Edited by Spencer Ackerman
AS A CHRISTIAN, the only comfort I can offer amid revelations of widespread sexual abuse facilitated by a generation of Southern Baptist leadership is this: When they get to Hell, they’re going to be surprised.
There are a couple of things you need to know here before we get going. The first is that Baptists are an interesting and unique denomination. While it might seem obvious to compare its sex-abuse scandal with that of the Roman Catholic Church, the two structures are very different. The Baptists are bound up inextricably with American institutions, especially the Republican Party. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is only a subset of Baptists, not the sum total of them. But with 16 million adherents, it is not merely the largest Baptist denomination but the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the United States.
The SBC schismed from the rest of the Baptist church in 1845. Northern Baptists demanded that slaveholders be expelled from their churches. Southern Baptists, whose slaveholding congregants were among their wealthiest and most influential, demurred. For this reason, if you travel the rural South today, you will sometimes run across two Baptist churches in very small towns in heavily Black areas of Alabama and Mississippi: one for the white folks and one for the Black folks.
For all that, Baptists are fanatically independent. Individual Baptist churches are allowed to do what they want, within reason. The executive committee of the convention—the primary subject of this article—has to abide by the will of the “messengers." The messengers are delegates from the local (usually state-level) conventions that voluntarily affiliate with the SBC.
In 1979, two men, Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson (joined a year later by August Boto and others) began executing a kind of bureaucratic coup within the SBC that they had plotted starting in 1967.
Claiming to hold “a high view of scripture” in supposed contrast to their opponents, Pressler and Patterson routed liberal Baptists out of positions of leadership and installed fundamentalists whose understanding of the Bible began and ended with the fuzzy idea of “inerrancy." Inerrancy holds that every word of the Bible is inspired by God. Should sections of the Bible seem to contradict other sections, the problem lies with the imperfect understanding of the reader. Questions like “which translation is divinely inspired” and “how can greater understanding reconcile straightforward contradiction” and “what does ‘inspired’ mean” are the province of apostates and probably the Devil. With the takeover complete by the early 1980’s, that meant a newly political church. Immediately, with Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a clearly Baptist successor to the Christian Voice1, the SBC mobilized its congregants against Democrats in the name of a strict sexual morality inspired by the Puritans who are their church’s 17th-century ancestors.
The last thing you need to know is that the Southern Baptist Convention, for all its faults, has among its laity and even its minority leadership some genuinely good and brave people, especially among the vast ranks of its devout victims. That is why its organs are unusually capable of things like pitilessly digging up the past to rightly condemn the slaveholding schismatics. On Thursday, the church’s investigators published a long-awaited corollary to its bombshell report, and one for which survivors have begged the denomination for decades: a list—redacted in places—of abuse perpetrators, something the Catholic church has never done. Ultimately, that is why this story and so many others are possible.
ON SUNDAY, Guidepost Solutions, a third-party investigator hired by the SBC to investigate the denomination’s appalling perfidy in its dealings with victims and perpetrators of sexual misconduct, released the results of that investigation in the form of a 288-page report years in the making.
The mere knowledge that the report had been commissioned prompted resignations and withdrawals at the highest levels of the SBC. Out was the denomination’s president, Ronnie Floyd, and its counsel of record for more than fifty years, James Guenther. Both left over the denomination’s decision to allow investigators access to correspondence covered under attorney-client privilege, which Guenther, Floyd, and several others in Baptist leadership had tried to prevent. After reading the report I am frankly surprised all of them are not also living under assumed names in Venezuela.
In 2007, Guenther sent the head of the SBC’s Executive Committee a memo marked VERY VERY CONFIDENTIAL. The Catholic Church had been in the news constantly over its priests’ generations of abuse of small children, and the Committee knew enough about the conduct of its own member churches’ leaders to understand that it, too, was vulnerable to the kind of investigative reporting that earned the Boston Globe its Pulitzers and made Marty Baron a household name. How, the Committee’s executive Vice President August Boto wanted to know, could the Southern Baptist Convention avoid getting got?
The answer was complex, Guenther wrote in his memo, but there were models he knew about. In order to keep pedophiles and other predators out of its ranks and avoid embarrassment, The Baptist General Convention of Texas “maintains a 'confidential file of church incidents related to sexual misconduct of clergy,'” Guenther acknowledged. “[The Texas convention] says that it relies on churches to provide information, and it 'strongly' encourages churches to share their experiences of clergy sexual misconduct,' presumably including reporting to the BGCT.” Internal quotes come directly from someone in authority at the Texas convention, apparently. Guenther goes on to describe the system in the same letter:
The information “includes such items as statements of confession by offending clergy; documentation of legal conviction, testimony or depositions of victims and accounts of church action when confession or conviction are not forthcoming. Testimonies and or depositions will aid legal counsel for the Baptist General Convention of Texas to make determination of substantial evidence.” It declares:
A case is put into the BGCT file only when a minister:
Confesses to the abuse of sexual misconduct (sic);
there is a legal conviction; or
There is substantial evidence that the abuse took place.
The issue of whether substantial evidence is present is always reviewed by Convention attorneys.
The Texas convention’s method for disseminating the identities of child molesters and predatory counselors is frankly a master class in how to compartmentalize sensitive intelligence. To determine if a prospective new hire is in the database, “an elected officer of the church’ or of ‘Baptist institutions and organizations’” must make a request in writing, in which the requestor also swears to his identity as a duly-elected officer. The request must be related to “a named person,” meaning you can’t just ask, hey, got any child molesters? And the response is always binary, addressing only the narrow question of whether or not the person is in the database, not what he (usually he) is there for. Not what kind of evidence has been compiled against him. Not whether he had any accomplices whom the church, or the police, should know about.
Guenther recommended against doing something like this. For one thing, if you compile enough witness interviews and perpetrator statements, state-licensed lawyers like Guenther and Boto can very quickly find themselves professionally obligated to report them to the authorities, resulting in exactly the kind of national incident Boto hoped to avoid.
For another—and this Guenther left unsaid—the power structure of the Baptist church had solidified around men whose authority hinged on the repression of women and LGBT people; their public image was of happy ascetics whose vibrant family lives were a product of their refusal to have premarital sex, countenance feminism, or indulge homosexual lust. The allegations, surely at least suspected among the denomination’s conservative elite, that Paul Pressler had been molesting and raping teenage boys since 1977, sometimes picking them up at Bible studies, probably would have complicated that image.
Again, it’s worth remembering the influence of the Southern Baptist Convention here. Pressler was a judge on Texas’s 14th circuit. Pressler’s business partner Jared Woodfill, who allegedly helped cover up his assaults, is the the head of the Harris County, Tx. Republican Party. Woodfill singlehandedly torpedoed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in Houston by shrieking about the danger posed by trans women in ladies’ rooms. That built on a long institutional history. In 1989, future SBC president Jack Graham allowed the music minister of the church he pastored, John Langworthy, to quietly leave the church after molesting little boys. Langworthy was arrested and indicted decades later after he confessed to abusing kids at two more churches, but not before his lawyer, Philip Gunn, had contacted his victims “to discuss a resolution,” according to Mississippi Today. Gunn is the Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives.
For 15 years, the denomination stonewalled when survivors, often led by saintly gadfly Christa Brown, agitated in support of creating a public database of credibly accused sex pests circulating among Baptist churches. Baptists, the executive committee always said, were an independent bunch; intruding from the top into matters of such sensitivity would be exceeding the meager authority accorded them by their member churches. That sort of thing simply wouldn’t comport with the executive committee’s Christlike humility.
Boto had a database, obviously. He just kept it a secret, and lied about its feasibility. "In a May 2019 email to Dr. Ronnie Floyd, the then-EC President, EC Vice President Dr. Roger 'Sing' Oldham acknowledged that '[f]or the past decade, I have been regularly sending Augie news reports of Baptist ministers who are arrested for sexual abuse, for his awareness,'" the Guidepost investigators write.
Then Oldham added something I’m still thinking about, and probably will think about for a long time. The abuse reporting "hasn't slowed down since the [Houston] Chronicle articles started on February 10.” When the data was in disparate newspapers and church newsletters, its commonalities were invisible. When that data was assembled, it accused the executive committee of monstrous negligence, and Boto kept that accusation quiet. The database was both a document of Baptist ministers’ depravity and the progenitor of its impunity.
Boto confirmed the existence of the database on the same email chain: “Yes,” he wrote. “We are collecting them, and may even post them in some way, but we’d have to really examine the potential liabilities that would stem therefrom.“ At the time of the Guidepost inquest, there were 703 names on the list, the majority of whom were affiliated directly with the denomination – meaning, as far as I can tell from the report, that they held positions of direct authority, rather than being volunteers.
As a journalist, let me address Boto’s question for any wondering, completely gratis: There is obviously zero liability in posting articles published in a newspaper. Collecting crime blotter stories is an ugly business and lots of people do it in skewed and unpleasant ways. But disseminating stories of the criminal convictions of clergy and prominent laypeople for purposes of protecting your coreligionists from hiring them into positions of authority seems to be very clearly the right way to do things. Boto collected the reports for ten years. Nine people on his list are still in active ministry.
There are two principles that the executive committee of the SBC used to excuse its inaction. Both of them are the rankest horseshit, and both reveal themselves under investigation to be just what they smell like.
The first was that were the SBC to gather information related to sexual misconduct among its member churches, having enough of that knowledge without acting on it might be illegal, and they didn’t want to do anything illegal. Of course, if you compile enough witness interviews to demonstrate conclusively that a pastor in your denomination molested a teenager or sexually harassed or assaulted a woman seeking counseling from him—a very common occurrence—and was likely to reoffend, you can avoid illegality by calling the fucking police.
The second principle is that Baptists are autonomous and so the executive committee has no authority to discipline individual churches. To people who believe this, all I would say is go get married to a same-sex partner in a Southern Baptist church and watch how fast that church is forced to join the ABC-USA.
A COUPLE DOCTRINAL NOTES are important here.
Responding to the allegations, the current interim leaders of the post-exodus executive committee, Rolland Slade and Willie McLaurin, said they would “meet this challenge through prudent and prayerful application, and […] must do so with Christ-like compassion.”
I don’t want to bully Slade and McLaurin too hard here; they seem like they’re sincerely trying to fix things and were nowhere near the abuse, as far as I can tell. But if you are speaking for this group that has horribly, unforgivably wronged so many people, especially little kids, how are you still imagining yourself in Jesus’s shoes? The duty of the Southern Baptist Convention is to repent. Its conservative legalist leaders have led them here, and to so many other places, in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus. They must give those leaders up, whether or not they’ve built literal graven images of them. The SBC’s patriarchal authoritarianism does not have its origins in scripture, however vigorously its proponents try to cloak it in scripture, yet their leaders still cling to it even as its fruit poisons their congregations.
The executive committee hates LGBT people so much it expelled four churches for affirming gay congregants and ministers last year, as it was in the midst of declaring it could do nothing to stop pastors elsewhere from raping counselees and molesting children. Slade and McLaurin were in charge of the committee then as now.
Sincere repentance is the most essential form of Christian worship. Many Christians are very good at apologizing. There are kinds of repentance that are more or less palatable publicly. Confessing to adultery, as many predators have done when the time came for them to leave a church or face the wrath of their accusers, effectively pleads down in public the charges of predation often leveled in private. Stories about abusive clergy, Protestant and Catholic, are more or less ubiquitous if you watch crime news for them, as I do. They often involve strategic confession by a child molester to “an affair.”
The Christian laity is so inured to these that they pass muster at mainstream news outlets for the faithful like Christianity Today and, of course, the PR arm of the SBC, the Baptist Press. They often backfire. But the frequency with which they recur suggests to me that they do not backfire often enough.
THREE INSTANCES follow that I think are worth your time. I’m going to try to be brief in their description because frankly I’m at capacity when it comes to violence against children this week. What I want to show is that these patterns recur in conservative Protestant churches; the problem is not purely the leadership of the SBC or bad actors within it, it is a problem that pervades evangelical churches, and it is for the entire faith, not a single denomination, to solve.
First there is this article in the “Leadership Journal” blog at Christianity Today, which has since been retracted after reader complaints. It is a first-person confessional article about an extramarital affair. The punchline at the end of the piece is that it is written from prison because the “affair” was with a child in the author’s ministry whom he had groomed and raped. (As a corrollary, I recommend Daniel Silliman’s excellent piece on misconduct at his own workplace, “Sexual Harassment Went Unchecked at Christianity Today.”)
Second, Eve Ettinger, writing at Patheos’s Friendly Atheist blog, made one of the most astute observations I can recall when they covered the incident:
The idea of total depravity2 has completely desensitized Christians from recognizing actual depravity. And apparently, Christianity Today felt pastors might want to take notes from a sex offender. I mean, all sin is sin, right?
As I've written here before, it is very easy to make use of the doctrine of total depravity in order to minimize the visceral distaste any reasonable person might feel upon hearing your confession, and there are lots of incentives for pastoral leaders to do so. Witness John Lowe II, pastor of a nondenominational church in Warsaw, Ind., who publicly resigned and gave a self-serving apology to "the church," confessing to an "affair" to a standing ovation. Then one of his parishioners stood up and said, all on video, "I was just 16 when you took my virginity on your office floor. Do you remember that? I know you do."
My final example is of Jennifer Lyell, who gave the Baptist Press an account of being repeatedly assaulted by her seminary professor, David Sills. Sills gaslit her horribly: He told her that his assaults were not her fault, as she believed, but a result of trauma of child sexual abuse she had experienced. According to the Guidepost report, Lyell came forward at the request of her bosses at Lifeway, the retail arm of the SBC, when Sills was named to a position in a missionary organization outside the convention. He had first assaulted her on a mission trip. Lyell was worried he would assault other women.
The Baptist Press reported and corroborated Lyell’s account. About twenty minutes before it was published, someone from the Baptist Press called Lyell to tell her that lawyers had instructed the story’s authors to pull all instances of the words “abuse” and “nonconsensual.” Instead, the copy characterized Sills’ predations as “a morally inappropriate relationship.” It was “as if Ms. Lyell was consensually involved with her alleged abuser,” Guidepost investigators wrote. This is part of the problem with the clear truth that many good people are Baptists: Lifeway is in the same hierarchy with the Baptist Press, insofar as there are Baptist hierarchies. But at Lifeway, Lyell’s bosses wanted to help her protect vulnerable women. Through the Baptist Press, the executive committee wanted to protect predators. Baptists will argue this point, I’m sure, but as someone who attended a Baptist university for four years, I see the same organization eliciting her disclosure and discrediting it.
Some of this stuff I can’t even paraphrase, it just has to be read as written to be believed:
Former EC Interim President and General Counsel Augie Boto testified as a character witness for Mark Schiefelbein, a gymnastics coach convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault against a minor. During his testimony at a post-conviction evidentiary hearing in September 2008, Mr. Boto identified himself as general trial counsel for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Imagine doing that. Imagine going to court to testify as a character witness for a child molester on behalf of a Christian denomination.
THE LAST THING I feel like I should say here is that I don’t know whether or not publishing a list of people who’ve been expelled from ministry because of credible reports of sexual predation is the right thing to do. This, too, seems to flatten all offenses into a single category called Sin, and while the Guidepost report is thorough and thoughtful, it is not God on His throne. People make mistakes, especially in the American criminal justice system. You get awful shit with the federal sex offender registry; vigilantism, at least. Convicted sex offenders actually have very low rates of recidivism, despite what you may have heard, because the social consequences are so dire, even life-threatening. Lots of people want someone to bully, and if you know for a fact someone is a sex criminal, our vengeful society will overlook pretty much anything that you do to them. Christianity is forgiveness. The danger is from unconvicted, unrepentant, unknown offenders.
But we Protestant Christians apparently had the choice between this and literally nothing, and I think that choice is obvious. The problem was not that deviants and monsters were being welcomed into churches as parishioners in a spirit of forgiveness, the problem was that they were being placed into positions of leadership over the people on whom they preyed. That is not a problem of corruption, or of an excess of compassion, as its defenders would have you believe. It is a problem of theology.
As Christians, we worship Jesus Christ. I don’t know who this god is who wants you to sacrifice the innocence of small children to him, but I don’t think he said “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” There are plenty of stories about an unimaginably powerful god who eats souls. They're not in the Bible, they’re in books by H. P. Lovecraft. They're written in the Supreme Alphabet. The only benefit to worshiping that god is that he’ll eat you last.
The doctrine is the problem. The doctrine must change.
More on this from me soon.
From Rick Perlstein’s indispensable Reaganland: “A particularly unflattering version had it that Falwell was recruited to placate Reverend Richard Grant of Christian Voice—after he had complained that any movement to politicize evangelicals "controlled by three Catholics and a Jew"—[Paul] Weyrich, [Richard] Viguerie, Terry Dolan, and the former Jew Howard Phillips—was "a sham." ↩
A Calvinist doctrine that holds that every person is completely sinful and incapable of any sinless behavior, even if they are not as bad as they could possibly be, which is very popular with controlling ministers of many Protestant denominations.