An update on the Presidential Study on Sexual Abuse

The news continues to feature stories related to abuse. Surveying headlines just since the New Year tells of Catholic bishops praying over the sex abuse scandal, a college announcing a plan to fight sexual misconduct, the Catholic Church using bankruptcy for sexual assault cases, the sentencing of two separate teachers for sexually abusing students, and nuns telling their stories of being assaulted by priests. Another week’s headlines contained stories of R. Kelly’s abuse, a cardinal that had lied about knowing about an abuser over a decade before, and a woman in a nursing home giving birth after being raped while in a vegetative state.  

Perhaps most alarming was the major investigative report released before Christmas by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, tracking hundreds of sexual abuse allegations among independent Baptist churches. This report reveals the destructive nature of sexual abuse by clergy. We mourn for the survivors highlighted in this report and others like it. It would not be surprising if journalists are working on a similar type of story focused on Southern Baptist churches as well.  

The #MeToo movement has brought this discussion into everyone’s perview, but this isn’t a new problem. And sexual abuse is not just a problem outside of the church, or in other religions. This is a human problem. We grieve over the stories we have heard. Because this is an evil with far-reaching devastation, and because we realize it can also happen within Southern Baptist churches, we knew we needed to take action. So, we have undertaken the Presidential Study on Sexual Abuse to address this issue with humility, seriousness, and gospel courage.  

SBC President J.D. Greear has stated, "How we as a convention of churches care for abuse victims and protect against vile predators says something about what we believe about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our churches should be a refuge for the hurting and a safe haven for the oppressed.” Russell Moore further explained the importance of our convention taking action on this issue, saying,  

Sexual assault and sexual abuse are Satanic to the core, and churches should be the ones leading the way when it comes to protecting the vulnerable from predators. Thankfully, every Southern Baptist pastor I know cares deeply about these issues. We as a denomination, though, owe it to our pastors and churches to come together and provide the very best resources and recommendations possible to address this crisis.  

The goal of the study group is to equip SBC churches to be places that are safe for survivors and safe from abuse. Because of this responsibility to care for victims and protect the vulnerable, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in partnership with Greear and the Executive Committee of the SBC, has worked for the past five months on phase one of a three-part study on sexual abuse. To learn more about the study, you can click here and here. Phase one is the assessment phase of the project. The purpose of this phase is to review existing organizations, strategies, experts, and resources in order to better understand the landscape of needs and opportunities when it comes to sexual abuse. As we progress through phase one, here are some updates on the work:  

  1. Diversifying input. In this process, it has been a priority to solicit a wide array of input. We have included big and small churches, rural and urban churches, pastors and lay people, survivors and advocates, and those inside and outside of the SBC. It has also been important for us to include minority voices and women’s voices as their perspective and experiences related to abuse may differ and their contributions bring unique insights. This diverse input will prove helpful as we move toward the development and implementation phases. We would also like to hear from you. If you have suggestions, questions, connections, or ideas related to the study group, please send those to studygroup@erlc.com.
  2. Directing research. The study group has approached the work of the assessment phase with a recognition that there is much to learn from those who care deeply about the issue of abuse. In phase one, we have reviewed literature, attended conferences, administered surveys, conducted interviews, held panel discussions, and received email input. In partnership with the study group, LifeWay is conducting a major research survey of Protestant church-going people that is focused on abuse. The results of this research tool will provide tremendous insights into trends in the church in general, and within SBC churches in particular. We have also solicited feedback from national SBC entities, state conventions, and local associations. In October, we held a discussion on the issue with key evangelical female leaders. We have also dialogued with survivors, activists, pastors, ministry leaders, and seminary leaders. All of this research has been vital in our assessment.
  3. Designing resources. In the near future, Greear will begin to highlight publicly some of the initiatives that are taking shape in phase two, the development phase. Based on the findings in the assessment phase, the study group will develop recommendations, resources, strategies, and partnerships that will address the needs and opportunities that have been identified. Although we are still in the assessment phase, we have already identified resources that need to be developed. Throughout the project you will continue to see articles written as a result of the assessment. As Greear announced from the start of this project, we will be “designing strategies and resources for ministering to victims and protecting people and churches from predators.” These will take various forms such as church-based strategies, seminary and higher education practices and training, and resources to be utilized at every level of the SBC. We look forward to sharing more of the findings of the study and the developed resources at the annual meeting in June.
  4. Developing plans. As the 2019 SBC annual meeting in Birmingham approaches, we will introduce an implementation phase at the culmination of the development phase. Once resources and strategies have been developed, the implementation phase will launch a wide-scale, comprehensive effort to educate, saturate, and motivate Southern Baptist churches, entities, and leaders to embrace and incorporate the recommendations and findings of the study. As SBC churches await these broader findings and recommendations, we want to encourage taking initiative to serve survivors and prevent abuse. Even now, churches should implement basic, common-sense initiatives such as background checks and “two deep” policies that require two adults to be present when working with minors. Although the study will highlight how there is much more that can be done, we encourage churches to take action now.

How can Southern Baptists stay involved and connected to the study group? We want to hear from you. If you have suggestions, questions, connections, or ideas related to the study group, please send those to studygroup@erlc.com.