(RNS) — At their annual meeting last month in Anaheim, California, Southern Baptists passed a series of reforms to address sexual abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Local church delegates, known as messengers, also passed a resolution, calling on states to make pastoral sexual misconduct a crime. Such misconduct is “a clear abuse of authority and trust,” the resolution states, similar to the trust placed in doctors, teachers, therapists and other helping professionals.
Since many states prohibit sexual relationships between those helping professionals and their patients or clients — they should also treat sexual relationships between pastors and members of their flocks as crimes, not simply a moral failing, according to the resolution.
Getting local churches to embrace that idea may be difficult.
Many still have a hard time seeing sexual misconduct by pastors as abusive. Particularly when the one abused is an adult, Baptists and other faith groups often view the survivor as the tempter — a sinner who led a holy man astray — rather than as a church member in need of care. Meanwhile, the fallen pastor is just another sinner who needs Jesus, said Andrew Hébert, pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas.
“There’s been an assumption that this is a brother who needs to be restored — rather than realizing this is a wolf who’s trying to attack the sheep,” said Hébert. “The sheep need to be protected.”
Hébert was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s sex abuse task force, whose work helped lead to the reforms passed this summer. He said Southern Baptists have often treated pastoral misconduct as a “moral failing” or an affair between consenting adults.
“I think today, we’ve come to know that actually is an abusive situation,” he said.
Not all Southern Baptist leaders agree. A recent report by Guidepost Solutions, which found that SBC leaders had mistreated abuse survivors and downplayed the issue of abuse for decades, has come under fire for describing sexual misconduct as abuse.
Mark Coppenger, a former SBC seminary president, dismissed that report as overblown during the annual meeting in June and in a follow-up interview. He was particularly skeptical of the story of Jen Lyell, a former SBC publishing executive who reported long-term abuse by a former seminary professor. The Guidepost report criticized SBC leaders for describing the abuse as an immoral relationship — something they later apologized for. The SBC’s Executive Committee also reached a settlement with Lyell.
“I do think the Jennifer Lyell thing is really sketchy,” said Coppenger.
A number of SBC pastors have also shared a recent article from a conservative outlet, The Daily Wire, critical of Lyell and Guidepost. The article questioned claims that Lyell had reported her abuse to police. However, Maj. Mark Timperman of the Jeffersontown, Kentucky, Police Department told Religion News Service in a phone call that Lyell had reported the abuse but declined to press charges. In a statement posted in response to The Daily Wire story, Lyell said she had provided documentation of the abuse allegations to the SBC’s Executive Committee and that several church leaders had corroborated those allegations.
In February, California pastor Rolland Slade, then-chair of the Executive Committee, read an apology to Lyell during one of the committee’s meetings, while also announcing the two sides had reached a resolution.
“The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failures to Ms. Lyell, including the unintentional harm created by its failure to report Ms. Lyell’s allegations of nonconsensual sexual abuse were investigated and unequivocally corroborated by the SBC entities with authority over Ms. Lyell and her abuser,” he said.
A recent message by Georgia pastor Mike Stone, a former SBC presidential candidate, addressed sexual misconduct involving “seemingly consenting adults.” In it, Stone said a pastor who engages in “immorality” has abused their authority and has more culpability.
“But if a grown, competent woman willingly and voluntarily engages with immorality with the pastor or a staff member,” he said, “she is a grown woman who has engaged in fornication and needs to be called to repent.”
David Pooler, a professor of social work at Baylor University, disagrees with that framing. Pooler, who has studied clergy misconduct, said no one wants to redefine sin. Instead, he said, he and other experts want to define clergy misconduct more accurately. Calling clergy misconduct an affair or moral failing misses the power dynamics at play, he said. Most helping professions have codes of conduct in place to protect the public from those who would misuse their trust.
“The guiding principle for any helping profession is the person with more power is always responsible,” he said.
Pooler said churches often turn against adult survivors of abuse rather than helping them — seeing them as threats to the church rather than beloved members of the community. It’s easier to do that than to believe a revered church leader could have acted in abusive ways.
Pooler contrasted that approach with a familiar passage in the Gospel of Luke, where a woman accused of adultery is brought to Jesus by a crowd that wants to stone her. Jesus protects her instead, disbanding the angry crowd with a few words: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
That story should be an example of how church leaders can protect survivors from those who would harm them, said Pooler. But instead, he said, the focus becomes avoiding scandal or blaming the victim. Often abusers will pressure their victims to keep quiet, telling them that revealing what has happened will injure the church or their ministry. Churches often repeat that message to adult survivors — urging them not to harm “the man of God.”
That kind of approach happens in other faith communities as well. Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, a nonprofit started by lay Catholics that provides community and support for survivors of abuse, echoed similar experiences among those she serves.
This summer Awake has hosted drop-in gatherings for adult survivors, where they can connect with one another and find a listening ear. That can be healing for survivors, who are often alienated from their faith communities.
“For many people who are abused as adults, the first barrier they have to overcome is often an internal sense of shame and guilt,” she said. “Often there’s been a lot of spiritual manipulation that has brought them to a place where they think it’s their fault. And they feel a lot of shame around that.”
Before helping start Awake, Larson had worked in Catholic parish ministry, running programs like vacation Bible school and mom’s groups. She was familiar with the safety protocols the church has put in place to protect children. But until she read stories about Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal credibly accused of abusing seminarians, she had not realized adults could be at risk when those in spiritual authority use their influence to pressure or manipulate them.
“It’s very clear that these are situations in which we can’t talk about consent,” she said. “As if you can ever consent to a sexual relationship with someone who has heard your confession, or is serving as a spiritual director or is giving you marriage counseling.”
Larson said adult survivors of abuse often are met with disbelief and shame from both church leaders and their fellow laypeople, for “leading a holy man astray.” Even if they are believed, all the focus shifts to the accused spiritual leader and how to deal with that person, leaving survivors forgotten.
At Awake, she said, the focus is on supporting survivors, walking with them and listening to their stories. Larson draws inspiration from the New Testament Book of First Corinthians, which describes the church as a body, where if “one part suffers all the parts suffer with it.”
“How can we become a church that when one person is suffering the whole body notices and cares and rushes to support them?” she said.