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Southern Baptist Convention leaders suppressed reports of sexual abuse

Southern Baptist Convention leaders suppressed reports of sexual abuse
The annual meeting of the Souther Baptist Convention held in St. Louis in 2002. Southern Baptist leaders suppressed reports of child molestation and other sexual abuse within the largest protestant denomination in the United States for nearly two decades. File Photo by mk/bc/Van Payne/ UPI | License Photo

May 23 (UPI) -- Southern Baptist leaders suppressed reports of child molestation and other sexual abuse within the largest protestant denomination in the United States for nearly two decades.

The executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention released the results of a third-party investigation Sunday, conducted by GuidePost Solutions, which also said that accusations that a former president of the denomination sexually assaulted a woman in 2010 were "credible."

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Investigators said that denomination leaders called accusers "opportunistic" and "professional victims" with a "hidden agenda of lawsuits" who wanted to "burn things to the ground" while some even supported alleged abusers.

The church was resistance to reform initiatives and turned down the opportunity to hold a sexual abuse education conference in 2014, the report found.

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The denomination even used its communications arm, the Baptist Press, to "portray survivors in an unflattering light and mischaracterize allegations of abuse."

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In one instance, Baptist Press staff even rewrote a first-person account from a church leader, Jennifer Lyell, who herself was a victim of sexual assault to read as if the encounter with her abuser was consensual which opened her up to "vicious attacks" from people on Facebook.

She was called "a bitter jealous woman and an adulterer, and some suggested she should be fired," the report reads. Eventually, after public outcry, the story was retracted and Baptist Press issued an apology to Lyell.

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The 288-page report was commissioned last year during the denomination's annual meeting during which thousands of local church pastors nationwide demanded that the Southern Baptist Convention probe its own mishandling of such allegations. The convention will hold its annual meeting again in June.

The executive committee's response to sexual abuse allegations "was largely driven" by senior leaders including general counsel D. August "Augie" Boto and outside lawyers retained by the denomination, James Jordan and James Guenther -- who had provided legal advice as early as 1966.

"Their main concern was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC. As this report documents, those who reported abuse were often ignored or told that the SBC had no power to take action," the GuidePost report reads.

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"Mr. Guenther advised that [executive committee] staff should not undertake to elicit further information or details about reports of abuse, so that the [executive committee] not assume a legal duty to take further action."

The report found that executive committee staff members had maintained a list of accused ministers in Baptist churches which included their names and relevant news articles that were not shared by Boto with the denomination's trustees.

The most recent list prepared by the staff member contained the names of 703 abusers with 409 believed to be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention at some point in time, according to the report.

"Despite collecting these reports for more than 10 years, there is no indication that Dr. Oldham, Mr. Boto, or anyone else, took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches," the report reads.

The investigators found that nine people accused of sexual abuse remain in active ministry and two of them are affiliated with churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Rather than focusing on these accused ministers, some EC leaders turned against the very people trying to shine a light on sexual abuse," the report reads.

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Steve Gaines, the former president of the convention, admitted to investigators that as senior pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church he delayed reporting a staff minister's prior sexual abuse of a child out of "heartfelt concern and compassion for the minister."

Another former president, Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas, allegedly allowed a church leader accused of abusing young boys to be dismissed quietly without alerting police in 1989.

Paige Patterson, another former president of the denomination, was dismissed from his Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary position in 2018 after it was revealed he told a student not to report a rape in 2003 and said in 2015 that he could "break down" another student who reported sexual abuse.

During the investigation, a pastor and his wife came forward to report that former president Johnny Hunt -- who led the church from 2008 to 2010 -- had sexually assaulted the wife during a beach vacation that year.

Hunt was accused of pulling down the woman's shorts and remarking about her body while alone in the couple's condo, next door to his, before pinning her to the couch as she tried to pull them back up.

He then allegedly got on top of her and pulled up her shirt while "violently kissing her" and forcibly groping her, according to investigators.

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Roy Blankenship, a pastor who provided counseling to the couple after the incident, allegedly said during a meeting with them and Hunt that none of them "could never talk about what had happened" or it would have a devastating impact on thousands of churches.

Blankenship told investigators that Hunt had kissed the woman and touched her breasts over her clothes but did not recall details of him pulling down her pants.

The bombshell report also noted that former denomination vice president Judge Paul Pressler is the defendant in a civil sexual abuse lawsuit filed in 2017 alleging that he repeatedly sexually abused a 14-year-old boy. Two other men submitted separate affidavits in the case also accusing Pressler of sexual misconduct.

"We grieve for what has been revealed in this report. We lament on behalf of survivors for how they have not been protected and cared for as they deserve and as God demands," the Southern Baptist Convention said in a statement.

"With broken hearts, we want to lead the way by publicly repenting for what has happened in our convention. We implore our Southern Baptist family to respond to this report with deep repentance and a commitment to the ongoing moral demands of the gospel as it relates to sexual abuse."

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The Southern Baptist Convention said it would call for the implementation of reform initiatives for a period of three years during its meeting in June.

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