The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) sexual abuse lawsuits result from allegations of sexual abuse within its 47,000 member churches.
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What Do We Know About the Southern Baptist Convention Sex Abuse Lawsuits?
On Sunday, May 22, 2022, Guidepost Solutions released a report exposing two decades of sexual misconduct and sex abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Guidepost was hired to investigate multiple allegations against SBC’s Executive Committee (EC) staff and member churches with regard to:
- Sexual abuse
- Mishandling sex abuse
- Mistreating sexual abuse victims
- Intimidating sexual abuse victims or advocates
- Resisting sexual abuse reform initiatives
According to the report, for many years, sex abuse survivors have been reaching out to the SBC EC in every conceivable manner—phone calls, postal mail, emails, personal appearances at SBC meetings, rallies, and contacting the media—and members of the committee responded with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.”
The report further states, “Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse ... and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC.”
According to the Guidepost report, the SBC had collected the names of 703 abusers. Of the alleged abusers, 409 were likely affiliated with the SBC. The EC aimed to avoid liability for these abuses by refusing to investigate reports of abuse. Nor did the EC take steps to prevent ministers accused of sexual abuse to hold positions of power in SBC churches.
The report further describes how the survivors of sexual abuse were characterized as opportunistic individuals looking for lawsuits. These victims were broken down and publicly vilified, while their accounts of abuse were trivialized and their abusers permitted to quietly leave their respective churches or in some cases, even continue in their positions of authority in their churches or the SBC.
The EC rejected a slew of reform proposals over the 20 years that Guidepost investigated. The firm reports that fear of incurring legal liability spurred the committee to reject many of these proposals.
What Prompted the Southern Baptist Convention Sex Abuse Investigation?
Guidepost’s investigation occurred over a seven month period, during which time the firm conducted 330 interviews and analyzed thousands of internal SBC files. The firm’s involvement resulted from a single piece of investigative journalism.
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published an editorial series uncovering the fact that 700 hundred individuals had been victims of sex crimes at the hands of SBC church leaders and volunteers. Since 2000, hundreds of these church representatives had been criminally charged with sex crimes. Reporters also exposed SBC leaders’ mishandling, concealing, or ignoring of warnings that such abuses were occurring.
Decades of Sexual Misconduct and Cover-Ups
According to the Houston Chronicle’s 2019 investigative series:
- Since 1998, around 380 SBC church leaders and volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct.
- At least 35 of those who had displayed “predatory behavior” continued to find employment at SBC churches.
- SBC past presidents and leaders were among those accused of hiding or mishandling complaints of abuse in their churches/seminaries.
- Registered sex offenders still preach.
Acts of sexual misconduct included molestation, exposure to pornography, being photographed nude, and repeated acts of rape—with many victims being adolescents and some as young as 3 years old.
Guidepost Brought in as Objective Investigators of Sex Abuse at SBC
This mounting exposure and media attention nudged the Executive Committee leadership to take action. In 2021, SBC delegates demanded a third-party investigation of SBC leaders after allegations that some had mishandled accusations of sexual abuse within the churches.
As part of the investigation, the SBC executive committee was compelled to release confidential documents and other communications the committee allegedly either covered up or mishandled since 2000. Among these communications were those between SBC lawyers—and were previously confidential.
What Are the Main Legal Issues?
The key legal issues include fault, which the SBC largely admits, as well as the damages to victims.
The SBC has admitted to knowing about specific incidences of sex abuse, has admitted to multiple incidences of failing to act on reported crimes, and failed to work to prevent further crimes within the member churches. Despite owning and operating the national press for the organization, the SBC failed to warn members of the harm for over 20 years.
Furthermore, it is one thing to be abused and another to seek help from a trusted source and to be called a liar publicly or to a circle of people you trust and hold in high regard. Additional claims of negligence, slander, and other direct harms related to the SBC abusing its position of authority and power by elevating the positions of abusers, giving them more power, while simultaneously harassing and harming victims and survivors are also anticipated based on publicly available reports and findings that have been published to date.
What Is Sexual Abuse and Assault?
The definition of sexual abuse and assault varies from one state to the next. Generally, however, this offense occurs when one of the individuals involved does not consent to the sexual contact or activity, or they are coerced, incapacitated, or underage.
Sexual assault can take many forms, including rape, attempted rape, or sexually touching another person’s body (even through their clothes) without the victim’s consent.
Sexual abuse of a child can manifest as forcible rape, psychologically pressuring or coercing a child for sexual gratification, showing a child pornography, exposing oneself to a child, or photographing/viewing a child within a sexual context.
Injuries & Side Effects of Sexual Abuse
Studies have linked sexual assault with several possible physical, mental, and emotional outcomes. The emotional effects of child sexual abuse can last a lifetime, particularly in cases where the offender is a trusted adult, such as would be the case with a minister or church authority.
According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), childhood sexual abuse can generate long-term emotional responses, including depression, anxiety, and anger.
According to the Guidepost report, SBC sex abuse survivors were equally traumatized by how churches responded to their reports of sexual abuse.
Investigators reported that survivors of all ages “spoke of trauma from the initial abuse, but also told us of the debilitating effects that come from the response of the churches and institutions like the SBC that did not believe them, ignored them, mistreated them, and failed to help them.”
With regard to physical outcomes, the ACOG reports the following common diagnoses for survivors of childhood sexual abuse:
- Pelvic pain
- Nonspecific vaginitis
- Gastrointestinal disorders
The CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) Foundation identifies several other long-term side effects, including:
- Gynecological complications
- Heart disease
Child sexual abuse victims can experience the following injuries and side effects:
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Brain damage from stress hormones
- Suicidal tendencies
What Compensation Is Recoverable in a Southern Baptist Convention Sex Abuse Lawsuit?
The Southern Baptist Convention is not the first case of a large organization facing potential civil lawsuits for sexual abuse.
In 2022, the University of California agreed to a $700 million settlement to resolve hundreds of lawsuits brought by alleged victims of a UCLA gynecologist Dr. James Heaps. Similar to allegations in the Southern Baptist Convention lawsuits, UCLA also reportedly ignored reports of Dr. Heaps’ sexual abuse.
The Boy Scouts of America have faced similar lawsuits from 84,000 people alleging they were sexually abused as children by scout leaders and volunteers. In 2021, NBC News reported the organization reached an $850 million settlement to resolve these cases.
Perhaps the strongest parallels can be drawn between the SBC case and that faced by Catholic dioceses. More than 8,600 victims of sexual assault by members of the Catholic clergy resulted in lawsuits from survivors—and a $3.8 billion settlement.
Lawsuits against SBC could enable survivors to recover a wide array of damages. The types and amounts of damages any single plaintiff could recover depend on the specific details of their case. Examples of some of the types of damages include the following:
- Costs of past and future medical treatment and surgery
- Past and future medical expenses
- Past and future lost wages
- Past and future pain and suffering connected to injuries, treatment, and recovery
- Past and future diminished enjoyment of life
- Loss of earning capacity
- Possible punitive damages
Levin Papantonio Rafferty’s sexual assault lawsuit attorneys will work to get you the maximum financial compensation to compensate you for your losses stemming from the sex abuse you suffered at the hands of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Timeline Important to the Southern Baptist Convention Sex Abuse Lawsuits
05/24/2022: SBC leaders announce they will release a secret list of ministers and church employees who have been credibly accused of sex abuse.
05/22/2022: Guidepost Solutions issues its investigative report on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.
05/13/2022: Former Senior Vice President of Evangelism and Leadership at the North American Mission Board, the SBC’s domestic missions agency, resigns.
06/2021: Former leader of SBC’s public policy arm, Russell Moore, leaves SBC and leaks letters sent to SBC leadership to the press. The letters detailed the SBC’s mishandling of sexual abuse claims.
06/2019: SBC delegates approve a resolution condemning sex abuse, establish a special investigations committee to investigate abuse claims, and make it easier to expel churches that mishandle sexual abuse claims.
06/2019: Houston Chronicle publishes an online searchable database of SBU officials and volunteers convicted of sex abuse crimes.
02/10/2019: Houston Chronicle publishes the first article in a three-part series: “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reform.”
02/18/2019: Houston Chronicle reviews court databases, prison records, sex offender registries, and official documents and confirms hundreds of incidents of abuse.
What Is the Southern Baptist Convention?
The SBC comprises an 86-member executive committee; 47,000 independent member churches; and around 15 million members across the U.S. (not just the South). The executive committee serves as fiduciary, handling business and fiscal matters for the member churches. However, the churches are for the most part autonomous, sharing only their faith in scripture, resources, funding for seminaries, and trips, and a common philosophy about church governance.
The EC used the churches’ autonomy to explain the committee’s lack of power to act on allegations of abuse within the SBC.