ANAHEIM, California (AP) — The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to create a way to track pastors and other church workers credibly accused of sex abuse and launch a new task force to oversee further reforms in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
The vote came three weeks after the release of a blockbuster report by an outside consultant on the long-simmering scandal, revealing that Southern Baptist leaders mishandled abuse cases and stonewalled victims for years. Thousands of Southern Baptists are here in Anaheim for their big national meeting.
The vote fell short of what some survivors of abuse in Southern Baptist churches sought, such as a compensation fund for victims and a more robust and independent commission to monitor its churches’ handling — and mishandling— of abuse. And it also met opposition from some who contended the crisis was overhyped and that it interfered with Baptist churches’ independence.
But Bruce Frank, who led the task force that recommended the reforms, made an emotional plea for church representatives to accept them as they gathered here at the start of their two-day annual meeting. He called the steps the “bare minimum.”
“It will take a few years to change the culture and direction,” he said. “But without action to act differently, there is no repentance.”
He challenged those who would say these steps interfere with Baptists’ focus on missions, saying that “protecting the sheep from the wolves” is essential to mission.
“How are you going to tell a watching world that Jesus died for them ... when his church won’t even do its very best to protect them?” Frank asked.
He acknowledged that executing these recommendations would cost “a lot of money.”
“But it’s not going to cost nearly as much as survivors have paid,” he added.
During debate, some Baptists criticized the consulting firm that conducted the report, Guidepost Solutions, for its recent tweet in support of Pride month, which goes against the SBC’s view that homosexuality is sinful.
“I didn’t like their tweet either,” Frank said, adding that it is important to recognize that the company’s perspective on sexuality and gender is simply different from a Christian denomination’s views. “The issue is not, what does Guidepost think of LGBT? The issue is what do Southern Baptists think of sexual abuse.”
The report, focused on how the denomination’s Executive Committee handled abuse cases, also revealed that it had secretly maintained a list of clergy and other church workers accused of abuse, even after long claiming it couldn’t do so without violating congregations’ autonomy. The committee later apologized and released the list, which had hundreds of accused workers on it.
Frank also reiterated the need for a database of abusers, which he said has been discussed by the SBC for more than a decade. He said a database is crucial to ensure abusers are not going from church to church, hurting more vulnerable people.
Brad Eubank, senior pastor of Petal First Baptist Church in Petal, Mississippi, urged messengers to approve the recommendations. Eubank was sexually abused as a child by a minister of music at a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. He said these recommendations should serve as a “starting point.”
“As a pastor I’ve talked to countless survivors and victims,” he said. “The world is watching. This is not everything that needs to be done, but it’s a starting spot. Please, let’s start the healing process today.”