On Sunday, May 22, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, released a report commissioned on its handling of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse cases.
These issues have been festering for years in the SBC: survivors of abuse have shared their stories and detailed how they were ignored, their abusers protected, and the institution sought to protect itself first; the president of the largest seminary (who was also one of the most well known and important members of the SBC in the past 40 years) was fired for deliberately mishandling accusations of misconduct at the seminary; and one of the most prominent Southern Baptists, Russell Moore, publicly left the denomination over its mishandling of misconduct and abuse. Last year's Annual Meeting (the national body) of the SBC voted overwhelmingly to hire an outside, third-party agency to investigate the Executive Committee (which governs the church in between gatherings of Annual Meeting) and denominational handling of sexual misconduct and abuse.
The report turned out to be more shocking than most people could imagine. The headline in The Atlantic was "No Atheist Has Done This Much Damage to the Christian Faith". In Christianity Today, Russell Moore referred to it not as a shock, or a crisis, but in more stark terms: "This is the Southern
The Horsemen Ride on the SBC.
The details are horrific: for decades senior leadership of the SBC privileged avoiding scandal and protecting the denomination over responding to allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse. I urge you to read Moore's piece in Christianity Today for the details -- Moore, as the only person in senior leadership who consistently raised these concerns, was hounded out of the denomination through retaliation by other senior leadership.
Here are just two examples. 1) The Southern Baptist Exec Committee and senior leadership repeatedly said they could not compile a database of people accused of misconduct or abuse, because to do so would violate Baptist ecclesiology, in which each congregation is independent and autonomous. In reality, the SBC Exec Committee **did** keep their own internal database, with over 700 names on it, but did not share this with anybody. They very thing they said they could not do, they did do, compiled hundreds of allegations of abuse and misconduct, and then did nothing about these hundreds of accusations.
2) Leadership repeatedly attacked, gaslit, slandered and libeled, threatened, and belittled accusers, despite knowing of hundreds of allegations of abuse. They referred to persons who came forward to share their abuse as part of a “satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” Other persons who came forward to report abuse were said to have been inspired directly by the devil. Leadership literally accused people who brought forth accusations of misconduct -- while at the same time they were secretly keeping a database with hundreds of allegations of abuse -- as being satanic instruments.
As Moore put it, "It [the report] includes written conversations among top Executive Committee
Messengers voting to commission Report
at 2021 SBC Annual Meeting
staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama."
Again, I urge you to read Moore's article in Christianity Today.
This apocalypse in the SBC has been decades in the making, a toxic by product of misogyny and all-male leadership, and the weaponizing of the Bible and Baptist polity in the service of unmitigated self-interest and evil by the SBC Executive Committee, abusers and perpertrators, and others in leadership in the SBC.
I certainly hope and pray for accountability for all those who abused their power and authority, implementation of effective reforms and oversight with regard to sexual abuse and misconduct, and that those survivors of abuse be accorded the support they always should have been received.
As an Episcopalian, I am also very, very reluctant to engage in any kind of piling on or schadenfreude. Because I know my own denomination has never done any kind of systemic accounting for its own failures in privileging avoidance of scandal and preserving the institution over accountability, and has its own decades of sins in denying accountability for sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.
I cannot tell you -- literally, I cannot tell you -- some of what I have heard in over 25 years of full-time service as a lay and clergy professional. I cannot tell you in part because I am bound by confidentiality in what was shared with me; and in part because they are not my stories to tell and I would not do so without the permission of those involved.
Let's just start with those in the public domain:
In 1994 Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning was made aware of sexual abuse committed by Bishop Donald Davis of Northwestern Pennsylvania, including incidents which took place at the diocesan church camp. Some of these children were as young as 9 years old. PB Browning did not report anything to the police, did not report this through the formal Title IV disciplinary process. After meeting with Browning, Bishop Davis resigned from the House of Bishops and voluntarily gave up performing any priestly or episcopal duties. No formal, public discipline was ever taken, this was all done in secret, and Bishop Davis technically died as a clergy member in full standing. This information came out in 2010. Bishop Browning was well enough to attend the 2012 General Convention and testify publicly at a legislative hearing but never made any statement about why he did what he did, and was never called to account for why he did what he did in any way other than I guess in my prior blog posts over the years.
At the 2018 General Convention, as part of the work of the Special Committee on Sexual
Bishops reading accounts at
2018 Liturgy of Listening.
Misconduct and Sexual Harassment, a Liturgy of Listening was held. Accounts of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment were confidentially submitted in advance, and various bishops read a dozen of these accounts aloud. We heard these voices themselves. I watched online, and colleagues of mine were present in person: it was a solemn, moving, and devastating experience as we heard of abuse committed and the church's failure adequately to respond.
We cannot think that we have solved this matter by holding a listening session and acted on some of the recommendations of the Special Committee on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment to the 2018 General Convention. This is a lifelong process of holding ourselves and our institutions accountable, and continuing to build, create, and maintain a culture of safeguarding all of God's people.
As we see what the Southern Baptist Convention has done, as we have seen what the Roman Catholic Church has done, instead of thinking it couldn't happen here because we have women clergy or couldn't happen here because we have a democratic process or couldn't happen here because we addressed these issues already, let's not fool ourselves with such self-rationalizations at avoiding accountability. Instead, let's do something else.
Let's take a step towards continuing to hold ourselves accountable to those things we say are important to us.
1) Like the Southern Baptist Annual Gathering did, let's commission an outside, independent, third-party review and audit of our misconduct processes and procedures. We have done a racism audit which yielded important findings and recommendations. Let's do one for sexual misconduct policies and procedures.
I have a couple of thoughts about what such an audit and report might address, others undoubtedly would have additional ones as well:
2) Misconduct is handled at the diocesan level. As part of the audit, let's make sure all dioceses are fully compliant with the current Title IV and have all policies and procedures in place.
3) Let's find a way -- while respecting confidentiality -- to assess how dioceses are implementing Title IV. For instance: what if we find there are two dioceses of similar sizes, but one had 50 Title IV complaints that resulted in some kind of discipline, and another had zero? That might indicate one diocese was taking Title IV complaints more seriously, or perhaps another was dismissing complaints as part of a continued pattern of coverup. I certainly hope this isn't happening, but there's only one way to find out, given how clergy discipline is handled at the diocesan level.
4) Let's return to the report of the Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct's report and recommendations of 2018. Commissioned in the wake of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, this Special Committee issued an extensive report, with a number of recommendations in various areas.
A summary can be found here:
Specifically, we need to
--Make sure there is followup and compliance on recommendations enacted.
--Return to the matters **not** addressed. Some recommendations were referred to interim bodies. How have they addressed these referrals? Some recommendations were referred for further study. Where are those studies? We all know referral to a committee for study is often where things go to die.
I want to reiterate, throughout these recommendations, that I am calling for an independent, third-party study to provide for greater accountability. This is one of the things I appreciated most about being a seminary dean: we were accountable to an outside, third party entity -- our accrediting body. There was an accountability to requirements, standards, and practices in theological education that at times I have longed for while serving in other ministries in the church with no such external accountability.
5) Any such report should find a way to incorporate entities such as nursing or retirement homes, Episcopal schools, Episcopal colleges, and other non-diocesan and non-parish based church organizations. The amount of abuse covered up by Episcopal secondary schools alone is shocking. Places like St. Stephen's in Austin, St. George's in Rhode Island, and St. Paul's in New Hampshire, and others, are all already in the public record.
6) Let's close the loopholes in our current misconduct system and find a way to have lay persons and clergy serving from other denominations accountable for sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.
I have called for this a number of times on this blog over the years, devoting a whole posting to it almost a year ago. Lay persons were originally accountable in the first draft of Title IV revision proposed in 2006-2009, only with accountability for lay persons dropped in the version adopted at the 2009 General Convention.
If a lay person commits sexual harassment or misconduct, the only recourse are civil or criminal options. There's nothing to prevent a lay person from simply moving to another diocese and getting another position as volunteer or staff and being once again in a position to commit misconduct.
If a clergyperson from another denomination commits misconduct, the only recourse is to report them to their denomination of origin; if that denomination declines to do anything, there's nothing to prevent that clergyperson from serving simply moving on to another setting and be in a position to offend in another denomination.
There absolutely needs to be procedures for respecting due process and to protect persons both bringing charges and to protect persons accused of misconduct.
When I mentioned making lay persons accountable solely for sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, one comment I got was this: "We can't do that, clergy and bishops will just abuse the system to intimidate or get rid of lay people they don't like or who get in their way."
You know what? EVERY SINGLE TIME the clergy misconduct canons have been revised, those arguments were made: these changes will allow lay people to abuse the system to get back at clergy they don't like! I was alive for the 1994 and 2009 revisions, and for the 2018 Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Task Force Recommendations, and heard those concerns.
You know what? We built in provisions of due process and confidentiality, and instances of false accusations or accusations brought to defame or injure someone are incredibly rare.
We did not let this be an excuse for revising our procedures for discipline of clergy, and should not let it be an excuse for developing a system to hold lay persons accountable for sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the church.
Usually, when the church says "We can't do that" it means "I don't want to do that because it'd be hard and/or inconvenient."
To show it can be done, just over the course of one afternoon I drafted a revision of the Title IV myself to address accountability for lay persons and clergy from other denominations with regards to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment and included it in my blog post devoted to the topic. Here's a link to the proposed revision of Title IV:
You know, I've written hundreds of blog posts over 11 years. The blog post on closing the loopholes in Title IV from September 2021 is one of the least-read blog posts I've ever posted. That post literally got 1/20th of the usual traffic of one of my blog postings. Episcopalworld loves to read blog posts where I sputter in rage and quote 1990s hip hop songs, those get all the clicks, but for one of the most important and serious topics I've blogged on, hardly anybody cared.
I still have never gotten a single email or text message or even Facebook or Twitter comment from anybody in governance in the Episcopal Church about my proposal.
So I have come to accept the Episcopal Church as a whole just doesn't really care about holding lay people and clergy from other denominations accountable for sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, but I won't stop pointing out that we can take tangible steps to close important loopholes in our sexual misconduct policies.
Scripture tells a haunting story of the first effort to deny and deflect accountability.
"And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’"
In response, God cries out:
"What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!"
These words from Genesis came to mind as I was reading various articles on the sexual
"What have you done?"
misconduct report produced by the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the survivors described her experience of being attacked by leadership for coming forward with her account of abuse by her pastor as "a soul murder." That of all entities in the world, the church she loved, that the represented Jesus to her, would not only be the perpetrator of abuse, but then actively cover it up, was like murdering her soul.
These words from Scripture came to mind as I remembered watching that 2018 livestream from General Convention, when the very words of people who suffered abuse at the hands of the church were spoken. I thought, "We have heard these voices crying out!"
As God shouts to Cain at the death of Abel, so too should we wail at the sins of the church:
"What have we done?"
God is shouting to us as God shouted to Cain:
Let us continue to listen to those voices that have cried out. Let us continue to strive to be a church that is a place where all God's people are safeguarded, where there is accountability, even for those in power.
Are we the keepers of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Commission an outside, independent, third-party audit and report.