Sexual Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention Points to Subordination of Women and Girls

Southern Baptist leadership repeatedly failed survivors, showing more concern for protecting the denomination from litigation than holding perpetrators responsible. Deep-seated beliefs about women and gender prop up this culture of abuse.

A statue graces the front entrance to the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The recently released investigative report on the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) mishandling of clergy sex abuse allegations is damning. The report, commissioned in response to a 2021 vote by the Convention in session, faults SBC Executive Committee (EC) leadership and EC lawyers for covering up abuse and mistreating survivors across more than 20 years.

While the report has generated the expected hand-wringing, apologies and promises to do better, it does not address the misogyny at the core of many Southern Baptist beliefs about women. Research suggests a strong correlation between perpetrator beliefs about gender, social context and sexual abuse. This raises the question of the long-term effectiveness of the report’s recommendations (if implemented) when beliefs about women’s subordination and sexuality go unchallenged.

Understanding Southern Baptist Organizational Structure

One of the excuses SBC lawyers have used to avoid action on reports of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist clergy is the denomination’s organizational structure. Unlike many churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is not hierarchical, and the Convention has no authority over local churches.

Each local church is independent and autonomous. Local churches choose to affiliate with the SBC by giving an annual donation through the Convention’s Cooperative Program to support various SBC missions efforts, publishing houses, seminaries and other enterprises.

The Convention meets in session annually, and each church affiliated with the Convention can send “messengers” to the annual meeting. These messengers are not delegates representing churches but rather individuals who vote their consciences on the business of the Convention.

The day-to-day business of the Convention is guided by the Executive Committee of the SBC, a body of representatives from each state or region, the president and treasurer of the SBC, and the president of Woman’s Missionary Union who serve as the Convention’s board of trustees. The EC is led by a group of officers designated in SBC bylaws.

Much like the clergy scandal in the Catholic Church, accused Southern Baptist ministers have been able to move from church to church as accusations have been kept secret or dismissed. Survivors have been asking the SBC to create a database of accused clergy for decades, but the Executive Committee’s attorneys have always forcefully advised the group against a database, arguing that because the Convention has no authority over local churches, it cannot maintain a national database that churches can utilize when hiring ministers.

This organizational structure means that the Convention can implement all of the report’s recommendations—from creating a national database to providing survivor support and promoting educational resources—but local Southern Baptist churches can still do as they will. The Convention has created a process for “disfellowshipping” churches that do not handle abuse allegations seriously, but short of this, churches can ignore Convention efforts to educate, report, support survivors and work to end sexual abuse. And so far, EC leadership has shown little appetite for taking actions that address clergy abuse.

Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention

The new report by Guidestone Solutions covers the period 2000-2021—but the problem of clergy abuse is nothing new in Southern Baptist life, and the problems of denominational inaction predate the current fundamentalist leadership of the Convention.

In the 1960s, when she was only 16, Christa Brown was sexually abused by the youth minister at her Southern Baptist church in Texas. Brown eventually told the church’s music minister about the abuse. He told Brown not to talk about it and later framed it as a “consensual relationship.” The youth minister was allowed to leave for a bigger church and bigger salary, with fanfare and good wishes.

In 2004 when Brown’s own daughter turned 16, she realized she needed to address the abuse. She turned to the church of her childhood, which promptly threatened to sue her. In all, she contacted 18 Southern Baptist church and denominational leaders who ignored her while her abuser remained in ministry. Finally, the Orlando Sentinel published her story and his name, forcing his resignation, although he went on to a career in real estate, touting his 45 years in ministry as a suggestion of trustworthiness.

From that point on, Brown has been a woman with a mission to exact accountability from Southern Baptists. She started a website, Stop Baptist Predators, and wrote a memoir, This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang. She has spoken out, handed out flyers, and protested outside meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The investigative report confirms the brutal reality that so very many clergy sex abuse survivors have been trying to bring to light for the past couple decades,” Brown told Ms. “And yet, there is no joy in that validation because it goes hand in hand with grief. So many of the names on the SBC’s recently released list of clergy sex abusers are names that, for me, also conjure the horrific stories that went with the names and the voices of desperate wounded survivors seeking help.

“Countless lives have been decimated in the decades-long process of even trying to get the SBC to this threshold where they might begin to address the problem,” she continued. “And it still remains to be seen whether the SBC will actually choose to cross that threshold and move toward implementing truly meaningful reforms. But even if they do, no one should ever forget the human cost of what it has taken to get here.”

Dee Ann Miller and her husband were missionaries employed in 1988 by the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow missionary. She reported the assault to the Board, which put her and her husband on probation and told them they could only return to their assignment if they kept quiet. They didn’t and eventually left their positions. Miller’s abuser, however, became a pastor and teacher shortly after resigning from his position as missionary.

“Why should it be up to the men to decide what constitutes justice for the women and children, while the women are expected to abide by the decisions made for them?”

Miller told her story in the 1993 book, How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct. Like Brown, she was greeted by silence from Southern Baptist leaders. In private conversations, some leaders told her that victims are always partly to blame.

In response to the report, Miller responded to Ms., “Incestuous systems thrive in the breeding grounds of DIM thinking: denial, ignorance and minimization. … Why should it be up to the men to decide what constitutes justice for the women and children, while the women are expected to abide by the decisions made for them?”

Southern Baptist Abusers Exposed

The devastating scope of the problem came to light with a 2019 exposé by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News detailing more than 700 victims of sex abuse by Southern Baptist clergy and church leaders.

Already in 2018, two of the architects of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s—Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler—had become embroiled in sex abuse cases. Videos of Patterson, then president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, talking about sending a battered wife back to her husband and referring to a teenage girl as “built” resurfaced to widespread outcry. Two women then came forward to detail how Patterson mishandled their sexual assault reports while they were students at the seminary. Patterson eventually lost his job, but has now involved himself in a second “conservative resurgence” in the SBC against denominational leaders who have condemned racism and sex abuse.

Around the same time, a man came forward alleging that Pressler, a former Texas Appeals Court judge, had sexually assaulted him when he was a teenager. That man has sued, and, in April of this year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that his lawsuit can continue. After the original allegations, two other men came forward saying Pressler had abused them as well.

Also, in 2018, Frank Page, the president of the SBC Executive Committee, resigned over a “morally inappropriate relationship.” Convention leadership assured Southern Baptists that the problem was not a “legal impropriety” for them to worry about. Page landed on his feet, though, becoming pastor of a church in South Carolina.

After the Chronicle’s 2019 report appeared, the Convention made some changes to reject churches that did not deal appropriately with abuse allegations, but messengers to the 2021 annual meeting, upset over the Executive Committee’s mishandling of abuse allegations, voted to require an outside investigation. When the Executive Committee met in October of 2021, some members opposed turning over documents and waiving attorney-client privilege, despite the clear mandate of the messengers. Finally, after three nine-hour meetings, the EC voted for transparency and began the process that led to the explosive report.

What Did We Learn about Southern Baptists’ Mishandling of Abuse?

The report found that time and again, Southern Baptist leadership failed survivors and showed more concern for protecting the denomination from litigation than caring for victims and holding perpetrators responsible. Led by longtime lawyers, the SBC typically ignored abuse complaints or told survivors there was nothing they could do. Convention leaders derided survivors, even as they often supported and defended perpetrators. 

Meanwhile, since 2007, a SBC staff member had been collecting names of clergy accused of abuse for whom there had been a conviction or credible evidence of abuse for the “awareness” of the attorneys—but nothing was done to ensure these perpetrators did not stay in ministry. In response to the report, the SBC released the list this past week. Of course, given the criteria for the list, many abusers escape being named.

Most damning, however, is the report’s acknowledgement of EC leadership’s intimidation of survivors. Rather than working to support people who came forward with allegations, EC leaders attempted to silence and blame them. They were labelled “opportunistic,” having a “hidden agenda of lawsuits,” wanting to “burn things to the ground,” and acting as a “professional victim.” As survivors continued to press for accountability, EC leadership became frustrated with them and in conversations among themselves criticized survivors. The VP also called another survivor “arrogant,” “backhandedly sarcastic” and with an axe to grind. When another survivor tweeted about the Convention’s unwillingness to help, the EC’s external lawyer said, “She has serious problems.”

When one survivor contacted then SBC president Ronnie Floyd, the EC vice president advised Floyd not to respond: “The abuse community has seized upon this as a tool,” he explained in his email.

The EC’s attorney even accused survivors of acting as agents of the devil: “This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.” He specifically named Christa Brown, although he claimed she was “not to blame” because it was all a “matter of the devil being successful.”

A leaked letter from the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to the Convention President underlined the ongoing problem of EC mistreatment of survivors:

You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of “Potiphar’s wife” and other spurious biblical analogies. The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew —or the outside world could report. And, as you know, this comes on the heels of a track-record of the Executive Committee staff and others referring to victims as “crazy” and, at least in one case, as worse than the sexual predators themselves.

In one of the most egregious examples of the SBC’s revictimization of survivors, Baptist Press, the news arm of the Convention, turned the sexual abuse of an SBC employee by her former seminary professor into a “consensual relationship.” The employee had written a first-person article detailing her experience of abuse. Even though Baptist Press had corroborated her accusations, editors changed the article to state that the employee had had a “morally inappropriate relationship” with the professor.

Immediately, the employee was attacked. She was called an “adulteress,” a “whore” and a “jealous woman”; people demanded she be fired. When she confronted Baptist Press, attorneys advised editors to take the article down, but they never printed a correction. Only months later did they issue a retraction.

The report also documents how the SBC, particularly the EC’s attorney, resisted changes to address sexual abuse. When Convention president J. D. Greear named the churches identified in the Chronicle’s article, the attorney even called one of the churches to apologize.

Southern Baptist Beliefs about Women, Gender, and Sex

The one area the report does not address is the Southern Baptist beliefs that undergird sexual abuse. As fundamentalists took over the denomination, they passed resolutions, changed the denomination’s statement of faith, and produced curriculum materials that promoted women’s submission to men in home and church.

I’ve written before for Ms. about how Southern Baptist sexism undergirds clergy sexual abuse and how evangelical theology about women and gender supports a culture of abuse. The Guidestone report’s findings are not a surprise in a denomination that justifies the subordination of women because Eve was “first in the Fall“ and that exhorts wives to submit themselves “graciously” to their husbands.

Southern Baptists were also early promoters of purity culture—a movement that focuses on sexual abstinence outside of traditional heterosexual marriage and assigns responsibility for sexual purity to girls and women—with their “True Love Waits” curriculum. Purity culture highlights the danger of girls’ and women’s sexuality and their potential to be stumbling blocks for boys and men if they do not control their bodies, appearance, and sexual expression.

In many ways, then, the EC leadership’s response to sexual abuse is in line with Southern Baptist beliefs about gender and sexual purity. If girls and women are responsible for boys’ and men’s sexuality, then they also bear responsibility for their own abuse.

The Convention’s professed beliefs also exclude women from the pastorate. That means the vast majority of church staff members are men (some women serve in educational, music, children’s and women’s ministries as long as their positions do not place them in authority over men). While Southern Baptists believe each person in the congregation is equal, including the pastor, the exclusion of women from the pastorate gives men widespread authority across the denomination over women as their spiritual leaders and faith teachers. As the stories in the report attest, abusers often used this authority as a way to groom victims and ensure their silence.

As long as the Convention holds on to a theology that subordinates women, they’ll never be able to rid themselves of clergy sex abuse.

What the Convention will do at its annual meeting in June remains to be seen. Even if it takes every action prescribed by the report, it will not change its theology which subordinates women.

Reading the report is heart-wrenching. The callousness of SBC leadership toward survivors is striking and clearly unveils the underlying misogyny at the center of Southern Baptists’ sex abuse scandal. The report addresses some of the mechanisms of mistreatment but not the theology that enables it.

The Convention needs to do some really deep soul-searching this summer. Maybe they’ll do better. But as long as they hold on to a theology that subordinates women, they’ll never be able to rid themselves of clergy sex abuse. As Dee Miller told Ms., “While I want to believe things will be different, I expect resistance and disbelief to continue at every level, to the surprise of so many. This will be a long, hard climb.”

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.