I started going to a small Southern Baptist church in South Carolina when I was eight weeks old. I went pretty much every week until I moved out of state when I was 21. I attended worship services on Sundays, Sunday School before worship, and then youth group on Wednesdays when I was old enough to be considered a “youth.” Many, many times, I was the only child in Sunday school, and I cannot say how grateful I am to the many people who showed up to pour into the one little girl who came on Sunday mornings. I believe it is because of them that I knew where to turn when I finally realized the weight of my sin.
Not all children who grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) were as lucky. Recent news articles — beginning with the three-part Houston Chronicle article titled “Abuse of Faith” — have revealed a dark side of the SBC that enabled abuse and disempowered victims for years.
What the Houston Chronicle Reported
According to the Houston Chronicle article, in 2007, a group of victims of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors requested the creation of a registry that would contain the names of current and former SBC church leaders who had been convicted of sex crimes, as well as those who had been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, this did not happen. In 2018, the topic was brought up again; however, this time, reporters from the Houston Chronicle did its own digging. These reporters were able to verify hundreds of accounts of abuse. Some of these abusers are STILL working in churches today. At least 35 pastors, employees, and volunteers who exhibited “predatory behavior” were still able to find jobs at churches during the past 20 years. In some cases, neither law enforcement nor their church congregations were notified.
The interesting part with that last bit of information is that, when asked, many in the Southern Baptist Convention reference the Southern Baptist belief of individual church autonomy as being the reason that they have not been able to punish those who have been accused of sexual abuse — even though there is credible evidence that the congregations in the churches are not even aware of the allegations of abuse.
Instead of getting rid of these predators and hiring people who don’t have a propensity for taking advantage of their position of power and destroying the lives of families in their congregation, they make excuses. Shockingly, the rules of the Southern Baptist Convention do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.
After the Houston Chronicle article was published, Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear made a compelling revelation that something must be done to stop the sexual abuse crisis sweeping through Southern Baptist churches. Unfortunately, days later, an SBC committee cleared the names of seven churches that had been accused of some form of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, there is still no registry of names produced by the Southern Baptist Convention.
How SBC Abuse Scandals Have Changed Me
Upon doing a small amount of searching online, countless names and stories come up of people who have been sexually abused in churches. As a parent, it’s frightening. One of the writers of the Houston Chronicle article said it best: “childhood sexual abuse is the absolute destruction of innocence.” When the perpetrator carrying out the sexual abuse is a member of a church, the results are devastating.
In light of this, I have had to rethink the way my own children will be raised in church. At a place where children should be able to run freely and feel safe, mine will instead have their every move monitored. Where I was dropped off to practice for church plays and productions, my children will have to endure their parents’ presence. Instead of assuming the best of people who speak to my children, I have to look at them with suspicion.
I have also had to redefine what I look for in a church. Now, a strong child protection policy is at the top of my list. When I graduated from law school, my family and I moved to a small town in South Carolina. It took us two years to find a church with a clear, written child protection policy.
I emailed every single church in the town. NONE responded to my emails. For us, the lack of any answers left us scrambling for a place to attend church. We struggled with whether it was worse to not attend church at all or to attend a church without a legitimate plan to protect our children. For these to be the only options is inexcusable.
Why Child Protection Policies Are Important
It seems telling that I never received a response from any of the Baptist churches I emailed. Churches interact with countless kids every week, and it is terrifying that not having a written child protection plan is even an option. The church should be leading the way in child protection, not struggling to catch up. It should be empowering victims and educating parents.
Instead, I found that many parents don’t even know what a child protection policy is, let alone why it’s important for a church to have one. When I took my question to Facebook, looking for a church with a child protection policy, people wanted to know what I meant. I was told to attend this church or that church because “good people go there.” But how many times have predators in church been called “good people?”
Being a “good person” is not enough. No child predator wears a sign around his or her neck, advertising that they are interested in children. Instead, they come in disguised as the nicest person on the planet. The child predator is most often not the “pervert in the basement,” but the nice man sitting in the pew behind you. Or the one who always volunteers. Or the one in the choir.
Of course, not every nice person is a predator, but the fact that anyone could be means parents shouldn’t settle for a place full of “good people.” A strong child protection policy is necessary to ensure that no one — even people who seem “good” — is given the opportunity to victimize a child.
What Comes Next? A Call to Change
It seems child abuse has fallen into the category of subjects that we politely ignore. According to SBC.net, the Southern Baptist Convention has stated as recently as 2018 that they “reaffirm the sacredness and full dignity and worthiness of respect and Christian love for every single human being, without any reservation whatsoever…” I guess that only goes for children who are unborn. Once they’re born, the church too often seems to say, “Never mind.”
It is time for us, as a body of Southern Baptists, to come together and demand reformation. No, sexual abuse is not a fun topic. It isn’t an easy topic. But it is a topic that MUST be openly discussed.
Child sexual abuse does not just go away. It seems as if many people believe that children are “just kids” — as if their age makes them unimportant. As if they don’t matter. Psalm 127:3-4 says, “Don’t you see that children are God’s best gift? The fruit of the womb his generous legacy?”
When a child is sexually abused, it infiltrates every aspect of their life even after they are an adult. So many times, sexual abuse is the generational legacy that is inherited. When the abuser is the one who is supposed to be shepherding and serving as a picture of God to that child, the results can last for eternity.
In so many of the articles that I have read, the survivors of sexual abuse are told to forgive their abusers. How can we even get to that point when they are not sorry? IF a pedophile is truly repentant, the last place that he or she would be found is among a church’s children. They certainly would not be lurking in the choir loft or behind the pulpit.
For that matter, how can a seemingly unrepentant denomination ask its flock to trust and forgive without making any changes that will ensure these crimes won’t continue under its watch? If the Southern Baptist Convention truly wanted to stop this atrocious crime against the most innocent on this earth, they could.
It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were hurled into the sea, than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble in sin and lose faith.
Luke 17:2 (AMP)
If you are an abuse survivor in search of healing, we invite you to join our secure Survivor Tribe community. This social media-style support group allows you to connect with other survivors who understand what you’re going through. To learn more, visit the Survivor Tribe website, survivortribewv.com.
To learn more about child protection policies and how to make your church a safer place, visit netgrace.org.
About the Author: Bethany Lockliear is an attorney (and currently a stay-at-home mom) with a 5-year-old boy, John-Rhett, and a 2-year-old little girl, Annabelle. As the wife of an abuse survivor who was brave enough to break the generational cycle, Bethany has seen how the ramifications of abuse infiltrate every single aspect of a survivor’s life. Her goal is to help eradicate child abuse because she truly believes that our children come straight from heaven and are the truest living examples of how God loves us.