(Adds comment from church official in paragraphs 6 and 7)
By Rich McKay
ATLANTA, May 22 (Reuters) - For decades, complaints of sex abuse by pastors and staff in the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, were either ignored or covered up by top clergy, according to an internal report released on Sunday.
The nearly 300-page report details how complaints were kept as "closely guarded secrets" within the church to avoid liability, "to exclusion of all other considerations," it said.
"In service to this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved," the report said, with church leaders covering up accusations and allowing accused clergy members to remain pastors or in other positions of authority.
Lawsuits against the church were denigrated as "opportunistic" and not having merit, it said.
The year-long investigation was initiated by the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2021, when a stream of complaints were raised at its annual meeting. The complaints focused on sexual abuse by pastors and volunteers and the lack of response by the religious body's executive committee.
"We are grieved by the findings of this investigation,” Rolland Slade, chairman of the church's executive committee, said in a statement.
“We are committed to doing all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, (and) to remove reporting roadblocks," the statement read.
The Southern Baptist Church Convention claims more than 13 million members in the United States and more than 40 million worldwide.
The scandal echoes the one faced by the Roman Catholic Church, which has been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse, when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed in 2002 that church hierarchy covered up sexual misconduct by its clergy for decades.
The U.S. Catholic Church has paid out an estimated $3.2 billion to settle clergy abuse cases, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks the issue.
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reported that more than 700 victims had been abused by pastors, leaders and volunteers in Southern Baptist congregations.
The Southern Baptist investigation was carried out by Guidepost Solutions LLC. (Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Paul Simao and Tom Hogue)