Members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee responded Tuesday to a report revealing that some leaders on the committee covered up sexual abuse allegations for nearly two decades, and denigrated survivors in favor of protecting the denomination.
Willie McLaurin, interim president and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee, apologized to survivors “on behalf of all Southern Baptists.”
“Care for the vulnerable, should be our most important concern when dealing with sexual abuse… I want to issue a formal apology, and say that we are sorry to the survivors for all that we’ve done that caused hurt, pain and frustration,” he said during a meeting that was live-streamed.
The committee’s interim counsel Gene Besen said he requested the third-party firm that compiled and released the report, Guidepost Solutions, keep their hotline open for survivors.
He added that they plan to publicly release a list cited in the report that contains the names of hundreds of known abusers.
Following the meeting, the committee issued a statement saying it “seeks to make clear that it views engaging with survivors as a critical step toward healing our Convention from the scourge of sexual abuse and working to avoid its continued impact on our loved ones, their families, and our network of churches.”
Hannah-Kate Williams, an abuse survivor whose documented interactions with SBC leadership were requested by Guidepost Solutions for the firm’s investigation, told WFPL News she was “feeling a lot of different emotions” in the aftermath of the report’s release.
“There’s definitely some relief in knowing that the whole world is finally taking notice of what’s been going on within the Southern Baptist Convention,” she said. “However, there’s a deep sense of grief and anger at how religious leaders are still refusing to act on the information that’s out there.”
Williams was troubled by the debate Executive Committee trustees engaged in over “procedural concerns,” when she had hoped to see more response and action. The committee consists of dozens of elected representatives from around the country and oversees daily operations while the convention is not in season.
Williams felt the meeting showed that Southern Baptist leaders remain “very divided on this issue.”
“It was honestly just a deja vu from previous Executive Committee meetings where they’ll talk about it. They’ll be sad, they’ll say, ‘Of course, we support survivors.’ And unfortunately, apologies without steps of restitution and repentance don’t mean anything.”
Her “glimmer of hope” is the “response of the outside world, seeing that they won’t let justice rest on the shoulders of people who have already proven they don’t care about justice.”
For her, justice means Southern Baptist leaders, congregants, pastors, churches and members choose “to fight for those they’ve harmed before fighting and defending the institution.”
The report’s findings and the committee’s response
Guidepost Solutions, contracted by SBC, compiled the report after a months-long investigation.
Years prior, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News had released a watershed investigation showing how pervasive and widespread allegations of abuse were within the SBC’s ecclesiastical ecosystem.
Guidepost Solutions looked at the actions of members and staff of SBC’s Executive Committee between Jan. 1, 2000 and June 14, 2012, examining “mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, patterns of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.”
The firm’s investigation said select senior members of the Executive Committee, with the help of outside counsel, prioritized the denomination over survivors.
“Survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
The report also found that an Executive Committee staffer, over the course of about a decade, kept a list of Baptist clergy members accused of abuse and misconduct. The list included the names of accused ministers, related news stories, the state of the church and denomination.
“The most recent list prepared by the EC staff member contained the names of 703 abusers, with 409 believed to be SBC-affiliated at some point in time,” the report said.
Besen said, during Tuesday’s meeting, they’ve decided to make a redacted version of the list public.
“We’re currently working through the list,” he said. “We want to ensure that survivor names are redacted, that any confidential witnesses whose identity may be on the list is also redacted. And we want to make sure we take care to remove any uncorroborated allegations of sexual abuse.”
He did not specify when that redacted report would be released.
Besen said they’re also exploring whether the Executive Committee has the power to revoke retirement benefits of some named in the report, including former Executive Committee general counsel and interim EC president August “Augie” Boto – who, according to the report, wrote in an email that attention on sexual abuse allegations “is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel.”
SBC president Ed Litton asked his colleagues to remember that “a great wrong has taken place.”
“We have come too familiar with using techniques to slow processes down,” he said. And I think we need to really search our hearts and cry out to God in this moment for the purpose of truly lamenting what has taken place. And we need to be very mindful that the world is watching, and they don’t need to see business as usual.”
Kentucky Southern Baptist leaders respond
In his podcast on Monday, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler called the report “devastating, heartbreaking, and infuriating.”
He said he hoped the report could start a reckoning within SBC.
Mohler had also corroborated survivor Jennifer Lyell’s account of grooming sexual abuse by then-professor David Sills.
“Truth is, the report shows Southern Baptists in the worst light,” he continued later in the podcast episode. “We have to face that fact, but I must move ahead with the confidence based in long experience that faithful Southern Baptist lay people, pastors, and denominational leaders will do the right thing once they know what that right thing is.”
Leaders of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, a statewide ministry organization that includes nearly 2,400 Baptist churches, responded to the report with dismay and sadness.
According to a post in Kentucky Today, pastor of Zion’s Cause Baptist Church in Benton, Charles Frazier, has been a member of the SBC’s Executive Committee for several years. He said he hadn’t read the entire report yet, but found the contents shocking.
Frazier said he was interviewed, but told investigators he wasn’t aware of the numerous allegations nor how they were handled by his fellow members of the Executive Committee.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything. I do not have anything to share.’ That’s the truth.”
Executive director-treasurer Todd Gray told WFPL News KBC established its own task force soon after the SBC initiated one last summer. KBC is in the process of reviewing their policies on reporting and preventing sexual abuse.
“Same folks that did the investigation for SBC, we’ll use their folks to provide training for Kentucky Baptist Convention church leaders on how to make sure their church is a safe place.”
The trainings would also direct church leaders on what to do when an allegation is made and how to care for survivors of abuse.
Gray said anyone with an allegation of abuse at a KBC church can call his office.
Williams seeks justice through the legal system
Williams’ attorneys sent out a news release Friday saying Williams is suing her alleged abuser.
According to the release, the lawsuit also names the alleged abuser’s former employer Lifeway Christian Resources – the media publishing and distribution arm of SBC – SBC itself, plus the Executive Committee and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. It alleges that her alleged abuser “engaged in unlawful, harmful and offensive sexual conduct and physical abuse” toward Williams, and that SBTS failed to protect Williams and other children, the release said.
The suit is sealed due to a Kentucky law that the General Assembly passed during the 2021 legislative session. Williams’ attorney Vanessa Cantley said they simultaneously filed a motion to unseal it.
“We don’t want it sealed,” Cantley told WFPL. “We want it public. We want to shine a light on what happened to Hannah-Kate, and give voice to survivors whose statute of limitations in their own states have passed.”
The complaint said the abuse began when Williams was about 4, and became sexual when she was 8.
Williams had filed a previous complaint in August 2021, but had it dismissed in October after deciding to wait out the internal investigation.
SBC director of media relations Jon D. Wilke said they had not yet been served the lawsuit, but will respond after they do.
Caleb Shaw, executive assistant to the president and chief of staff at SBTS, told WFPL they also had not received the lawsuit and couldn’t comment “until we can actually read and see what it says.”
Williams said her experiences with SBC have shifted her relationship with religion and Christianity.
“I’ve learned that the Jesus that religion and institutionalized religion tend to portray is one of power and dominance, and that’s not a Jesus that I serve,” she said. “I serve a Jesus of sacrifice, and laying his life down for the good of another. And so I follow Christ, but I am not a fan of organized institutions.”