Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention
Mary Curtis: Hi listeners. Today’s episode contains descriptions of sexual assault. At the end of the show, we’ll give you a resource in case you or someone you love needs some support. When Jules Woodson was growing up in the eighties and nineties, her church was everything.
Speaker 2: The church was my family outside of my biological family, and I was basically born into the church.
Mary Curtis: Her family moved to The Woodlands, Texas, when she was five and joined a local Baptist church. Woodlands Parkway. It was part of the Southern Baptist Convention, also known as the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and one of the most conservative. When George was 14 and a youth pastor, Andy Savage joined Woodlands Parkway. Her mom was on the committee. Who picked him?
Speaker 2: Here we have this energetic, charismatic youth pastor coming on who is going to grow the youth group. And that was just exciting. And of course, I wanted to please him. I definitely looked up to him as a role model, as a leader.
Mary Curtis: The youth group spent a ton of time together, even when there were no organized events. One weekday during her senior year of high school, the group was hanging out at the church after school.
Speaker 2: We were sitting around playing music and Andy and another boy from the youth group played guitar. And so we would sit around and sing worship songs. And so we had just been hanging out doing that. And slowly, you know, people trickled out and eventually it was coming down to where it was just Andy and I.
Mary Curtis: Giles called her mom to ask if Andy could drive her home, and her mom agreed. So they got in the car.
Speaker 2: And he passed the turn to go to my house. And I was shocked and but I thought he was taking me to go get ice cream. And I started to question him and he just said, it’s a surprise. You’ll see. And and I trusted him. He ended up turning down a dark dirt road and. And he parked the truck and started touching me and my breasts and fondling me and asking me to perform oral sex on him.
Speaker 2: And I was 17. I grew up in the purity culture. I knew it was wrong. And because you weren’t supposed to even think about sex before marriage. But here was my pastor, my teacher, who I looked up to asking me to do something. And in that moment, I was scared. And we had no talk of consent or anything. So it was you just do what you’re told to do by male leadership. And I did it.
Speaker 2: And then he within I would say about 5 minutes of that going on. He immediately jumped out of the trap and went around back and fell to his knees and starts screaming, Oh, my God, oh my God, what have I done? You have to take this to the grave with you. And I’m bawling and I’m like, What in the world is going on?
Mary Curtis: When he got back in the truck and drove you home, what was that ride home like?
Speaker 2: There were no words. There were no words spoken at all. And I’m sitting there and I’m shaking. And I just could not wait to get home as soon as I got home. I immediately went to my room, closed my door, did not tell anybody, and I just cried myself to sleep.
Mary Curtis: The next day, Jules went to speak with the associate pastor at her church of all people. She figured a pastor, a person of utmost moral authority in her life would handle the situation.
Speaker 2: So I went into his office and I’m shaking and crying and I go over the details of what happened the night before. And when I’m telling him about the oral sex, he stops me. And he said, So you’re telling me you participated? And it was at that moment that I knew I was going to be blamed. I was being blamed for, quote, participating. And I felt even more shame, which I don’t even know how how that’s possible, but even more shame than I did the night before.
Speaker 2: So I ended up saying, you know, well, what’s going to happen now? And they said the church would handle it. And you don’t need to talk about this with anybody. And so I was silenced and shamed and sent off. And no one ever from the church, nobody came to me after I left that meeting, not once, not for any reason, not to ask more questions, not to do an internal investigation, not to see if I was okay. Nothing.
Speaker 2: Oh, my gosh. I start to cry because I can’t even tell you how. Alone I felt in that moment. I mean, these were the people to emulate. I loved them. I mean, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. I trusted them. I babysat their kids. And I felt in that moment, completely alone.
Mary Curtis: Word started getting around the church that something had happened. Andy Savage admitted he made what he called a mistake and resigned the congregation. They threw him a going away party.
Speaker 2: Everybody is, you know, showering with praise and saying, oh, Andy, we’re going to miss you. And meanwhile, the rumors are going around because nobody said the truth of what had happened. The rumors are going around that Andy and I had kissed. And so I was looked at as the Jezebel, the seductress. And, you know, Andy, quote, made a mistake. And. Everybody believed that. So I was completely shunned from my entire community. I mean, my whole family was really. We were the reason, Andy, this great Christian man who made a mistake was leaving.
Mary Curtis: Gil struggled with anxiety and depression for years. At one point, she was even hospitalized.
Speaker 2: You know, the physical assault of what Andy did was horrible, but it was the aftermath of being blamed in silence and ignored. After I reported that was the most traumatizing. And something people don’t realize is that when clergy sexual abuse happens, it’s not just the physical abuse and the emotional abuse, but it’s spiritual abuse. And I completely lost my identity, my personhood, my faith and my church were everything to me. And it was all gone in an instant.
Mary Curtis: Meanwhile, Andy Savage continued his life. He eventually found work at another Southern Baptist church and then a megachurch. Jules finally went public with her story in 2018, and at his megachurch, Andy Savage apologized to the congregation for what he called a, quote unquote, sexual incident.
Speaker 3: My repentance over this sin 20 years ago was done believing that God’s forgiveness is greater than any sin. And I still believe that. Since then, I have tried to live my life in keeping with that original act of repentance. For any painful memories or fresh wounds. This is created for anyone. I’m sorry. And I humbly ask for your forgiveness.
Mary Curtis: The crowd gave Andy Savage a standing ovation. The statute of limitations for Andy Savage’s crime against Jaws had passed by that point. The law had failed Jules, as did her church.
Speaker 2: I have tried to attend multiple different churches over the years, but ultimately it’s too triggering for me. And I just with everything, my faith has become incredibly personal. I’m still a Christian, but. But it’s very personal. And I just cannot support organized religion.
Mary Curtis: Jules is not alone in her experience. Abuse within the SBC has been rampant for years. In 2019, a Houston Chronicle piece revealed widespread sexual abuse within the denomination. Robert Downen, one of the Houston Chronicle reporters, uncovered troubling details.
Speaker 3: There had been more than a decade and a half by then of attempts by survivors to magnify this problem and get it on the attention of SBC leaders. And they were either ignored, disparaged or treated with outright hostility.
Mary Curtis: Roberts investigation prompted the SBC to commission its own internal review conducted by an independent organization called Guidepost Solutions. The internal review confirmed a lot of what the Chronicle had already found.
Speaker 3: You know what it did a great job of is showing just the way that this handful of, you know, insular leaders were able to really manipulate the denomination and basically mislead this denomination about what was going on behind the scenes.
Mary Curtis: Earlier this month, the SBC announced it was being investigated by the Department of Justice. Some survivors like Jules hope the investigation might lead to crucial changes, but they’re unsure if justice is possible or substantive reforms will be implemented.
Speaker 2: This is not something that, you know, we do a few things and then, oh, we’ve handled the problem and it’s going to go away and we’re moving on to other things. No, I need to see long term committed reform.
Mary Curtis: Today on this show, the Department of Justice is taking a serious look at the Southern Baptist Convention. But can anything truly change in a religious denomination steeped in traditionalism and until now, cloaked in secrecy? Filling in for Mary Harris, I’m Mary Curtis. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.
Mary Curtis: In 2019, Robert Downen Houston Chronicle investigation revealed rampant abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. It found that over two decades, roughly 380 SBC affiliated leaders and volunteers were accused of sexual misconduct. The independent organization Guidepost, which was called in by the SBC to conduct an internal review, released its report in May. I asked Robert Downen to explain why it was so significant.
Speaker 3: The report was pretty explosive. It was 400 pages with footnotes. And, you know, at the center of the report was this man named Augie Bodo, who is the SBC longtime lawyer. And what it found was that he and a handful of others had been routinely calling survivors distractions from evangelism and saying that the fight to get to protect children was a satanic scheme. And all of these really shocking, stunning things. But also at the same time that he was doing that, he was denying the survivors requests for reforms. But because, you know, in public, he said that they wouldn’t be effective or practical because of the SBC structure. But then behind closed doors, he was actually, you know, engaging with some of those reforms, including this internal list that’s gotten a lot of attention.
Mary Curtis: As it turned out, while SBC lawyer Augie Bodo was publicly denying issues of widespread abuse and shutting down reforms, he was secretly keeping a list of hundreds of known predators within the church.
Speaker 3: And he doesn’t seem to really have done anything with it. Like that’s I think that’s really the shocking thing for a lot of people, is that like survivors had requested for so long this internal database that churches could consult when making hiring decisions. And it turns out the entire time that he was smacking the idea down in public and telling and instructing SBC churches as their lawyer that this was not feasible. He was doing it privately. And I think that was the that I think was it was a major finding just because it really did, I think, just kind of lay bare the type of deceit that SBC leaders have been engaged in for so long.
Mary Curtis: So what do we know about the investigations so far? Do we know exactly what the Justice Department is looking at?
Speaker 3: The details of the investigation are still very, very sparse. And I doubt we’re going to get much information just because it’s wrapped up in grand jury proceedings, which are secretive. But, you know, I talked to the speaker’s lawyers this week, and they confirmed to me that they had been subpoenaed for a full, unredacted version of Bono’s list, as well as some supplemental materials from Guidepost, the firm that handled the report from May. Now, where I do think we need to take a step back here is I think there are a lot of people who are hearing that and hearing about this investigation and getting, you know, feeling it’s reminiscent of what’s been going on with the Catholic Church and all these states attorneys general investigations. And I think these are going to play out much differently from from an investigatory standpoint, I think because the structure of the two organizations are vastly different.
Mary Curtis: Just briefly, how is it different because people will make that connection?
Speaker 3: Sure. That is a great question and really is at the center of this scandal. So, you know, the Roman Catholic Church obviously is hierarchical. You have a pope and then cardinals and then bishops and then dioceses. And, you know, there’s there’s a structure where where dictates and decrees flow downward, whereas the SBC is totally the opposite. You know, the headquarters of the SBC, they like to say, is in the local church. And the SBC is a kind of a coalition of 47,000 churches. While they do generally agree on theology and come together to fund a mission, work and do other things like that. There really aren’t too many other unifying things technically about them. Like you just have to check a few boxes to become a Southern Baptist church. And so it really is a very democratic system.
Speaker 3: And so every June, the four, you know, messengers from these churches get together and they decide what they want to do. You know, they vote on reforms. They, you know, talk about budget, do all these things. There’s an annual business meeting. And then for the 363 other days of the year, they’re executive committee, the group that’s at the center of this report from May and which is under investigation by the DOJ. They are supposed to kind of serve as the fiduciary, but also, you know, as a stand in for the 47,000 churches.
Mary Curtis: So just how will this decentralized structure affect or impact the DOJ investigation?
Speaker 3: My guess is that it’s going to kind of focus primarily on the executive committee because they are. Again, the stand in for the SBC is 47,000 churches throughout the year. But when it comes. Still like trying to investigate like this Southern Baptist Convention. That’s almost a kind of an impossible thing to do because you’re talking about 47,000 churches that literally just cooperate together. So I think it is important in that this is the highest and the most forceful accountability that this group has ever faced. But at the same time, the polity of the SBC is going to make this, I think, a more difficult type of investigation than a lot of people realize.
Mary Curtis: Local church autonomy is central to the investigation. How much control and oversight the executive committee has could determine its culpability? Some argue that 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.
Speaker 3: 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. Having a convicted sex offender on staff was not did not warrant your removal from the SBC. It’s a interesting contradiction, I’ll say that. Luckily, they’ve changed that in the wake of our reporting. But yeah, this idea of local church autonomy, this this idea of all the churches being self-governing does kind of where it gets complicated with the question of LGBTQ or women pastors. Is the SBC governing documents explicitly say that those two things are banned, but because they had never put in there that convicted sex offenders weren’t banned, you could not be booted.
Mary Curtis: Well, following from that, even if it didn’t have anything explicitly talking about this, and even for leaders who said, I didn’t know how widespread the abuse was. Couldn’t they have known that the fact that you aren’t doing oversight might potentially attract the kind of folks who might be predators?
Speaker 3: Exactly. And I think, you know, we have for so long phrased, you know, I’ve been I’ve always been very careful to say, you know, when people are defensive to our reporting, like know your churches and you as a Southern Baptist, you are also in so many ways a victim of this because your leadership has failed to bring attention to this issue that they knew existed for years. You’ve created churches that predators know are safe places, and that’s why they target them.
Speaker 3: People seem to look at it inversely so often that like, Oh, ministers are abusers. It’s like, no. So, so often these people seek out positions of power and authority and trust. And what better place to abuse children than in a place where you are the authority, you’re ostensibly speaking as God. And also you have that power wrapped up with the ability to manipulate your congregants views on repentance and forgiveness so that you’re not ever prosecuted. And then you can just go to the church down the street like that is the system of the SBC. And so much of that has been enabled by the complete inaction of SBC leaders for so long now. Luckily, we’re starting to see a lot of changes in that, but still it is very stunning to see just how, you know, the inaction of a few men in power in that speaks leadership in Nashville for this long could communicate to so many sexual predators like, oh, this is these are safe havens for us.
Mary Curtis: After the break, more from Robert Downen on which reforms the SBC is actually considering in light of the DOJ investigation. And could any policy change on its own put an end to this culture of abuse?
Mary Curtis: In the wake of revelations of widespread abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, 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 keeping 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.
Speaker 3: And that was actually passed at their meeting in June, pretty much unanimously. They’re in the process of discussing a care fund for survivors and also setting up, you know, a confidential tip line. There are a whole host of things that they’re pursuing right now that I think are going to, you know, really start to, you know, the reforms that they had made up until this summer. Even SBC leaders were quick to note, you know, these were very much first steps. But more broadly, I mean, I don’t I think it would be fair to say that the SBC is definitely moving towards much more substantive reform, even if they’ve only taken those first steps.
Mary Curtis: And some would say that some of the culture and actual theology of the SBC has factored into the abuse and the reaction to it. The women being submissive, purity, culture that you need reform of policy, but maybe broader cultural reform. Have we seen any movement in that area?
Speaker 3: Not from a, you know, official standpoint, I don’t think. But I do. I you know, just in my five and a half years or whatever it’s been in the SBC world, I can say that there’s definitely been much more of a shift in conversations about, you know, this idea of complementary in Islam, this idea, the idea that, you know, women are men are complementary to each other but have different roles and therefore women shouldn’t be pastors. So there’s been, you know, conversations about that. There’s been, you know, a growing conversation about racial reconciliation in the SBC, which was founded out of support for slavery. And then also, you know, there’s been, you know, a little bit more conversation about the purity culture aspect of this. But, you know, I will say, you know, those aren’t fields that I primarily operate in. But I would tell you that the people who do would say that it simply hasn’t been enough just because it it it does kind of undergird so many of these problems.
Mary Curtis: Yes. Particularly the way some of the survivors were told to react to it or to take partial responsibility or be blamed.
Speaker 3: One of the things that I think has been really lacking in the response and unfortunately I don’t think will change anytime soon, is the question of how the SBC treats LGBTQ people. Because I know just from my reporting that I talked to so many people who were abused as young boys and by, you know, by their male pastors and stayed in silence and suffered so profoundly because they were abused in this context that views homosexuality as an absolute unforgivable sin.
Speaker 3: And, you know, their their life paths went so many different ways, often destruction, often it’s not, you know, in some cases deadly just because they felt that such like such a profound shame, because you’re being abused by someone who’s also in the context of your church and religious beliefs, like turning you into the ultimate sinner and like giving you this ultimate shame.
Speaker 3: And it’s just like, unfortunately, that’s not something that has been talked about enough in the SBC, I don’t think. But it is definitely a a compounding factor in the way the reason why so many, you know, people don’t come forward and the same thing you could say the same thing of purity culture with young girls being abused.
Speaker 3: You know, now when you compound that with, you know, the religious trauma and the 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 like it really is, it’s a perfect system for for abusers, and it’s about the worst system possible for those abuse.
Mary Curtis: The recent scrutiny into SBC comes at a time when the organization is already divided. A recent rift has formed and leaders have disagreed on how to address issues like racism.
Speaker 3: In 2020, there was this splinter group that forms they, you know, quote unquote, grassroots movement that happens to be led by or heavily influenced by former leaders, including those who were implicated in the May report and who were ousted from recent recently from positions for their handling of rape claims. They have been less supportive of abuse initiatives, the need for racial reconciliation. They have kind of tried to frame all of these things as like Trojan horses for liberalism to come creeping into the SBC, which if you know anything. About the SBC is is pretty funny because it’s about as conservative a denomination as you can get.
Mary Curtis: Regardless of how the DOJ investigation unfolds, the whole scandal has tarnished the reputation of the SBC. So how do you think this situation will affect the convention moving forward, both for the leadership committee and for individual churches?
Speaker 3: You know, that, again, remains to be seen. But, you know, over the last few years, the species membership was already in a nosedive. You know, even more so than the average American Christian denomination that have seen people kind of leaving. Now, what’s interesting is that I’ve seen some work on why people are leaving. And you have one group that is leaving because of the species, you know, handling of abuse, of race, of all these type of issues. And then on the other hand, you have a group of people who are leaving because they feel like their species liberalized and they found kind of MAGA preachers online who who kind of fit with their political views and feel that they are not being represented in their average SBC Church.
Speaker 3: And so that is kind of the broader conflict. You know, there’s obviously broad agreement amongst the church representatives that met at these annual meetings. But the question moving forward, I think, is, you know, which which hell do you want to die on the membership Hill where you’re you’re not speaking out against things that you need to speak out against or the hill on which, you know, you’re speaking out against the things that you want to. Membership be damned.
Mary Curtis: They’re still wrestling with that.
Speaker 3: I mean, I think that’s where it kind of does matriculate down to the local church and this broader culture, because headquarters of SBC really is the local church. And this is where I do think, you know, this DOJ investigation kind of ramps up that question at the more local level. Like, okay, like everyone knows our denomination is under federal investigation right now. Like, do we even want to be a part of this? And like, what are we getting from the SBC versus what are we giving to them? And, you know, how is this relationship with the SBC affected what we do and don’t talk about, you know, just all of these more local decisions that I think are going to be amplified by the DOJ scrutiny.
Mary Curtis: Thank you, Robert Downen, for appearing on What next? I hope you’ll keep us posted.
Speaker 3: Thank you so much and happy to.
Mary Curtis: Robert Downen is a reporter at the Houston Chronicle. Joel’s Woodson is launching a non-profit to provide therapy funding for survivors of sexual abuse. If you or a loved one are dealing with sexual abuse, here’s the number for the National Sexual Abuse Hotline. One 800 6564673. And that’s the show. If you’re a fan of what next? The best way to support our work is to join Slate. Plus, go to Slate.com, slash. What next? Plus, to sign up. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Carmel Delshad and Madeline Ducharme.
Mary Curtis: We’re getting a ton of help from Anna Phillips, Anna Rubanova and Jared Downing. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine, filling in for Mary Harris. I’m Mary Curtis, columnist at Roll Call and host of It’s Equal Time Podcast. We’ll be back in this feed tomorrow. Talk to you then.