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Southern Baptist Convention vows to address sex abuse in its churches

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, opened their annual meeting this week vowing to focus on an issue that many pastors have long resisted: how to address sexual abuse at their churches.

Southern Baptist Convention vows to address sex abuse in its churches

Thousands of pastors voted late Tuesday afternoon to address the problem in a concerted way for the first time, enacting two new measures they say are a first step to reform. Outside the arena where they were gathered, victims and their families protested what they considered an inadequate response.

The pastors voted to create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations were substantiated.

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said Tuesday morning as he addressed the gathering. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.”

But victims’ advocates argued there was still widespread cultural resistance in the evangelical community to dealing with abuse. For years the Southern Baptist Convention has refrained from suggested reforms, like establishing a database of abusers, and has had no explicit procedures or enforcement mechanisms to address the problem of sexual abuse and its cover-up.

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“The heart shift is what we really need to see,” said Rachael Denhollander, who is on the denomination’s sex abuse study group. “There has also been a significant effort by some factions of the SBC to undermine even some of the good things that are already underway.”

Earlier this year, Greear called for 10 churches to be investigated for how they handled abuse allegations. Southern Baptist officials cleared seven of them within days. Either these officials were ignorant or they were intentionally undermining efforts for reform, Denhollander said.

On Monday, The New York Times published an article about how the Village Church, one of the most prominent evangelical megachurches in the country, handled a sexual abuse allegation against an associate children’s minister, Matthew Tonne. Christi Bragg, a longtime member, said that after telling church leaders that her daughter had been molested by the minister, the Village failed to provide her family with sufficient answers and support, and the family has since left the church.

The church said in a statement Tuesday that it was “absolutely grieved by this report, first and foremost because the Bragg family does not feel loved and supported by our church.”

“While we are imperfect as a church, the care, compassion and spiritual well-being of our members and guests is at the core of who we are and how we operate as a church body,” the Village said to members in an email.

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The Village disputed the Times article’s characterization of how the Braggs were treated, saying for instance that Matt Chandler, the lead pastor, spoke with Bragg in September, at a group meeting with many other families.

On Tuesday, Bragg said that was “simply not true,” and that the family had never met personally with Chandler since her daughter’s disclosure. Bragg said another top pastor explained to her the night of the group meeting that Chandler would not talk with her then because he did not want to draw attention to them.

Chandler interrupted his sabbatical to unexpectedly join the annual meeting Tuesday.

At a panel, he said he was in “introspective mode” about what he could have done differently.

He said that he was not “running point on care” for the Braggs and allowed other pastors to handle their care because “they are 25 minutes away” and didn’t attend the campus where he was based. Bragg’s daughter was allegedly molested when the family attended Chandler’s campus.

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At one point, Chandler teared up when he spoke about his memories of his daughter talking with Tonne before her baptism. “He was a beloved man,” Chandler said.

Chandler is in the inner circle of top Southern Baptist pastors across the country, and has strong relationships with many top Southern Baptist leaders, especially new and younger leaders. He is the president of Acts 29, a global association of hundreds of evangelical churches whose goal is to spread their faith and church model worldwide.

“We believed that having this conversation publicly and immediately would help Southern Baptists learn, whether positively or negatively, how to better handle these issues in our churches,” said Jedidiah Coppenger, a leader of Baptist21, the group that hosted the event.

Russell Moore, who leads the denomination’s public policy arm, said that while he sees progress, the challenges are also significant. “Sometimes Elijah sees a cloud the size of a person’s hand on the horizon and that is what you need to press forward,” he said.

Greear urged pastors to put aside their reputations and focus on doing what was right. “You’ve got to make this a priority,” he said. “The credibility of what we actually believe about the gospel is at stake.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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