Imagine that at your local church, a seemingly safe and inviting place to explore your faith, someone in leadership sexually assaults you. Then, when you finally gather the courage to report it to the church’s broader organization, your experience is dismissed, covered up or ignored.
Hundreds of victims of Southern Baptist predators are experiencing this right now.
An astounding third-party investigation reveals that Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders ignored or stonewalled sexual abuse survivors while keeping a list of abusers — all 703 of them, 409 affiliated at one time with the SBC — concealed.
The SBC is a network of independent churches and the second-largest faith group in the U.S. behind Catholicism. About 47,000 Baptist churches affiliate with the group, and those boast some 14 million members. As of 2017, around 2,600 of those churches were in Texas.
Sadly, several leaders and churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area were mentioned often in the findings.
The first paragraph of the report by Guidepost Solutions summarizes the infuriating reaction of church leaders:
“For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the [SBC’s leadership committee] to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff. They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and [leadership] meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press … only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some” organization leaders.
The investigation, which followed on reporting by the Houston Chronicle, reveals rampant abuse at SBC churches, often by people in leadership positions. Moreover, when survivors contacted leaders to report it, the group’s Executive Committee worked to keep the allegations and the abusers concealed.
Survivors “were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its policy regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” a portion of the 300-page report reads.
Gross negligence on the part of SBC leaders that allowed abusers to repeat their crimes in different states was a regular theme.
In 2014, Brad Eubank, a minister for more than 30 years who is also an abuse survivor, told members of the SBC Executive Committee, including its general counsel, that he was sexually abused from the ages of 8-12 by the music minister at a church in Mississippi.
The minister, John Langworthy, moved on to Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, a megachurch that’s been influential in Texas Republican politics.
In 1989, church staff discovered that Langworthy had molested at least one minor boy, according to the report. Under Senior Pastor Jack Graham — later president of the SBC — nobody from Prestonwood notified the police, and Langworthy was quietly fired and returned to Mississippi, according to the report.
After finally confessing to that congregation, Langworthy was arrested and charged with sex crimes and he received a 50-year suspended sentence. In 2014, when Graham was pressed about his role at Prestonwood, the executive pastor denied a cover-up, and Graham has declined to comment.
The same thing happened to Christa Brown. In 2004, via her attorney, she sent a 25-page report by certified mail to multiple Southern Baptist leaders, including then-SBC President Bobby Welch. She alleged abuse beginning at age 16 by Tommy Gilmore, a staff member at Farmers Branch First Baptist Church who later left to be on staff at First Baptist Church of Tyler. She sued Gilmore in 2005 and, in 2006, reached a settlement with the church.
In a 2006 letter to then-SBC President Frank Page, Brown described “how her alleged abuser was able to continue in ministry, even though the survivor had notified 18 Southern Baptist leaders in four different states,” according to the report.
Fort Worth was rocked when former SBC President Paige Patterson was fired from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018, after it became clear he told a student not to report a rape in 2003, according to the report. It includes another devastating fact: Patterson refused to cooperate with the SBC investigation.
“We were not permitted to directly review Dr. Paige Patterson’s papers,” the report reads.
It’s bad enough that abusers prowled in and out of Baptist churches across the South, preying on faithful Christians. The fact that the SBC leadership consistently stonewalled survivors’ cries for accountability and justice to save themselves from liability — all while purporting to be enabling millions to hear the gospel, a message of forgiveness and love — is incomprehensible. Abusers must be held accountable but so must church members, staff, leaders, and others who participated in amoral, criminal behavior.
Southern Baptists are far from alone in this sin. The Catholic Church continues to deal with child sexual abuse by priests and decades of cover-ups. The Star-Telegram found troubling levels of abuse among independent fundamental Baptist churches. Even the Boy Scouts have not been immune. Institutions of every stripe need firm, fair processes for handling abuse cases — along with leaders who have the spine to do the right thing, even if the institution will face fallout.
For the SBC, the report lays out a path toward reparations for victims, but it’s not enough: Its leadership should be swept clean for the crime of complicity. Charges should be brought wherever possible.
Let this be the first step for more than 700 survivors to find healing.