Sex abuse study 'to own our error,' Greear says

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Southern Baptists should not seek to defend themselves in response to recent sexual abuse reports but should hold offending churches accountable, SBC President J.D. Greear told the SBC Executive Committee Monday night (Feb. 18).

J.D. Greear (left), Russell Moore and Amy Whitfield answer reporters' questions in an informal gathering after Greear's address to the SBC Executive Committee Monday, Feb. 18.
Photo by Morris Abernathy
In his report to the committee, Greear presented 10 calls to action based on initial recommendations from the Sexual Abuse Presidential Advisory Study he initiated last year.

The recommendations include a request that the Executive Committee begin the process to amend the SBC's governing documents to define the mishandling of abuse as a basis for disfellowshipping a church, as well as the disclosure that the advisory study is continuing to consider the possibility of a database for offenders.

Greear's report followed an investigative series the previous week by the Houston Chronicle, joined by the San Antonio Express-News, that found 220 pastors and other leaders in Southern Baptist churches who had been convicted of or taken plea deals in sex crimes involving more than 700 victims.

Southern Baptists need to repent for a culture that has made "abuse, cover-ups and evading accountability far too easy," Greear told the Executive Committee. It is a time "to own our error and to grieve for those who have been hurt."

"The safety of victims is far more important than the reputation of Southern Baptists," Greer said. "We need to regard any exposure, any shining of light on abuse, as our friend, even if it makes us ask some uncomfortable questions about ourselves publicly. Our job is to love and serve people, especially those who have suffered abuse. Our job is not to protect our reputation."

God "is going to hold us accountable for how we respond to this moment," Greear said.

It is not "a distraction" or something that accompanies "another agenda," said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh/Durham, N.C., area. "If we don't get this right, our churches will not be a safe place for the lost.

"Our goal is for our response to abuse to match the Gospel that we proclaim with our mouths."

Greear is partnering with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) in the work of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study. Abuse survivors and their advocates, lawyers, pastors, law enforcement officials, counselors and denominational leaders -- a majority of whom are women -- are among those who are providing input, he said.

ERLC President Russell Moore described the calls to action as "a needed advance" and commended Greear for "his strong leadership." He prays the recommendations "will be universally adopted across the spectrum of Southern Baptist life," Moore said.

The recent news reports "are both horrifying and demand immediate and swift action," Moore said in a written release. The advisory study has "utilized the best expertise possible, inside and outside the SBC, in the worlds of law enforcement, psychiatric and psychological care, and those who have survived sexual abuse. This group will have much more to say in the months to come, but I am encouraged by what is happening in these deliberations."

Greear thanked the Executive Committee's officers for already approving a proposed constitutional amendment to disfellowship churches that refuse to handle abuse properly. The Executive Committee was to consider the proposal Tuesday (Feb. 19).

The advisory study shows "we must take bold and decisive steps to send an unequivocal message," Greear said. Churches "that have a wanton disregard for sexual abuse and for caring for the survivors are not in good fellowship with this convention."

He acknowledged removing a church from fellowship with the SBC is "very serious" and calls for "thorough research."

Referring to churches cited in news reports for failing to address abuse properly, Greear said, "In the interest of being above reproach, we should perform due diligence to verify whether or not these churches are indeed operating with a faith and practice that upholds" the Baptist Faith & Message, the SBC's statement of faith.

Greear named several churches included in recent reports that should be asked to assure the convention they are working to correct their policies and procedures.

He is not calling for the churches to be disfellowshipped at this time, Greear said. He also said he was speaking as the SBC president and not on behalf of the advisory study.

Regarding a registry for offenders, Greear said the fact that the advisory study is not calling for a database at this time "does not mean that we are not doing everything we can to evaluate it as an option."

The other calls to action were:

-- Southern Baptists should lament the abuse that has occurred in their churches and repent of failing to devote proper attention to it.

-- Southern Baptists should make use of a soon-to-be-released video-based curriculum, "Becoming a Church That Cares Well on Abuse," developed by a team of survivors, advocates and experts.

-- The Executive Committee should consider mandated background checks for all SBC trustees and standing committee members in a way appropriate to Southern Baptist polity. "Our goal is to be vigilant to make sure that predators have no place at any level in our structure."

-- The SBC should contemplate revising the Annual Church Profile to include questions about abuse policies and incidents of abuse in Southern Baptist churches.

-- The convention would prepare to address abuse through prayer, reports, events and resources at June's SBC meeting in Birmingham.

-- Churches should examine how to enhance their screening of candidates for ordination.

-- The SBC should endorse Statement of Principles documents approved by groups at every structural level of the convention: (1) The six seminaries; (2) the 41 state conventions; and (3) associational leaders.

-- Churches, associations, state conventions and entities should act immediately to prevent abuse and care for victims.

The free video-based "Becoming a Church That Cares Well on Abuse" curriculum will consist of four hours of training divided into 12 sessions. The curriculum, which will be available in June, is designed to prepare pastors and other leaders to respond well to initial abuse reports.

The 10-member team that is producing the curriculum includes:

-- Rachael Denhollander, an attorney, advocate and abuse survivor who was the first gymnast to go public with charges against USA Gymnastics team doctor and serial abuser Larry Nassar, who is serving life in prison.

-- Diane Langberg, a psychologist who is widely recognized for her 45 years of work with trauma and abuse victims.

-- Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids, Mich.

-- Andrea Munford, a lieutenant with the Michigan State University Police Department who was the lead investigator in the Nassar case.

-- Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at The Summit Church.

The website for the curriculum may be accessed at https://churchcares.com.

The Statement of Principles adopted by the seminaries includes commitments to policies to prevent abuse on campus and care compassionately for abuse victims and to mandatory training for students on abuse prevention.

The state conventions committed in their statement to equip their churches and ministries to understand abuse, to prevent it and to care well for survivors.

The statement affirmed by the officers of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders calls on mission strategists in associations to commit to promoting training for their staffs and churches on abuse prevention and victim care.

On the eve of the SBC's annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., an advisory study group and the ERLC will co-host "Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention," an event addressing the situation.

The ERLC's Leadership Luncheon, a periodic event it hosts in Nashville, will address sexual abuse in a meeting with more than 100 local church leaders Feb. 21.

Greear and Moore took questions during a Feb. 14 conference call with several hundred pastors and leaders in which the advisory study's recommendations were outlined.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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