Probe of Southern Baptist sex abuse response moves forward

Sep 19, 2021, 5:57 AM | Updated: 6:01 am
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 11, 2019 file photo, Jules Woodson, center, of Colorado Springs, Colo....

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 11, 2019 file photo, Jules Woodson, center, of Colorado Springs, Colo., is comforted by her boyfriend Ben Smith, left, and Christa Brown while demonstrating outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala. First-time attendee Woodson spoke through tears as she described being abused sexually by a Southern Baptist minister. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

(AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — The Rev. Marshall Blalock feels the weight of his new responsibility.

The South Carolina pastor serves as vice chair of a recently formed Southern Baptist Convention task force charged with overseeing an investigation into how a top denominational committee handled sex abuse allegations, a review that comes years into the SBC’s public reckoning with the scandal.

Blalock thinks the work of the task force, set into motion in June by a vote of Southern Baptists at a national gathering, could be a foundational part of how the SBC addresses the issue in the future.

“If the task force does what the convention’s asked us to do, if the Executive Committee responds favorably, I think we’re making huge first steps toward really setting the future toward preventing and appropriately responding to and caring for sexual abuse survivors,” Blalock said.

The sex abuse scandal was thrust into the spotlight in 2019 by a landmark report from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News documenting hundreds of cases in Southern Baptist churches, including several in which alleged perpetrators remained in ministry.

Appointed by new SBC President Ed Litton, the seven-member task force of pastoral, legal, counseling and advocacy professionals is charged with overseeing an outside firm’s probe of allegations that the Executive Committee mishandled abuse cases, resisted reforms and intimidated victims and advocates.

“We’re tired of abuse, and it has to be dealt with,” Litton, who was elected in June amid divisions over race, women’s roles in the church and how to address the abuse issue, said during a recent event. “But I also think a clear message came out that this is not a witch hunt. That this is an opportunity for us to pave the way for the future.”

More than two months in, the task force has completed two key tasks: picking Guidepost Solutions to be the third-party firm conducting the probe, and asking the Executive Committee to waive attorney-client privilege for the purposes of the investigation at its upcoming business meeting.

“It’s all about uncovering the truth so we can deal with it,” said the Rev. Bruce Frank, a North Carolina pastor and task force chair.

The Executive Committee has welcomed the selection of Guidepost, noting it is the same investigative firm it had planned to use before the task force was formed.

“We look forward to meeting again with Guidepost in order to expeditiously coordinate our activities in support of their important work,” the committee said this month in a statement.

Jules Woodson, a church sexual abuse survivor based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, remains wary but is hopeful that meaningful change may be ahead for the SBC. She was encouraged after meeting with the task force, she said, and is willing to engage with Guidepost even though she is still skeptical of the firm.

“It is so hard as a survivor to put faith, hope and trust in people and processes and a system that has continuously failed us,” Woodson said. “For the first time in forever, we are finally seeing steps being taken in the right direction.”

She said she cried tears of joy when the trustees of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public policy arm, recently indicated the ERLC is willing to lead an assessment of sexual abuse within the denomination, and set a plan in motion to figure out how to do it.

“The evil of abuse must continue to be confronted,” Brent Leatherwood, the commission’s acting president, said in a statement. “As we’ve stated before, our churches must be safe for survivors and safe from abuse.”

The motion approved by delegates at the June gathering directed the task force to agree to the standards and best practices recommended by the third-party investigator, “including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the review.”

Frank, the task force chair, sent a formal request Aug. 2 for privilege to be waived, calling it “critical to ensure full access to relevant information, complete accountability and transparency, and properly assess steps for reform.”

The Executive Committee did not make a commitment in its statement, but says it is not opposed in principle to such a request and “speculation to the contrary is internet rumor and untrue.” The committee meets Monday and Tuesday and is expected to take up the waiver issue.

Executive Committee Chair Rolland Slade said he supports the request because it is the will of the members at the June conference: “We have the duty to execute and to observe the wishes of the messengers.”

Attorney and advocate Rachael Denhollander, who is one of two advisers to the task force, said identifying, recognizing and acknowledging truth is crucial to making meaningful and effective change.

“If the executive committee decides not to waive privilege, then they are sending a clear message that they’re rejecting accountability and transparency,” Denhollander said.

Woodson said all would not be lost in such a scenario, but the onus would once again be placed on survivors.

“How many times,” she said, “do we have to come forward and tell our stories over and over and over again?”

___

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Probe of Southern Baptist sex abuse response moves forward