BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Puffing a cigarette outside a coffee shop, Jules Woodson, the sexual abuse victim who helped set off a reckoning over abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, paused to take a measure of the progress toward addressing the problem during the group’s annual meeting this week.
The 8,000 church representatives, called “messengers,” overwhelmingly agreed Wednesday to pass a resolution condemning the crime as “evil” and calling on government authorities to review statutes of limitations for prosecuting perpetrators. The day before, they had agreed to amend the faith group’s constitution to remove from their ranks churches that mishandle sexual abuse. The same day, more than two-thirds also voted to designate a committee to review questions of sexual abuse.
Does Woodson, who is also an advocate, think that is enough? “It’s a good step,” Woodson said. “It’s a little step.”
Woodson’s mix of some optimism and much caution was shared by many who attended the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) here, where the major agenda item was tackling widespread allegations of clergy sexual abuse that have surfaced over the past year in particular.
Woodson’s 2018 allegation that Andy Savage, then her Southern Baptist youth pastor, sexually assaulted her when she was 17, made national headlines and is widely viewed as one of the tipping points that have led Southern Baptists to confront the problem in their ranks. A series of reports by the Houston Chronicle earlier this year documenting hundreds of abuse stories within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination also helped push the issue front and center.
‘Give us courage’
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear wiped tears from his face on the last day of the meeting as dozens of self-identified abuse victims stood up during a prayer asking for forgiveness for protecting institutions over survivors.
In an impassioned speech, preceded by prayers of lamentation, he blamed the crisis on years of cover-ups. He praised the new anti-abuse curriculum being offered to all SBC churches and seminaries and said the SBC must do better in screening potential pastors.
“Give us courage to make changes that genuine repentance requires,” said Greear, who became president last year and immediately prioritized the matter of sexual abuse, launched an advisory group on the topic and shaped the meeting’s agenda.
However, the final measures fell short for some, and many worried about the pace of progress.
Advocates, including Woodson, had called for SBC leaders to receive mandatory training and for a sex offender database for the clergy to keep predators from moving from church to church. Greear had backed studying creation of a database and had recommended incorporating screening and background checks for its trustee nominees.
Although they can have considerable influence, SBC presidents serve for one-year terms with a maximum of two consecutive terms and have limited authority to act on their own. None of those measures was included in the resolutions, and previous consideration of an offenders’ database in the past was knocked down in deference to individual churches’ “autonomy.”
Southern Baptist leaders have taken on the issue of clergy sexual abuse the same week U.S. Catholic bishops are discussing their own response to the crisis around the problem in their own faith at a meeting in Baltimore. After Southern Baptists passed their final resolution, some insiders likened the convention’s tackling of the problem to steering a huge ship — something not unlike the problem facing Catholics. Change could take years they said, and perseverance will be required.
“The question is whether the leadership is going to be stubbornly persistent and doesn’t move on to other issues,” said Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and a longtime advocate for sexual abuse victims.
He called the SBC’s actions this week “hopeful first steps” but said it is unclear how the changes will come to permeate the full range of Southern Baptist churches, which include small rural churches and megachurches.
The SBC’s challenge is, in some ways, opposite the one before the Catholic Church: Unlike the pope and the extensive hierarchy governing and sometimes thwarting action in the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention is decentralized, with no hierarchy or overarching leadership. Individual churches are autonomous, so “disfellowship,” or removal from the convention ranks, is the primary internal enforcement mechanism.
The convention’s constitution already allows for severing ties with churches that have female pastors, and this week’s vote is the first step toward including the mishandling of sexual abuse complaints. Southern Baptists will have to vote again next year to finalize the amendment.
On Wednesday, an amendment was put forward to put sexual abuse survivor Susan Codone on the “credentials” committee, which also will review racism and other issues that call a church’s relationship with the SBC into question. But that amendment failed.
‘Going to take time’
Mike Stone, chairman of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, and who was abused as a child, opposed the addition of Codone in place of another member. He explained that the chairman serves as a member of the committee and that, at this time, he can be considered a representative survivor on the committee.
Mary DeMuth, a messenger from a Southern Baptist church in Dallas, called the vote disappointing because Codone’s story of abuse at the hands of two Southern Baptist ministers was so well received earlier this week. DeMuth, who said she was abused when she was 5 years old by Boy Scouts and has written on the issue, said she believes, with the votes, that best practices are starting to be implemented.
“With a big entity like this, it’s going to take time,” she said. “I understand the impatience from others, but I’m a little more cautiously hopeful.”
Woodson said that while she feels she is “supposed to be happy and encouraged” by the Convention’s actions, her own experience has made her more cautious.
Woodson noted that church leaders mostly ignored her requests for the disfellowship of the Southern Baptist church in Texas where she says her abuse was mishandled, even though Southern Baptist rules have allowed it before the vote this week to encode it in the constitution. After Woodson raised the allegations privately, Savage disclosed the decades-old “sexual incident” to an applauding congregation of Highpoint Church in Memphis last year.
Woodson, a flight attendant based in Colorado Springs, has called on Steve Bradley, the longtime senior pastor of StoneBridge Church who she says mishandled her abuse allegations, to resign. (Bradley did not respond to interview requests Wednesday.)
“Really?” she said of Southern Baptist leaders. “Are you doing all you can do?”