GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) – Speakers from outside and inside the Southern Baptist Convention addressed the topic of sexual abuse and churches’ response Oct. 3-5 at a national conference.
Survivors and advocates pointed to missteps and a desire for repentance in the SBC, while Southern Baptist leaders urged pastors and churches not to fall short in caring for victims and preventing abuse during the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s (ERLC) sixth annual national conference hosted in partnership with the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group. An audience of more than 1,650 registered for the event, which was titled “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis.”
In the final address of the conference, leading survivors’ advocate Rachael Denhollander said Southern Baptists need to understand victims’ fear of “coming forward is very, very well-founded, because most of the time when they speak up they are trampled on, and this has happened in the SBC over and over and over again.”
“It is up to you to change the tone and the culture,” Denhollander told Southern Baptists in the audience. “It is up to you to elect people who are going to tell the truth and fight for survivors. It is up to you to surround them with care and support so that [the] fear of coming forward becomes no longer well-founded.”
Dehollander described how Jennifer Lyell shared her story of sexual abuse earlier this year with Baptist Press. The subsequent story issued by Baptist Press, Dehollander said, changed phrases about Lyell being sexually abused to being in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former seminary professor, implying that the relationship was a consensual affair rather than sexual abuse. Since publication of the article, Lyell tried on multiple occasions either to have the story removed from the Baptist Press website or to have it include an editorial note about what she considered to be “inaccurate language.” The story was removed from the Baptist Press website on July 30, but Lyell still has called for Baptist Press to publicly acknowledge its use of inaccurate language.
In response, Jonathan Howe, elected last month as the Executive Committee’s vice president for communications, released a statement Oct. 5 saying he had been made aware of the Lyell news story and “the decisions made by Baptist Press at the time of publication.”
“I’m also aware that the story omitted all references to abuse and a lack of consent to sexual activity and was framed as ‘a morally inappropriate relationship.’ This led to a general understanding that what happened between Dr. David Sills and Ms. Jennifer Lyell was a consensual affair. As I understand it, that is not accurate.”
“As the official news service for the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press should be known for integrity, truth and accuracy,” added Howe. “Ensuring that is my top priority.”
Baptist Press released a statement Oct. 15 stating they failed to convey Lyell’s story accurately. Read the full statement here.
ERLC Executive Vice President Phillip Bethancourt issued a warning from within the convention, questioning whether the SBC will have a future if it does not correct its missteps on sexual abuse.
“[I]f the system is more important than the survivors, then the system is not worth saving,” he said. “If we aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to care for survivors more than ourselves, then we ought to die as a denomination. What good is it if we cooperate for the global concern of salvation if we aren’t willing to cooperate for the generous care of survivors?”
The conference came after more than a year of growing awareness of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches and entities, as well as a lack of accountability in many instances over many years.
In a series of investigative reports that began in February, the Houston Chronicle – joined by the San Antonio Express-News – found about 400 leaders and volunteers in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted, taken plea deals or been credibly accused of sex crimes or misconduct involving more than 700 victims during the past two decades.
Ronnie Floyd, SBC Executive Committee president, was asked on the same panel why it has taken Southern Baptists so long to respond to sexual abuse.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “What I do know is that there’s a pretty unhealthy culture at times in the Southern Baptist Convention, which personifies probably the unhealthy culture of many of our churches. And the more unhealthy a church is, the less likely they are going to be able to deal with whatever may come their way, especially this kind of a very difficult issue.”
Floyd urged Southern Baptists to “establish a healthy culture together” and encouraged pastors to preach on sexual abuse from the Bible.
The three-day conference included testimonies from abuse survivors, who all received standing ovations after they spoke. It also included a time of lament and prayers for survivors.
In addition to speakers and panels during the main sessions, the event also featured breakout sessions that addressed such matters as how to prevent abuse in churches and how to help survivors heal.
Gary Haugen – founder and CEO of International Justice Mission, the world’s largest anti-slavery organization – said he has learned in the group’s more than 20 years “the struggle for justice is not about whether we care. It’s about whether, by the strength of Jesus, we persevere.”
“In the fight against abuse, if the good guys do not go away, they will eventually prevail,” he told the audience. “[F]rom this moment forward, this fight is all about one thing – the godly power of perseverance.
“For in all matters of justice and righteousness, the Word of God is clear – God is not mocked,” Haugen said. “So do not grow weary in doing what is right for at the right time you will reap a harvest if you do not give up.”
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.