Originally published for the Religion News Service.
(RNS) — After months of mounting pressure and new charges of ignoring sexual abuse claims, the Southern Baptist Convention is lining up experts and church leaders in a bid to help the denomination confront the problem.
J. D. Greear, the newly elected president of the SBC, announced Thursday (July 26) the formation of a Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group. The working group will “consider how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernible action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse,” according to a press release. It will also make recommendations for creating safe environments in churches and institutions.
“Over the next year, I look forward to hearing from this group and partnering with our churches, state conventions, local associations, seminaries and national entities to determine what we can do to equip churches to minister effectively and stand guard against any who would seek to prey on the vulnerable,” Greear said in a statement Thursday.
The new advisory panel marks an early concrete step as the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. aims to root out sexual abuse and coverups. At the SBC’s annual meeting in Dallas in June, delegates passed a resolution condemning “all forms of abuse” and affirming that pastors must report allegations to civil authorities.
The new panel comes as scandals related to sexual misconduct and sexual abuse continue to roil the denomination. Allegations have led to resignations or firings of several leading figures in the denomination in recent months, including former president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, Frank Page. Other scandals involved Andy Savage and Paul Pressler, Baptist leaders who had both allegedly abused individuals and didn’t face repercussions for their actions until long after the abuse had been committed. Pressler denies the allegations.
This month (July), the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the SBC International Mission Board had known for more than a decade about a sexual abuse claim against former missionary Mark Aderholt but had not reported it to civil authorities. Aderholt was charged in July 2018 with sexual assault of a child under 17.
On Wednesday (July 25), IMB President David Platt announced that an outside organization would begin an independent examination of IMB’s policies and practices “to ensure that our current commitment to zero tolerance for child abuse, sexual abuse and sexual harassment is completely and consistently enforced across IMB.” He also apologized to Anne Marie Miller, who came forward with the abuse allegation against Aderholt, and “others who have walked through similar experiences.”
“I want to apologize for various ways we in the IMB have contributed to such hurt and pain through our response to this point,” said Platt in a statement.
Activists who lobbied at the June annual meeting for a tougher stance on abuse welcomed the creation of the new panel. Wade Burleson, Oklahoma pastor and longtime advocate against sexual abuse in the SBC, called the initiative “airtight.”
“This study group, this task force composed of outside experts — I think that’s key,” Burleson said.
Advocate Ashley Easter said the group could likely be effective as long as it is “listening to the right people’s advice.” The composition, she said, should be “at least 50 percent women, a large percentage of survivors (male and female) and SBC abuse victim experts and non-SBC advocate experts.”