Hundreds of leaders and volunteers within the Southern Baptist church have been charged with sex crimes in recent decades, with many of them returning to positions within the church following the charges, according to an explosive new report from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.
The report found that roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct since 1998 and more then 250 people who either worked or volunteered in churches were charged with some form of sex crime. Of those, approximately 220 people—including pastors, ministers, Sunday school teachers, deacons and volunteers— were either convicted or accepted plea deals.
The victims in many of the cases were adolescents, including victims as young as three who were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies or Sunday school classrooms, the report found.
In many cases, the convicted sex offenders would later return to the pulpit or find jobs at churches despite past predatory behavior.
"So many people's faith is murdered. I mean, their faith is slaughtered by these predators," David Pittman told the local paper.
Pittman said he was just 12 when a youth minister molested him in 1981 at his church in Georgia.
Debbie Vasquez was 14 when she says her pastor first molested her in a small town in Texas. She’d later get pregnant by the married pastor after repeated sexual assaults, she said.
Vasquez decided to bring her concerns to leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008 and asked its 47,000 churches to begin tracking sexual predators and take action against those who concealed known abusers.
Leaders at the convention later rejected all of the proposed reforms. One of the men who helped draft the rejection of the proposal, August “Augie” Boto told the Houston Chronicle the findings from the new investigation brought him sorrow but said church leadership is only able to do so much to prevent it.
“It would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600,” he said. “What we are talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen.”
He added that although abuse would happen, church leaders should not be resigned to it.
One of the challenges, he said, is that each church within the Southern Baptist doctrine is independent and self-governing. He said a primary reason the committee opted to reject the proposal in 2008 was that they couldn’t force other churches to report the abuse to a central registry, the Houston Chronicle reports.
It’s that structure that makes the organization more vulnerable to abuse, according to Christa Brown, an activist who wrote a book about her own alleged abuse.
“It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister,” she told the paper, adding that because each church is independent, offenders can often move from church to church undetected.
Church leadership has acknowledged it is a known problem within the church. Wade Burleson, a former president of Oklahoma’s Southern Baptist convention, told the paper he had tried to bring the issue up in 2007 and 2018 and suggested leaders study the abuse and possible steps they could take to try to prevent it.
"There's a known problem, but it's too messy to deal with," he told the newspaper. "It's not that we can't do it as much as we don't want to do it. ... To me, that's a problem. You must want to do it, to do it."
Current SBC President J.D. Greear told Chronicle that he believed any church that showed a pattern “of sinful neglect” regarding the abuse should be removed from the denomination.
"The Bible calls for pastors to be people of integrity, known for their self-control and kindness," Greear wrote in an email to the paper. "A convicted sex offender would certainly not meet those qualifications. Churches that ignore that are out of line with both Scripture and Baptist principles of cooperation."
He also took to Twitter and called the abuses outlined in the lengthy investigation “pure evil” and said the church shouldn’t try to avoid responsibility by claiming the churches are autonomous.
“As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem,” he wrote.
In July, the Southern Baptist church said it planned to create a group charged with developing strategies to prevent abuse within the church, the Associated Press reports.
[Photo: Debbie Vasquez holds a photographer of herself at age 14, at her workplace in Irving, Texas, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007. Vasquez says she was raped when she was 15 by a minister of her church. AP Photo/Donna McWilliam]
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