Southern Baptist Leaders Grapple With Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct By Pastors

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Originally published on February 12, 2019 1:07 am
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Southern Baptist leaders are grappling with allegations made in two Texas newspapers that many of their pastors have engaged in sexual misconduct. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News found that hundreds of Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced accusations of sexual abuse that stretch back 20 years. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Texas reporters scoured news archives, websites and nationwide databases of accused sex abusers. They had heard from victims that Southern Baptist Church officials had been unresponsive to abuse complaints levelled against church leaders. The reporters wanted to see how often pastors and other church workers had been implicated. What they uncovered was a pattern of abuse by clergy not unlike the one plaguing the Catholic Church. Could it be there's something about a church community that makes it a good hiding place for abusers?

RUSSELL MOORE: Many people are not naturally suspicious in a church context.

GJELTEN: Russell Moore directs the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

MOORE: Whenever there is a case of someone within a church being arrested for some horrific crime, often what one hears is that no one would ever have suspected this person because of how he presented himself, which, of course, is classic predatory behavior.

GJELTEN: It may also be that people - adults and children alike - are uniquely vulnerable to pastors or priests or other church workers. They are seen as being close to God and therefore above reproach. Lori Anne Thompson, now in her 40s, says she was abused as a child at home but then revictimized in her church.

LORI ANNE THOMPSON: I was chronically looking for somebody who was trustworthy - basically a father figure who would guide me. And I was quite drawn to strong nurturing clerics who were predators.

GJELTEN: One study, nearly 20 years old, found that more than 90 percent of sex offenders described themselves as religious. Moreover, the supposed spiritual leaders in a church community may not face the same accountability other predators may face. Boz Tchividjian prosecuted sex abusers in Florida. The grandson of Billy Graham, he now focuses his work almost entirely on abuse in a Christian context. He says he has found a systemic failure of church officials to take action against people in positions of responsibility.

BOZ TCHIVIDJIAN: A child who comes forward and makes a disclosure against somebody who is in a leadership position almost doesn't stand a chance because that power structure will circle the wagons around the one who's been accused because oftentimes if it's somebody in leadership, they're seen as being a representative of God. And how dare you destroy the career of God's representative.

GJELTEN: According to the stories appearing today on the Houston and San Antonio newspapers, Southern Baptist leaders have resisted reforms proposed to them by sexual abuse survivors. Lori Anne Thompson, who's been working for years to highlight the problem of sexual abuse, says she was overjoyed to see the stories and is eager to see more.

THOMPSON: I think those journalists are heroes, and I would love to shake their hand and tell them that.

GJELTEN: Two more stories in the series will appear this week. Southern Baptist leaders say they are determined to root out all abusers in their denomination. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.