Sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention unmasked

By Chris Young,

Contributing Writer,

Perhaps we don’t want to believe that sexual abuse at the hands of clergy takes place in the United States and other countries, but the evidence has been overwhelming. Beginning in the 1950’s there were rumors of abuse by Catholic priests. These reports gained some media attention in the 1980’s. In 2002 the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that was felt around the globe. 

Ed Litton of Redemption Church in Saraland, AL is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He recently told ABC News, “The rumors were always out there that these things were happening. There were several attempts made at our convention meetings to bring this to light. But they were very successfully pushed down.”

At SBC’s Annual Meeting in Nashville June 15-16, 2021, things came to a head when action was demanded by the “messengers of the convention by an overwhelmingly affirmative vote,” as reported on the website. The demand by the 15,000 delegates from 5,570 churches included turning over confidential records and communications dating back twenty years. Three months later, in September 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Task Force, commissioned by SBC President Ed Litton, retained Guidepost Solutions, an independent third-party, to conduct an assessment and investigation of the SBC Executive Committee. A connection to Jackson is revealed later in this article.

The SBC was chartered in 1875 and includes over 47,000 churches with a total membership exceeding 14 million, the world’s largest Baptist denomination. 

Based on information on Guidepost Solutions website, they were charged with investigating:

• Allegations of abuse by Executive Committee members

• Mishandling of abuse allegations by Executive Committee members between January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021

• Allegations of mistreatment of sexual abuse victims by Executive Committee members from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021

• Patterns of intimidation of sexual abuse victims or advocates from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021

• Resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021

Additionally, they were to perform an audit of the procedures and actions of the Credentials Committee after its formation in mid-June 2019, using best standards and practices designed to ensure accountability, transparency, and care for the wellbeing of survivors of sexual abuse. They also published an email address for anyone who had relevant information in furtherance of the investigation.

The 300-page report of the investigation by Guidepost Solutions was released on a Sunday, May 22, 2022, and its Executive Summary begins, as follows:

“For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) Executive Committee (“EC”) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff. They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press…only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC.

Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations. In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

The report details that senior SBC leaders had protected and/or even supported abusers. Resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives date back to 2007.

Key recommendations in the report include:

Upon completion of the SATF duties, first form an Independent Commission and later establish a permanent Administrative Entity to oversee comprehensive long-term reforms concerning sexual abuse and related misconduct within the SBC;

• Create and maintain an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders. Make the OIS available to churches on a voluntary basis;

• Provide a comprehensive Resource Toolbox including protocols, training, education, and practical information;

• Create a voluntary self-certification program for churches, local associations, state conventions, and entities based on implementation of “best practices” to bring awareness to, and enhance prevention of, sexual abuse;

• Improve governance controls, including the use of enhanced background checks, Letters of Good Standing, and Codes of Conduct to voluntarily strengthen hiring standards and improve governance; 

• Restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements and civil settlements which bind survivors to confidentiality in sexual abuse matters, unless requested by the survivor; 

• Adopt a “Declaration of Principles” setting out fundamental standards regarding how sexual abuse allegations will be handled at every level of the SBC, and how those who report will be treated going forward. These Principles may provide a model for SBC entities, state conventions, local associations, and local churches to adopt and follow; and

• Acknowledge those who have been affected by SBC clergy sexual abuse, through both a sincere apology and a tangible gesture, and prioritize the provision of compassionate care to survivors through providing dedicated survivor advocacy support and a survivor compensation fund.

The report does not state or estimate the number of sexual abuse victims, but does state that at one point the list of SBC ministers accused of sexual abuse was 703.

Four days after this report was released, on May 26, 2022, a 205-page list of alleged abusers was posted on the SBC website . The heavily redacted list contains 600+ names. In many cases there is amplifying information. It is important to note that the list was formulated by a former employee, within this secretive environment.

In Christianity Today on May 22, 2022, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public-policy arm before he left the denomination last year in a high-profile dispute about the SBC’s handling of the sex abuse crisis and racial issues, wrote about the report. “Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse.” “I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse. How many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.” 

By comparison, the 2004 John Jay College Study of Criminal Justice research study for the Conference of United States Catholic Bishops concluded that “4,392 Catholic priests and deacons in active ministry between 1950 and 2002 have been plausibly (neither withdrawn nor disproven) accused of under-age sexual abuse by 10,667 individuals.”

The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have many things in common. The most detrimental of these is that they are run by males who protect other males at the expense of children. We bring them our lambs and they betray us. We bring them our lambs and they soil them – a crime of sexual abuse that inescapably lasts for generations. 

While this report was focused on sexual abuse and its decades-long coverup by SBC leadership, Moore, a theologian , ethicist, and preacher born in Biloxi, MS., made clear that his departure from SBC was related to racial issues as well.

The Jackson connection

On May 24, Mississippi Today reported that Philip Gunn, R-Clinton and Speaker of The House of the Mississippi Legislature is connected to the SBC sexual abuse scandal. They report that Gunn served as an attorney for Morrison Heights Baptist Church when their music minister, John Langworthy, was being accused of abuse and ultimately indicted. He had been quietly dismissed by a Texas church after being accused of abusing a teenage boy, then moved back to Mississippi in 1990 and went to work for Morrison Heights Baptist Church and later was a choir teacher at Clinton High School until 2011 when allegations were made public. Despite Langworthy’s confession to the congregation and his guilty plea deal, Gunn and other church leaders maintained that they found no evidence that Langworthy abused children in his 21 years as music minister. They report that a trial never occurred. He served five years of probation, could have no contact with survivors, and had to remain registered as a sex offender. The state’s sex offender registry indicates that he died in 2019.

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