 million in 2005.
Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the SBC’s 2018 national meeting in Dallas, after which Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem. Greear was unanimously re-elected to a second term on Tuesday.
Pressure on the SBC has intensified in recent months due in part to articles by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News asserting that hundreds of Southern Baptist clergy and staff have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, while leaving more than 700 victims with little in the way of justice or apologies.
Stung by the allegations, SBC leaders have forwarded to the delegates meeting in Birmingham a proposed amendment to the SBC constitution making clear that an individual church could be expelled for mishandling or covering up sex-abuse cases. The proposal also designates racism as grounds for expulsion.
Another proposal calls for assigning the SBC’s Credentials Committee to field claims against churches with regard to sexual abuse and racial discrimination.
Even before this week’s meeting, some action had been taken on recommendations from Greear’s study committee.
For example, a nine-member team developed a training curriculum to be used by churches and seminaries to improve responses to abuse. The team includes a psychologist, a former prosecutor, a detective, and attorney and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with charges against sports doctor Larry Nassar ahead of the prosecution that led to a lengthy prison sentence.
The study group also is considering new requirements for background checks of church leaders, and it is assessing options for a database listing credibly accused abusers, though Baptist leaders say that process has been difficult because of legal issues.
Creation of a database overseen by an independent staff is one of the demands of a group of abuse survivors and other activists who planned a protest rally outside the Birmingham convention center Tuesday evening. They will also be urging the church, which espouses all-male leadership, to be more respectful of women’s roles — a volatile topic that’s sparked online debate over whether women should preach to men.
Ahead of the meeting, there was a surge of debate related to the Southern Baptist Convention’s doctrine of “complementarianism” that calls for male leadership in the home and the church.
Particularly contentious is a widely observed prohibition on women preaching in Southern Baptist churches.