Sexual abuse task forces have been on the move in the Southern Baptist Convention.
In Nashville this week, denomination leaders got a status update on a planned database of credibly accused church workers. And in late 2022, the Tennessee Baptist Convention's own task force made recommendations available to the roughly 3,000 churches that form it.
But one challenge remains clear: Southern Baptist Convention leaders said they have basically no authority to ensure churches proactively move to prevent sexual abuse or respond appropriately if and when abuse gets reported.
Under current mandates, leaders said they can study the sexual abuse problem and develop practical tools and resources for churches to draw on. But in their highly decentralized Baptist denomination, the rest, they said, is up to the local church.
The Southern Baptist Convention, despite long-shrinking ranks, remains the nation's largest Protestant denomination. It has faced close scrutiny in recent years as several reports found leaders systematically mishandled sex abuse allegations in churches.
The problem has not been as widespread in the Tennessee Baptist Convention, according to its president, Clay Hallmark, who headed up the state group's sexual abuse task force last year.
The state task force group's research, he said by phone this week, found rates of sexual abuse in Tennessee Baptist Convention church contexts compare favorably to other institutions that deal with children.
"Obviously, I'm pleased that it's quite low," he said. "But one instance of sexual abuse is too many."
FACING THE PROBLEM
In 2021, a growing activist furor was galvanized by a multipart investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News documenting the extent of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. Church representatives commissioned a third-party investigation of the denomination's Executive Committee. Meanwhile, representatives in the Tennessee Baptist Convention commissioned their own sexual abuse task force.
The report on the Executive Committee, completed by the law firm Guidepost Solutions, came out in May 2022, and it described widespread cover-ups dating back years as Executive Committee members mishandled sex abuse claims, sometimes treating victims with outright hostility.
Shortly after, the convention established a hotline -- 202-864-5578 or SBChotline@guidepostsolutions.com -- for people to report sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches.
(READ MORE: Chattanooga-area faith leaders on Southern Baptist list of those accused of sexual abuse)
And it released an internal roster of about 600 church workers credibly accused of sexual misconduct, which included two Chattanooga-area pastors who were convicted in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively, of abusing children. Several other Tennessee pastors and church volunteers also made the list, which Southern Baptist Convention leadership had maintained but long resisted publishing, according to several reports.
Most cases on the list, largely derived from individual news reports, were unlikely to surprise the local communities where the abuse allegedly occurred. But the roster offered a bird's-eye view of a problem whose scope was previously left to advocacy groups and journalists to assess.
SEEKING A FIX
In June 2022, delegates to the convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, California, approved another task force to implement reforms in the denomination.
Meanwhile, Hallmark said, in an effort under-girded by prayer and planned during several in-person meetings in Franklin, Tennessee, the Tennessee Baptist Convention task force group poured over state law and studied how the convention responds to abuse reports.
For Hallmark, one thing stood out: Many churches are lax on background checks.
"A lot of people just do not do the work it requires," he said, attributing this to the fact that many churches are small, served by part-time volunteers short on training and time.
(READ MORE: Former Chattanooga-area church volunteer, PTA president faces child molestation charges)
In November, the task force put out a resource booklet called "Ministering Well," which proposed 12 things a church can do to protect minors. It said two adults -- not a husband and wife -- should be in any room where minors are gathered, for example. And it said someone should be a church member for at least six months before being considered for work with minors.
The task force urged the widespread implementation of these and other recommendations across the state convention. But it had no authority to ensure this comes to pass, Hallmark said, "absolutely none."
In contrast to the top-down hierarchical structure of many denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention is, from one vantage, basically a loose network of like-minded churches, grouped through various associations and a cooperative agreement governing how money gets distributed to seminaries, to missions and to the Executive Committee.
Ultimately, Hallmark said, the best way for an individual Southern Baptist to ensure their church employs the task force-recommended policies is to ask.
The Hamilton County Baptist Association, largely made up of Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated churches, similarly lacks the authority to make member churches do anything, said its director of missions, Dennis Culbreth, by phone this week. But he estimated the majority of its members, particularly the bigger churches, apply rigorous policies to vet volunteers.
And he said the association is available to help churches respond to crises and implement preventative policies. A few years ago, it hosted a training on the matter -- and it is probably due to hold another one soon, he said.
The problem has not come up frequently, he said.
"And we are very thankful for it," he said.
This week's Executive Committee meeting demonstrated one recourse the denomination does have to discipline an out-of-favor church: oust it.
The committee moved to boot the legendary Saddleback Church in California from the convention because it had a woman pastor.
Hallmark said this and other plain violations of the Southern Baptist statement of faith would likely receive scrutiny in the Tennessee convention as well.
"If a local Baptist church decided to call a homosexual pastor, which we believe stands in opposition to the teaching of God's word, that would come before the credentials committee," he said.
And if a church were to hire a known sexual offender on staff or allow abuse allegations to fester without taking action, then that would be something the committee would look at, Hallmark said. But he doubts simple failure to implement the state task force's recommendations could get a church booted.
Ultimately, conscience, Hallmark said, is the main reason for individual churches to establish proactive policies to protect themselves from abuse, which he likens to fire alarms and defibrillators.
"The incentive is to protect people," he said. "We love people, we care for people, and we want to protect them."
"Everyone's against sex abuse," South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock told the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee on Monday in Nashville. "Even those who are abusers will say they're against sex abuse. Being against sex abuse is not difficult."
Given that, the job of the abuse reform task force he heads is more complicated than it would seem, he said.
For one, the financial toll of the sexual abuse investigations and associated lawsuits are adding up, as Baptist Press reported this week.
And sometimes, people say the problem is not that bad or prevalent, Blalock said.
But predators target vulnerable people at churches all the time, he said, and he has talked to many survivors. Some said their pastors asked them what they were wearing when they were attacked -- implying some kind of culpability, Blalock said. One college student said her pastor told her that such things don't happen to people who are walking with the Lord, he said.
Blalock reported early lessons his task force had learned. There has been no cooperative mechanism to relay information between churches to stop abusers from going from place to place, he said.
"Although we were told for decades this was impossible, last June our convention told us to get this done," Blalock said.
The committee was moving on its mandate to develop a ministry check database and public website, he said, and he announced that following a search, the task force recommended Guidepost Solutions, the same firm that investigated the Executive Committee, to maintain it.
Some Baptists, including Hallmark and Tennessee Baptist Mission Board Executive Director Randy Davis, had questioned the Biblical wisdom of employing the firm after it posted on social media during Gay Pride month that it was proud to be an ally to LGBTQ people.
"Like many of you, I was disappointed with a message conveyed in one of their tweets last June," Blalock said.
But he said Guidepost had altered its social media approach and similar posts would not recur -- and that, moreover, the firm had created a new faith-based division that would handle Southern Baptist Convention affairs.
"There is a new day dawning across the SBC," Blalock said. "Oh, that there's a day when every SBC church is the safest place on the planet for little boys and girls and adults, (where) people from all across the spectrum can hear good news of our savior."
The audience stood and applauded.
Soon after this, Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber approached the podium.
"Well," he said, "the president of the SBC would like to report that he's gonna preach."
He dove into Hebrews 11, describing it as a Hall of Fame of Biblical figures who, for all their profound flaws, found their faith at crucial moments along the way.
Faith, he said, does not always mean doing the riskiest thing.
"But it does mean doing the right thing," he said, "even if it's risky."
Contact Andrew Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6431.