Faith-based

How the Southern Baptist Convention Became a Safe Haven for Abusers

Sexual assault within the denomination has been rampant for years.

A Houston Chronicle copy whose front page displays a story on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention
A photo taken on Feb. 12, 2019, shows the front page of the Houston Chronicle featuring a story on accusations of abuse in Southern Baptist churches. Loren Elliott/AFP via Getty Images

Jules Woodson moved to the Woodlands in Texas when she was 5 and joined a local Baptist church, Woodlands Parkway. It was part of the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., and one of the most conservative. When Woodson was a teenager, she was allegedly sexually propositioned by a youth pastor named Andy Savage; word started getting around the church. Savage admitted he made what he called a “mistake” and resigned—though he eventually found work at another Southern Baptist Church, and then a megachurch. Woodson finally went public with her story in 2018, and at his megachurch, Andy Savage apologized to the congregation for what he called a “sexual incident.”

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But Woodson is not alone in her experience: Abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention has been rampant for years. In 2019, a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed widespread sexual assault within the denomination. One reporter, Robert Downen, uncovered troubling details that prompted the SBC to commission its own internal review, conducted by an independent organization called Guidepost Solutions. The review confirmed a lot of what the Chronicle had already found. And earlier this month, the SBC announced it was being investigated by the Department of Justice. Some survivors, like Woodson, hope the investigation might lead to crucial changes, but they’re unsure whether justice is possible or if substantive reforms will be implemented. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Downen about why the Department of Justice is taking a serious look at the Southern Baptist Convention, and whether anything truly change in a religious denomination steeped in traditionalism and, until now, cloaked in secrecy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary C. Curtis: Over two decades, roughly 380 SBC-affiliated leaders and volunteers were accused of sexual misconduct. Guidepost, which was called in by the SBC to conduct an internal review, released its report in May. Why was it so significant?

Robert Downen: The report was pretty explosive. It had 400 pages with footnotes, and at the center of the report was this man named Augie Boto, the SBC’s longtime lawyer. What Guidepost found was that he and a handful of others had been routinely calling survivors “distractions from evangelism” and saying the fight to protect children was a satanic scheme. At the same time he was doing that, he was denying the survivors requests for reforms. In public, he said those wouldn’t be effective or practical because of the SBC structure. But then behind closed doors, he was actually engaging with some of those reforms, including this internal list that’s gotten a lot of attention.

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As it turned out, while Boto was publicly denying issues of widespread abuse and shooting down reforms, he was secretly keeping a list of hundreds of known predators within the church.

And he doesn’t seem to have done anything with it. I think that’s the shocking thing for a lot of people. Survivors had requested for so long that there be this internal database that churches could consult when making hiring decisions. I think the list was a major finding because it really did just kind of lay bare the type of deceit that SBC leaders have been engaged in for so long.

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What do we know about the investigations so far? Do we know exactly what the Justice Department is looking at?

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The details of the investigation are still very, very sparse. I doubt we’re going to get much information because it’s wrapped up in grand jury proceedings, which are secretive. I talked to the SBC’s lawyers this week and they confirmed to me that they were subpoenaed for a full, unredacted version of Boto’s list, as well as some supplemental materials from Guidepost.

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I think there are a lot of people hearing about this investigation and feeling that it’s reminiscent of what’s been going on with the Catholic Church and all these state attorneys general investigations I think this is going to play out much differently from an investigatory standpoint because the structures of the two organizations are vastly different.

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How so?

The Roman Catholic Church is hierarchical: You have a pope and then cardinals and then bishops and then dioceses. Dictates and decrees flow downward. The SBC is totally the opposite: It’s kind of a coalition of 47,000 churches. While they do generally agree on theology and come together to fund mission work, there really aren’t too many other unifying things about them. Like, you just have to check a few boxes to become a Southern Baptist church.

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So it is a very democratic system. Every June, messengers from these churches get together and decide what they want to do: They vote on reform, talk about budgets, basically hold an annual business meeting. Then for the 363 other days of the year, the SBC executive committee—the group at the center of this report from May and also under investigation by the DOJ—is supposed to serve as a stand-in for the 47,000 churches.

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How will this decentralized structure affect the DOJ investigation?

My guess is DOJ is going to focus primarily on the executive committee because it is the stand-in. When it comes to trying to investigate the whole Southern Baptist Convention, that’s almost an impossible thing to do because you’re talking about 47,000 churches that literally just cooperate together. I think investigation is important, in that this is the highest and the most forceful accountability this group has ever faced. But at the same time, the polity of the SBC is going to make this a more difficult type of investigation than a lot of people realize.

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Local church autonomy is central to the investigation: How much control and oversight the executive committee has could determine its culpability. Some argue SBC leaders are seldom aware of what goes on at individual churches. However, the executive committee has stepped in and severed ties with churches in the past for allowing LGBTQ members, for instance.

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Up until our reporting, two of the things that could get you booted from the SBC were to have a female pastor or be affirming of homosexuality. The SBC governing documents explicitly say that those two things are banned. Having a convicted sex offender on staff did not warrant removal from the SBC. That’s changed in the wake of our reporting.

In the wake of revelations of widespread abuse in the SBC, a number of survivors and even some leaders have been calling for concrete policy reforms. At the annual convention this summer, SBC members voted to require a public database of known predators within the organization, primarily to give SBC churches something to reference when making hiring decisions and to be more transparent about abuse.

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That was passed at their June meeting in June pretty much unanimously. The SBC is in the process of discussing a care fund for survivors and setting up a confidential tip line. There are a whole host of things they’re pursuing right now, but these are very much first steps. More broadly, I don’t think it would be fair to say the SBC is definitely moving toward much more substantive reform.

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One of the things that I don’t think will change anytime soon is the question of how the SBC treats LGBTQ people. I talked to so many people who were abused as young boys by their male pastors and stayed in silence and suffered so profoundly because of this context that views homosexuality as an absolute, unforgivable sin. They felt such profound shame because of being abused by someone who’s also in the context of your church and religious beliefs, like turning you into the ultimate sinner and giving you this ultimate shame. Unfortunately, that’s not something that has been talked about enough in the SBC, but it is a compounding factor in the reason why so many people don’t come forward. You could say the same thing regarding purity culture when it comes to young girls being abused. When you compound that with the religious trauma and spiritual shame that accompanies clergy abuse—especially in these rural settings where you don’t have a lot of support systems outside of your church—it really is a perfect system for abusers.

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Regardless of how the DOJ investigation unfolds, the whole scandal has tarnished the reputation of the SBC. How do you think this situation will affect the convention moving forward, both the executive committee and for individual churches?

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That remains to be seen. But over the last few years, the SBC’s membership was already in a nosedive, even moreso than the average American Christian denominations that have seen people leaving. You have one group that is leaving because of the SBC’s handling of abuse, of race, of all these type of issues. On the other hand, you have a group of people who are leaving because they feel like the SBC liberalized, so they found MAGA preachers online who fit with their political views.

This DOJ investigation also ramps up the question at a more local level, like, everyone knows our denomination is under federal investigation right now, so do we even want to be a part of this? And what are we getting from the SBC versus what are giving to them? I think it’s all going to be amplified by the DOJ’s scrutiny.

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