From Wire Reports

Entangled in a multifaceted sex-abuse crisis, the Southern Baptist Convention this week is having a high-profile conference on the topic that has kindled skepticism even among some of the scheduled speakers.

The three-day Caring Well conference opened Thursday at a resort hotel near Dallas, drawing hundreds of pastors and church officials from the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. for a program featuring victim advocates, attorneys, therapists and at least 10 survivors of sexual abuse.

“This is the time, normally, at one of our conferences I would say how glad we are to have you here,” Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of the SBC commission that organized the conference, said as the meeting began. “But the key emotion we’re feeling right now is not one of gladness, but grief.”

Among the speakers on the meeting’s opening day was Megan Lively, who last year charged that her allegations of rape while she was a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003 were mishandled by then-President Paige Patterson. He was forced from his post at the institution in May 2018.

Public awareness of the issue broadened in February, when the Houston Chronicle unveiled the results of an investigation into widespread sexual abuse in SBC churches. The Chronicle identified some 700 victims over the course of 20 years, some of whom had reported their abuse and were urged to forgive their abusers or get abortions.

“To Southern Baptist leaders, it was a problem to be silenced,” Lively said, as she tearfully recounted her story to the packed conference hall.

She was one of several women who told stories of abuse within the church.

The first survivor to speak was Susan Codone, a professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, who said she was abused as a teenager by the youth minister and pastor at her SBC church in Alabama.

She said she’s grateful church leaders now seem to be taking the sex abuse problem seriously, but suggested progress would come faster if the denomination — which espouses male leadership at church and in the home — brought more women into leadership roles.

“The anger in the survivor community has been extremely valuable for instigating change,” Codone said before the meeting began. “But changing the culture of the SBC will take generations.”

Skepticism

There’s been some sharp criticism of the conference from several anti-abuse activists who were not invited to speak, including Christa Brown, an author and retired attorney who said she was abused by a Southern Baptist minister as a child. She suggested that organizers opted to invite survivors whose stories were deemed “risk-free for the SBC.”

“They have picked those who don’t ask anything of them at this point,” said Brown, who has been pushing the SBC to create an independently run database listing pastors and other church personnel who have been credibly accused of abuse.

The conference was organized by the church’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which has a national meeting every year in its role as the SBC’s public policy arm. It decided in April to scrap its planned theme, “Gospel Courage,” and instead devote the entire meeting to the sex-abuse crisis wracking the SBC and other churches.

The commission’s president, the Rev. Russell Moore, said he and his colleagues sought a diverse array of speakers and are urging them to be “candid and forthright.”

“I can understand skepticism from all sorts of people, given the track record of the church, especially over the past several years,” he said.

The conference is not intended to produce new policies or recommendations. Its goal, Moore said, is to provide churches with expert advice on how to prevent abuse and support abuse survivors.

Intensifying crisis

Due to multiple scandals, sex abuse became a major issue for the SBC in 2018. Its president, the Rev. J.D. Greear, formed an advisory group to draft recommendation s on how to confront the problem.

The crisis intensified this year, in part due to investigations by the Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. Many of the accused clergy returned to church duties, the newspapers reported, and hundreds of victims were left with little in the way of justice or apologies.

At the SBC’s national meeting in June in Birmingham, Alabama, Greear issued an emotional apology for the crisis as he shared a stage with tearful survivors of abuse.

Among the most prominent invitees to this weekend’s conference is attorney/activist Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with sexual assault complaints against now-imprisoned former sports doctor Larry Nassar.

“Looking at the lineup of speakers, there are some incredibly important voices, but there are others who don’t have credibility in the survivor network,” said Denhollander, who attends a Reformed Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky. “You’re going to see a very sharp divide between those who want to deal with the problem honestly and those who want to preserve the status quo.”

Another scheduled speaker is Boz Tchividjian, an attorney who is the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and who heads GRACE, an organization working to combat sexual abuse in faith-based organizations.

Tchividjian has close ties with many abuse survivors and said he understands many of their concerns about the SBC’s resolve in combating this problem. He said he initially wrestled with his decision before agreeing to speak, but intends to be “constructively direct” about how the SBC is fueling such concerns among many people who were abused within SBC churches.

‘Substantive lament’

“I think the SBC must go through a season of substantive lament, learning and changes if it ever wants to become a genuine leader in preventing and addressing all forms of abuse,” Tchividjian said. “I want to remain hopeful for change, but time will be the true test.”

Psychologist Diane Langberg, who runs a clinic near Philadelphia, is addressing the conference on how to help support abuse survivors. She’s an expert on abuse and other traumas occurring in the context of Christian churches, and said she wants to provide “a strong voice” at the conference on behalf of victims.

“This is a systemic issue — and it’s going to take years for a system to change,” she said. “It’s like turning a huge ship. I want to strengthen the voices calling for the ship to turn, so they do it strongly and clearly, and know it’s a long haul.”

Among abuse survivors, there are sharply contrasting views about the church’s anti-abuse efforts.

Jules Woodson, a Colorado Springs-based flight attendant, said she was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor in Texas two decades ago at age 17 and received no support after reporting the incident to her senior pastors. Only in 2018 did Woodson file a police report, eventually prompting the former youth pastor to apologize and resign from his current church position.

The upcoming conference, Woodson said, “is giving off a false hope that the SBC is taking this seriously.”

“I have not seen genuine repentance or genuine moves toward change,” she said. “It’s all words right now — it’s lip service.”

By contrast, Megan Lively of Wilson, North Carolina, said she’s been solidly supported by SBC leaders since identifying herself as a key figure in a 2003 sexual-assault incident that contributed to last year’s ouster of the Rev. Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson was faulted for discouraging Lively from filing a report with police after she told school administrators she’d been raped by a fellow student while attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson was president of the school at the time.

Lively, one of the scheduled speakers at the conference, said she doesn’t consider herself a “safe option” for the organizers.

“I know that SBC leaders have listened to women inside and outside the church,” she said. “For over a year, I’ve been telling them things, making suggestions. They have listened to me.”

Added Lively, “For me, it’s more important to stay involved in the process from within than to demand change from the outside.”

The Southern Baptist Convention encompasses more than 47,000 individual churches. It had 14.8 million members in 2018.

— This story includes information from The Associated Press and Religion News Service.