'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse

Is the Southern Baptist Convention facing a public relations nightmare?

Some might be asking that question after the first part of a bombshell investigative project by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News was published Sunday:

The opening installment of the “Abuse of Faith” series filled almost four entire newspaper pages — meticulously describing the findings of a six-month investigation by reporters for the Chronicle and the Express-News.

The sobering details:

It's not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

So, to repeat the original question: Is the Southern Baptist Convention facing a public relations nightmare?

Not according to Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who wrote this in response to the newspaper report:

We should see this scandal in terms of the church as a flock, not as a corporation. Many, whether in Hollywood or the finance industry or elsewhere, see such horrors as public relations problems to be managed. The church often thinks the same way. Nothing could be further from the way of Christ. Jesus does not cover up sin within the temple of his presence. He brings everything hidden to light. We should too. When we downplay or cover over what has happened in the name of Jesus to those he loves we are not “protecting” Jesus’ reputation. We are instead fighting Jesus himself. No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle’s reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden.

Meanwhile, J.D. Greear, the SBC’s current president, said in a nine-part Twitter thread that he was ”broken” and “weeping” over the revelations:

The journalists digging into the SBC’s problems with sexual abuse might have expected a different response, especially in an era when negative news often is portrayed as “fake,” while journalists sometimes are characterized as “enemies of the people.”

Certainly, the comeback of August "Augie" Boto, general counsel and interim president of the SBC's executive committee, surprised the investigative reporters who interviewed him:

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

Q: I guess I have to ask ... that's not quite the response I expected. Why do you think that's good?

Boto: Because your posting of it is going to heighten awareness. It's going to harden the targets. I told you at the outset of this phone call that my perception of your doing a report is probably more positive than you would suspect. ... I think sometimes people presuppose that our initial reaction to a report of Southern Baptist failure anywhere is embarrassment. I can assure you that is not my initial reaction. My initial reaction is anger.

Boto went on to explain that his anger was directed at the sexual crimes that occurred, not at the reporters.

Later in the interview, there’s this exchange:

Q: Some readers might wonder if the SBC cannot do more to try to prevent this. What would your response be?

Boto: I understand that. And let me say this. How pretentious it would be of me or any Baptist to say, we're perfect, we can't do any better, we're doing the most we can do. I just wrote an article that I was motivated to write for our news journal in the last edition because I strongly suspected that we aren't doing all we can do. Especially with regard to vetting potential employees. When I talk about background checks, I'm not talking about criminal history checks. As you and John have both voiced, a criminal history check is limited. A background check should be much broader. It should not limit inquiry to only those references listed on a curriculum vitae. It should go around those references.

Q: Look for gaps?

Boto: Oh my word, yes. It should look for spotty explanations. It should look for all sorts of things because there's a vulnerability in any gathering of folks who are by inclination trusting.

Guys, you are not my opponent. You are not the opponent of the Southern Baptist Convention in your reporting. You're helping us. I'm all for shining the light of day upon crime.

“You’re helping us.” Yep, the investigative reporters weren’t expecting that.

But here’s the deal: Regardless of how nicely the SBC’s leaders treat journalists, this is a public relations nightmare for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The failure to deal with this widespread problem — despite repeated warnings over the years — makes it so.

The SBC is, of course, just the latest religious body to find itself engulfed in this scandal. Everyone is familiar with the long-running Catholic clergy sexual abuse issues. And just a few months ago, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a major investigative series on sex abuse problems among a different group of Baptists.

Can the SBC’s nightmare be overcome? Can an association of autonomous congregations devise an effective process for ridding sexual predators from its midst? Those are questions that must be addressed, both in the pews and the newspapers as they keep shining a light on the SBC.

As for the opening story itself, it certainly qualifies as exceptionally important, powerhouse journalism. It’s a must read. One constructive criticism that I might offer: I wish the Chronicle and the Express-News had offered just a little more context on the number of Southern Baptist members and congregations both in Texas and nationally. There are a lot of numbers given in terms of abuse cases and victims, but little insight is provided in terms of how these numbers fit into the big picture.

There’s more that could be said, but I’ll stop typing for now. Look for more analysis of this major, major story later today by our own Terry Mattingly.

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