EC workgroup's sex abuse report draws varied responses

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Reactions have varied to a Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee workgroup's statement on sexual abuse. The statement came in response to SBC President J.D. Greear's public naming of 10 churches he said should be asked to assure the convention they are working to correct their policies and procedures related to abuse.

Of the 10 churches named, three warrant "further inquiry," the EC's bylaws workgroup stated in its Feb. 23 release, issued after meetings Friday and Saturday via conference call. One of the churches is not Southern Baptist.

Reaction following the release ranged from allegations the EC did not go far enough in combatting abuse to allegations Greear should have contacted the churches before naming them publicly.

Amid the discussion, Greear released a statement to Baptist Press today (Feb. 26) noting "mistakes" "made by Southern Baptist churches in the past ... should be humbly and transparently addressed, and these churches should assure the Convention that their current policies are not only up to date, but have been implemented in ways that ensure the maximum safety of all who attend."

Greear added, "While we do not presume the guilt of any," the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study team led by Greear and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission believes "the public nature" of some accusations made against churches in the media warrants "a public response."

EC Chairman Mike Stone told BP in written comments, "While the [bylaws] workgroup intended to convey the strongest sense of the Convention's revulsion toward sexual abuse, we are also keenly aware that the Convention has not given to us investigative authority."

The bylaws workgroup's release was criticized in both social and traditional media.

Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and abuse survivor who has worked with Greear in the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study; Megan Lively, a victim advocate; and Virginia pastor Brent Hobbs all either tweeted or blogged various criticisms of the report.

Nonetheless, Stone said, "for the first time in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Bylaws Workgroup of the SBC Executive Committee has deemed three churches as worthy of inquiry regarding the issue of sexual abuse. That fact alone should indicate that we are not hesitant to recommend action where provided information is sufficient."

After the bylaws workgroup's release was issued, BP attempted to contact all nine Southern Baptist churches referenced by Greear. Some churches expressed thanks for Greear's efforts to combat sexual abuse. Some noted policy and procedure changes they have made to prevent abuse. Some said sins committed decades ago should be forgiven. Some expressed hurt at having been called out without first being contacted.

At least two SBC entity leaders reacted to the bylaws workgroup's release. EC Interim President D. August Boto said the full EC appears "overwhelmingly supportive" of the action points Greear has proposed to combat sexual abuse. The bylaws workgroup's Feb. 23 release "is a preliminary report only," Boto noted, and may be amended if "additional information comes to light."

ERLC President Russell Moore said he stands "squarely behind" Greear.

The bylaws workgroup decried sexual abuse as "monumentally destructive and worthy of the harshest punishment." It also cautioned against "publicly calling the names of churches without having documentation of criminal convictions and giving prior notice to the church."

"No individual possesses the authority to declare a church to be under a Convention inquiry of any kind," the workgroup stated. "But where criminal convictions along with ecclesiastical actions by the church body which violate the constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention are present, we are confident the Convention stands ready to act with all the resources at its disposal against the horrible and egregious sin of sexual abuse."

Churches respond

After Greear named the 10 churches in his Feb. 18 report to the EC, the bylaws workgroup adopted a motion asking him "to provide to the workgroup ... any information which he wishes to provide tending to demonstrate that a particular church is worthy of consideration as to whether or not it is currently in cooperation with the Convention."

Greear responded to that request with a 1,500-word memo sent to the workgroup Feb. 22. In that memo, he devoted one paragraph each to expressing his concerns about the nine Southern Baptist churches listed in his report. The tenth -- Turner Street Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark. -- was mistakenly identified as Southern Baptist in a Houston Chronicle report, Greear stated.

"I am not calling for disfellowshipping any of these churches at this point," Greear wrote according to a copy of the memo the bylaws workgroup provided to BP. But the 10 congregations were "referenced in recent media reports" and "must be called upon to give assurance to the SBC Executive Committee that they have taken the necessary steps to correct their policies and procedures (if applicable) with regards to abuse and care for survivors. Our goal here is never disfellowship, but correction."

Among responses of churches named:

-- John Hull, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., told BP he was "shocked" and found it "profoundly upsetting" when Greear listed Eastside in his report to the EC without first having conversation with the church.

The church has dealt with sexual abuse by a contractor, employee or volunteer minister three times since 2000, with all cases ending in criminal convictions, BP reported Feb. 15. All three instances of abuse occurred before Hull arrived as pastor. BP's report and a Feb. 22 report by Georgia Baptists' Christian Index newsjournal identified security improvements the church has reported.

"I support President Greear's efforts to stop this horrible thing of sexual abuse, and especially child abuse, in our churches," Hull said.

Hull expressed appreciation for a phone call with Greear Feb. 23. They had a "spirited and strong conversation with each other, and I think he is extremely aware of our dissatisfaction with how he as a leader managed this matter," Hull said.

-- Billy Taylor, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas, told BP he was "astonished" and "surprised" when Greear listed the church in his report without first contacting it.

A former First Baptist staff member, Charles Adcock, was under indictment on 29 counts of rape and sodomy at the time he was hired by First Baptist and now is "a registered sex offender living in Arkansas," the bylaws workgroup reported, citing the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. When Adcock's background came to light in 2015, "the church membership was shocked, disgusted and angered," according to a statement on First Baptist's website. Adcock left the church at that time, "and those responsible for allowing Adcock to serve at FBC Bedford were removed from their positions shortly after his departure."

First Baptist has "worked diligently to review and update our policies and procedures" since then, according to the statement.

Taylor said the church unanimously adopted a resolution Feb. 24 stating, "Today we renew our commitment of providing a safe environment for our members, families, guests and our community as our highest priority" and "resolve to make sure the problems of the past are never repeated."

Click here for a full report on reactions from the nine Southern Baptist churches named by Greear.

SBC leaders respond

Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area, said in his Feb. 26 statement he and the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study "will bring forward more [recommendations] in the weeks to come."

"In most situations in which a church's handling of an abuse case has been challenged, we believe prudence demands dialogue not only with the churches themselves, but also victims, victim advocates, and other authorities directly involved in the documented reports to ensure that the churches have acted, and are acting, in ways consistent with the Southern Baptist Convention's stated commitments to preventing abuse," Greear said.

"As I have said, faithfulness to Christ demands that we take this issue with the utmost seriousness. We serve a God who gave His life to protect the vulnerable. We dare not minimize, casually dismiss or take lightly allegations of abuse. We must never foster environments that discourage the abused from coming forward or that enables abusers to evade accountability. Wrong must never [be] swept under the rug. We must be committed to doing whatever it takes to prohibit predators from second chances to victimize the vulnerable. Local church autonomy should never be used as an excuse for a failure of accountability. Anything less belies the very gospel we are committed to proclaim," Greear said.

Greear's full statement is printed at the bottom of this story.

Boto said in a Feb. 26 statement to BP, "From my vantage point, the eighty members of the Executive Committee present when President J.D. Greear spoke were overwhelmingly supportive of the ten action points he lifted up in his remarks about the advisory study he initiated last fall."

The bylaws workgroup sought to be "as responsive as possible," Boto said, when it received Greear's request to determine whether the churches he named have taken "the necessary steps ... with regards to abuse and care for survivors." The workgroup's Feb. 23 release "is a preliminary report only" and may be amended if new information comes to light, though "neither the Executive Committee nor the SBC has authority to conduct 'investigations' of how a specific church chose to respond to any behavior."

Boto added, "We do have a right to inquire, and inquire we will."

Boto's full statement is printed at the bottom of this story.

Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga., said the bylaws workgroup "had only one assignment" in its Feb. 22-23 meeting. "We needed to move forward with a plan to address the ten churches mentioned in the president's recent address to the Executive Committee. We sought to determine if the information provided by president J.D. Greear was sufficient, by itself, to warrant further inquiry into any or all of the ten churches based on a proposed constitutional amendment on sexual abuse passed by the Executive Committee.

"The report we issued did not 'clear' any of the churches," Stone said. "... That determination does not reside in the Bylaws Workgroup. The workgroup also did not 'investigate' the churches because that authority is not vested in the workgroup either."

Stone's full statement is printed at the bottom of this story.

Moore said in a statement released to BP Feb. 26, "I stand squarely behind J.D. Greear and the Advisory Group to do whatever it takes to battle this satanic scourge of the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable people. I was not present for this bylaws workgroup meeting. I know this, though, the ultimate arbiter of our common witness and our mission together is that of the churches themselves.

"I sense that there is a great urgency among the churches to deal with these questions definitively, for the sake of vulnerable people and for the sake of the holiness of the name of Christ. These churches will send messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, where they will hear from the Advisory Group. This group has labored with gravity and expertise for months, and I'm confident Southern Baptists will respond with clarity and action," Moore said.

The EC's next scheduled meeting is June 10 in Birmingham, Ala.

**********

Statement from SBC President J.D. Greear:

"The Sexual Abuse Advisory Group and I are committed to continue working to foster environments of transparency, accountability and safety for all Southern Baptists. We have made several immediate recommendations and will bring forward more in the weeks to come.

"If mistakes were made by Southern Baptist churches in the past, they should be humbly and transparently addressed, and these churches should assure the Convention that their current policies are not only up to date, but have been implemented in ways that ensure the maximum safety of all who attend. Scripture commands that our good not be evil spoken of, which means that churches who face accusation should be eager to demonstrate that they are above reproach in their commitment to protect the vulnerable and expose abusers. While we do not presume the guilt of any, the advisory group and I believe that the public nature of these media accusations warrant a public response.

"In most situations in which a church's handling of an abuse case has been challenged, we believe prudence demands dialogue not only with the churches themselves, but also victims, victim advocates, and other authorities directly involved in the documented reports to ensure that the churches have acted, and are acting, in ways consistent with the Southern Baptist Convention's stated commitments to preventing abuse.

"As I have said, faithfulness to Christ demands that we take this issue with the utmost seriousness. We serve a God who gave his life to protect the vulnerable. We dare not minimize, casually dismiss or take lightly allegations of abuse. We must never foster environments that discourage the abused from coming forward or that enables abusers to evade accountability. Wrong must never [be] swept under the rug. We must be committed to doing whatever it takes to prohibit predators from second chances to victimize the vulnerable. Local church autonomy should never be used as an excuse for a failure of accountability. Anything less belies the very gospel we are committed to proclaim.

"The gospel we preach is unambiguous, Christ is always on the side of the victimized, the weak, the abused. Always. Period."

Statement from SBC Executive Committee Interim President D. August Boto:

"From my vantage point, the eighty members of the Executive Committee present when President J. D. Greear spoke were overwhelmingly supportive of the ten action points he lifted up in his remarks about the advisory study he initiated last fall.

"After overviewing his ten action points, the SBC president also announced that he 'urge[s] the bylaws workgroup of the administrative committee to take the necessary steps' to determine whether ten churches he named 'meet the standards of having a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention's adopted statement of faith as outlined in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution.'

"In making that announcement, he said, 'I am not calling for disfellowshipping any of these churches at this point but these churches must be called upon to give assurance to the SBC that they have take[n] the necessary steps to correct their policies and procedures with regards to abuse and care for survivors.

"'Our goal here is never disfellowship, but correction!'

"In an effort to be as responsive as possible, the bylaws workgroup, joined by the EC chairman and administrative committee chairman, chose to convene in the next day's meeting, rather than wait until its next scheduled meeting in June.

"Two challenges the Executive Committee faces when asked to address concerns raised about churches are (a) lack of investigative authority over churches and, therefore, (b) dependence on statements from the churches to determine if the church has acted, and continues to act, in a manner that affirms, endorses, or approves any type of behavior deemed inappropriate to the Convention's messengers.

"Since these ten churches, each of which had been prominently covered in news stories in the past, were held up to renewed public scrutiny, the workgroup felt it necessary to contact them as expeditiously as possible. This preliminary report from the bylaws workgroup indicates that this is not its final report, but a preliminary report to allow the named churches that believe they have implemented robust procedures to provide safe environments for the children entrusted to their care let the workgroup know of those 'necessary steps' the president referenced.

"We hope that the presidential sexual abuse advisory study group will also reach out to these churches to learn from their experiences and perhaps even learn from their response to what has transpired and any steps they have implemented to protect their members and guests from predators whose horrendous acts wreak havoc on innocent and often vulnerable children.

"Again, as stated, this is a preliminary report only. If additional information comes to light that we did not receive in our initial contacts with the churches on the list, or additional information about churches predators have targeted to savage innocent lives, the workgroup is very likely to amend its preliminary report or expand its list to inquire what steps those churches have taken to protect children.

"Until messengers to the SBC amend our historic doctrinal position that each church is governed by its own congregation under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes, neither the Executive Committee nor the SBC has authority to conduct 'investigations' of how a specific church chose to respond to any behavior, no matter how egregious, of those who are connected to the church as employees, volunteers, congregants, or guests. Such investigation continues to be the role of government. We fully support law enforcement officers' efforts to identify and prosecute sexual predators who seek to exploit the natural trust often found in a church setting.

"We do have a right to inquire, and inquire we will. But establishing or recognizing a centralized investigative body, and formal procedures to examine church conduct and issue an assessment of quality or sufficiency, would fundamentally alter the purposes, construction and composition the Convention has operated under for 170+ years."

Statement from Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone:

"The Bylaws Workgroup met extensively via phone conference over the course of this past Friday and Saturday. All members of the workgroup were able to participate on either Friday or Saturday or on both days, except for Dr. J.D. Greear. Although he was unable to join the phone meeting, he gave his consent for the meeting to proceed in his absence. Due to the nature of the specially-called meeting, consent was required from any absentee member or the meeting could not have taken place without a ten-day notice. A second notice of the meeting was sent to all members late on Friday night when the meeting was continued on Saturday.

"The report we issued was not a report on the problem of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention nor was it a statement about the recent update of the sexual abuse study group. And it was not intended to be read as a final disposition of any of the churches. That authority does not rest in the Bylaws Workgroup.

"The workgroup had only one assignment in the meeting. We needed to move forward with a plan to address the ten churches mentioned in the president's recent address to the Executive Committee. We sought to determine if the information provided by president J.D. Greear was sufficient, by itself, to warrant further inquiry into any or all of the ten churches based on a proposed constitutional amendment on sexual abuse passed by the Executive Committee.

"The report we issued did not 'clear' any of the churches. Again, that determination does not reside in the Bylaws Workgroup. The workgroup also did not 'investigate' the churches because that authority is not vested in the workgroup either. The workgroup simply asked if the president's information was sufficient to trigger the standard recently embraced by the Executive Committee.

"We felt that three of the ten do warrant further inquiry based on the limited information with which we had to work. Others may warrant further inquiry if additional confirmed information is received in the future. For the first time in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Bylaws Workgroup of the SBC Executive Committee has deemed three churches as worthy of inquiry regarding the issue of sexual abuse. That fact alone should indicate that we are not hesitant to recommend action where provided information is sufficient.

"While the workgroup intended to convey the strongest sense of the Convention's revulsion toward sexual abuse, we are also keenly aware that the Convention has not given to us investigative authority to do what some have understandably asked to be done. We felt that unless and until the Southern Baptist Convention instructs otherwise, neither the Executive Committee nor any of its workgroups have the authority or ability to conduct an investigation into any church, a fact noted in the report itself."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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