700 Victims Listed In Sexual Abuse Probe Of Southern Baptist Churches

Feb 11, 2019
Originally published on February 11, 2019 9:39 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are some numbers that stand out in this next story, which some listeners will find disturbing. A 20-year period, at least 220 abusers, 700 victims - those figures are at the heart of an investigation by the Houston Chronicle. The paper documented these sexual abuses inside some Southern Baptist churches, primarily in Texas. Joining us now, the Houston Chronicle's Robert Downen. He was one of the journalists who reported this story. Thanks for being with us.

ROBERT DOWNEN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We should note these churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. Can you just give us an idea of the scope of your investigation and what you found?

DOWNEN: Sure. So we wanted to focus on the 20 years since 1998 because it was kind of a perfect bookend from, you know, 10 years prior to 2008, when activists and victims really, really made their strongest plea with Southern Baptist Convention leaders for reforms. Those pleas were rejected.

So what we found was, you know, 700 people had reported being victimized. Roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers had faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Of those, we were able to confirm convictions for at least 220, and there are, you know, dozens more with pending cases. A few of those were people who were credibly accused, successfully sued or confessed or resigned because of the allegations. And, yeah, as you said, we found more of those in Texas than in any other state.

MARTIN: So church leaders - I mean, you say these go back decades, these allegations, and in some cases convictions. So how were people not aware? I mean, why was the broader Southern Baptist Convention and parishioners not aware?

DOWNEN: Well - so I think it's a - that's a tough question to answer because, you know, the structure of the Southern Baptist Convention is inherently different than a lot of other faiths or religions. You know, whereas in the Catholic Church, you have a lot of record-keeping and, you know, a - kind of a hierarchy and a pope and bishops that people would answer to, the Southern Baptist Convention is very decentralized.

It's more actually of a cooperative than it is any kind of denomination. And so there's not necessarily a lot of communication between church leader - or leaders of individual churches and, you know, the people who are in charge per se as executive committee members.

MARTIN: So if there was an abuser in a particular church, there was no obligation to report it to a higher authority. They just managed it quietly and moved on.

DOWNEN: Correct. And we found that with numerous cases, that, you know, because there is no central record-keeping of ordinations, sexual abuse allegations or convictions, it is somewhat - or significantly easier than probably in most faiths for people who have been accused of something but never, you know, charged criminally to find new work in Southern Baptist churches.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction to the investigation? I mean, what are church officials saying to all this?

DOWNEN: So Southern Baptist Convention officials, mainly the current president, J.D. Greear, and others, they've been generally receptive to what we've found. There - obviously, there was a lot of stuff that happened in the last year that kind of primed them for this and, I think, made our findings a lot more palatable. And they've definitely made it seem as if they're open to implementing, you know, some pretty broad reforms. So...

MARTIN: Even though that had been brought up years ago, and the church didn't move forward on the - those reforms. So we'll see if this makes a difference. Robert Downen, reporter for the Houston Chronicle. He joined us via Skype. Thanks so much for your time this morning and sharing your investigation.

DOWNEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.