Jonathan Merritt: Southern Baptists call off the culture war
One of the gravest miscalculations any organization in such a situation can make is, well, miscalculation. Many cases of sexual abuse are not reported to authorities at the time a crime is committed, so initial reports are often just the beginning. After the Globe’s 2002 story ran, Catholic leaders largely underestimated the scope of the problem. As hundreds of additional cases of abuse have surfaced in the subsequent years, the bishops’ credibility has eroded. If you can’t trust what your church leaders say, you may stop showing up to hear them preach.
The true threat to Southern Baptists is not what we know; it’s what has yet to be revealed. If this scandal follows the pattern of other denominations, we can reasonably expect more cases to surface in the coming months and years, which will pose an ongoing challenge to the convention. The response should begin with a thorough and public investigation of the nature and scope of the problem itself. In this case, the media has done for Southern Baptists what they should have done themselves. It’s time for the denomination to get its own house in order, and that must begin with an understanding of the depth of the problem.
Any investigation should also focus on any failures on the part of denominational leaders to prevent these abuses. We already know that denominational leaders failed to develop a database that tracks sexual-abuse allegations in churches, despite repeated pleas from members to do so. The organization must admit its error—and correct it.
Read: Why does the Catholic Church keep failing on sex abuse?
That may require restructuring the denomination’s polity. Upon learning of the investigations, the interim head of the SBC’s executive committee, D. August Boto, lamented the abuse but said the denomination “doesn’t have the authority to force churches to report sexual abuse to a central registry.” Boto was part of a group of leaders in 2008 that drafted an official rejection of reform proposals.
It’s correct that Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, unlike Catholic churches, and are not under the authority of a hierarchy. And yet claims that the denomination’s hands are tied in this matter will come as a shock to the many churches that have been censored or kicked out of the denomination due to their acceptance of LGBTQ people, ordination of women, or more progressive interpretations of the Bible. The denomination does actually possess the power to impose standards on its member churches, but heretofore protecting children from sex predators hasn’t been prioritized to that level.
On Monday, Southern Baptist Convention President J. D. Greear suggested that the denomination amend its governing documents so that congregations showing “a wanton disregard for sexual abuse and for caring for the survivors are not in good fellowship with this convention.” If it can be proven that a church covered up sexual-abuse allegations, he said, the group should seriously consider removing it from the denomination. But Greear’s role is unpaid and largely honorific, so this is only a suggestion. Denominational messengers will have to decide whether to heed his advice at their annual gathering this summer in Birmingham, Alabama.