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Southern Baptists combat sex abuse as critics rally

Jules Woodson (right) of Colorado Springs, Colo., handed out fliers while demonstrating outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala. Woodson spoke through tears as she described being abused sexually by a Southern Baptist minister.
Jules Woodson (right) of Colorado Springs, Colo., handed out fliers while demonstrating outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala. Woodson spoke through tears as she described being abused sexually by a Southern Baptist minister. (Julie Bennett/Associated Press)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.— Confronting an unprecedented sex-abuse crisis, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s national meeting voted Tuesday to make it easier to expel churches that mishandle abuse cases.

The Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, said the SBC faced a ‘‘defining moment’’ that would shape the church for generations to come.

‘‘This is not a distraction from the mission,’’ Greear said of the fight against sex abuse. ‘‘Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church.’’

The SBC’s meeting comes as US Catholic bishops convene in Baltimore to address a widening sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist Convention says it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the United States, with 76.3 million members as of last year — down from 81.2 million in 2005.

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Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the SBC’s 2018 national meeting in Dallas, after which Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem. Greear was unanimously re-elected to a second term on Tuesday.

Pressure on the SBC has intensified in recent months due in part to articles by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News asserting that hundreds of Southern Baptist clergy and staff have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, while leaving more than 700 victims with little in the way of justice or apologies.

Stung by the allegations, SBC leaders forwarded to the delegates meeting in Birmingham a proposed amendment to the SBC constitution making clear that an individual church could be expelled for mishandling or covering up sex-abuse cases. It was endorsed by the delegates, as was a similar proposal designating racism as grounds for expulsion.

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Delegates also voted to assign the SBC’s credentials committee to review claims against churches with regard to sexual abuse and racial discrimination.

Outside the convention hall, about two dozen demonstrators handed out fliers to Southern Baptists and held up signs with messages including: ‘‘End church abuse cover-ups’’ and ‘‘Be like Jesus: Take abuse seriously & love victims.’’

Some participants at a rally said they are abuse survivors and have been attending denominational meetings for years. First-time attendee Jules Woodson spoke through tears as she described being abused sexually by a Southern Baptist minister.

‘‘He remains in the pulpit. I’ve reached out to him personally and he refuses to respond. And so I’m asking the SBC to hold him accountable,’’ said Woodson, of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Ahead of the meeting, there was a surge of debate related to the Southern Baptist Convention’s doctrine of ‘‘complementarianism’’ that calls for male leadership in the home and the church.

Particularly contentious is a widely observed prohibition on women preaching in Southern Baptist churches. Those recently challenging that policy include Beth Moore, a prominent author and evangelist who runs a Houston-based ministry for women.

‘‘What I want to say to my own family of Southern Baptists: Our family is sick. We need help,’’ Moore said at a panel discussion Monday night. ‘‘We have this built-in dis-esteem for women and it’s got to change.’’

A female delegate to the SBC meeting, Alex Hebert, said she was pleased with the denomination’s overall effort to address sexual misconduct.

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‘‘I think there’s a huge push toward repentance and looking into what we can do to prevent that from happening and to prevent people who have been participating in that’’ from being part of church leadership, said Hebert, holding her 1-year-old son in her arms.

Hebert, 26, said she is very comfortable in her own Southern Baptist congregation, Calvary Baptist Church in Kemp, Texas, where her husband is head pastor.