Record crowd expected at sixth ERLC nat'l conf.

BP file photo.
GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) -- A record audience will gather when the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission opens its sixth annual national conference Thursday afternoon (Oct. 3) for what it acknowledges is only one step in the effort to address the church sexual abuse crisis.

"Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis" –- sponsored by the ERLC in partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Advisory Group -- will focus on educating churches about abuse prevention and ministering to survivors of such abuse. The sold-out conference of more than 1,650 registrants will continue through mid-day Oct. 5 in Grapevine, Texas.

The conference follows more than a year of growing awareness of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and entities, as well as a lack of accountability in many instances over many years. Convention leaders and entities have taken steps since the summer of 2018 to seek to address the problem, but its magnitude will require a sustained effort, ERLC President Russell Moore said on the eve of the conference.

"While this conference is long-awaited by many of us who have been planning it, we know in many ways, it is just the beginning of the challenge in front of us," Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. 

"This is a critical season for churches seeking to address the wickedness of abuse with the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "My prayer is that this event would be one small part working toward meaningful solutions."

The conference will feature more than 40 speakers, including experts on sexual abuse, survivors of abuse, advocates for victims, pastors and denominational leaders. It will include testimonies from four survivors of sex abuse.

In addition to Moore, the speakers will include:

-- Rachael Denhollander, lawyer, 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.

-- J.D. Greear, SBC president and pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area, who initiated the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.

-- Boz Tchividjian, founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and a veteran litigator in sex abuse cases.

-- Gary Haugen, founder and chief executive officer of International Justice Mission, the world's largest anti-slavery organization.

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

-- Beth Moore, popular Bible teacher with Living Proof Ministries and survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

-- Ronnie Floyd, SBC Executive Committee president.

-- Ben Mandrell, new LifeWay Christian Resources president.

The ERLC announced in April it had changed its 2019 national conference theme to address sex abuse after news reports disclosed the reality of the problem in Southern Baptist churches.

As it planned for a conference on Gospel courage, the commission "came to a realization," Moore said at the time. "That is, the scourge of sexual abuse in churches is the very embodiment of the need for Gospel courage."

In February, the Houston Chronicle -- joined by the San Antonio Express-News -- began an ongoing series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. The series has found about 400 leaders and volunteers in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted, taken plea deals or been credibly accused of sex crimes or misconduct involving more than 700 victims during the last two decades. Many victims said their abuse was handled improperly, according to the reports. The series also has reported on abuse by some missionaries of the International Mission Board.

SBC leaders had initiated an effort to respond to a growing awareness of the problem prior to the news reports. Greear formed the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group in July 2018 shortly after his election as SBC president. Working in cooperation with the ERLC, the fluid study group has received input from hundreds of people, including abuse survivors and their advocates, lawyers, pastors, law enforcement officials, counselors and denominational leaders.

In addition to other collaborative efforts of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group and the ERLC, messengers to the annual SBC meeting in June approved amendments to the SBC constitution to specify sexual abuse and discrimination based on ethnicity are grounds for a church to be deemed as "not in friendly cooperation" with the convention. They also voted to amend the SBC's bylaws to reshape the Credentials Committee into a standing panel to inquire into and recommend actions regarding incidents of sexual abuse, racism or other issues that call a church's relationship with the SBC into question.

The ERLC conference's sessions on the main stage will be live streamed for free at live.erlc.com.

The first ERLC National Conference, which was held in 2014, focused on applying the Gospel to homosexuality and marriage, while the 2015 conference addressed the Gospel and politics. The 2016 event was on cultural engagement and Gospel faithfulness. In 2017, the conference was on Gospel-centered parenting, and last year's theme was the Gospel and the family.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief 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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