Southern Baptists keep faith amid sexual misconduct scandal
COVINGTON, La. Pews were packed again Sunday at First Baptist Church, a congregation of thousands that, like all other Southern Baptist churches, is wrestling with the fallout from a massive sexual misconduct scandal.
Unlike Roman Catholics, however, Southern Baptists are much less structured. As a consequence, celebrants feel less shaken at churches like First Baptist that thus far have been untouched by allegations.
“It hasn’t shaken anyone’s faith,” said Ted Jackson, a freelance photojournalist and longtime member of the church. “I think a lot of these cases were already known, and so it hasn’t all come like some bombshell to people.”
The church was rocked by a series in the Houston Chronicle that identified more than 700 reported victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Southern Baptist officials since 1998. In that same time frame, nearly 380 church leaders and volunteers were accused of sexual misconduct, according to the series.
In the wake of the reports, some leaders who were less than enthusiastic about investigating allegations of abuse started taking steps to ensure the guilty or accused parties were removed from any position of authority in the church.
Last week, some Southern Baptist leaders who allegedly turned a blind eye to the problem offered apologies in the Houston Chronicle. They were led by R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Daniel L. Akin, the heads of the Southern Baptist theological seminaries in Louisville, Kentucky, and Wake Forest, North Carolina, respectively.
“Southern Baptist churches are autonomous,” First Baptist senior pastor Waylon Bailey said after services Sunday.
He said his church takes security measures such as fingerprinting employees and volunteers who work with children. First Baptist also limits access to places where children are taught or congregate to parents and those who have passed background checks, he said.
Mr. Bailey has implemented these measures over more than a quarter century leading St. Tammany Parish’s largest Baptist community, not in response to the recent scandal.
The Southern Baptist Church occupies a significant position in society and culture throughout the South. Its enormous, multimillion-dollar worship centers dominate the landscape with sprawling parking lots packed on Sundays.
Several celebrants, who declined to speak on the record Sunday, said they see the Southern Baptist Church as the latest in a string of institutions to be targeted with allegations of sexual abuse. They and Mr. Bailey said political machinations within the church contributed to the story that is only now unraveling.
The story isn’t new, Mr. Bailey said, and the church must take aggressive, proactive positions against all abuse lest it lose its moral stature.
“Sexual immorality and sexual abuse are rampant in America,” he wrote last week on his blog. “The sexual revolution of the ’60s has sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind.”
The autonomy of Southern Baptist churches insulates members from scandals elsewhere to some extent, members said. They drew a sharp distinction between themselves and the Roman Catholics, whose rigid hierarchy continues to grapple with the fallout from the cover-ups of deviant priests.
Still, the Southern Baptist Convention, which speaks for the 47,000 churches that comprise the community but does not control the independent churches, is accused of failing to treat seriously the hundreds of cases of sexual abuse involving its members.
Some who claimed abuse paid their own way to address the convention in Indianapolis in 2008, but the convention rejected their stories and any proposed reforms, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Mr. Mohler had long backed C.J. Mahaney, who once led a group within the Southern Baptist community called Sovereign Grace Ministries. In 2012, 11 people filed a lawsuit claiming that Sovereign Grace Ministries covered up sexual abuse by leaders, including one who was subsequently convicted.
Mr. Mohler apologized for supporting Mr. Mahaney and for any perceived dismissiveness toward victims. Some said his apologies were too late and lacked candor.
“I believe in retrospect I erred in being part of a statement supportive of [Mr. Mahaney] and rather dismissive of the charges,” Mr. Mohler told the newspaper. “And I regret that action.”
Mr. Bailey said the Southern Baptist community already had learned and absorbed lessons from the scandal, thereby making the series in The Chronicle less shattering.
“I’ve been talking about the same things this week: that we must hold everyone accountable and the church has to reach out and support those who have been hurt and are vulnerable,” he said. “Even now, some of the people who were victims of abuse think that somehow they are to blame, and of course they’re not. They have to report what has happened to them, and it has to be made clear they are the victims, they are not to blame.”