(RNS) — Todd Benkert, a Southern Baptist pastor who helped force reforms in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination’s sexual abuse policies, has stepped down from a task force he was appointed to last year to implement those reforms.
Benkert’s role on the committee became controversial this week due to a public dispute involving a Florida megachurch that restored SBC President Johnny Hunt to active ministry after he had been credibly accused of sexual assault.
Hunt was one of a number of SBC leaders named in a 2022 report from the investigative firm Guidepost Solutions hired by the denomination in 2021 to resolve long-running conflicts over sexual abuse. The report found those leaders had chronically mistreated survivors of abuse and spent decades trying to deny responsibility for abuse at individual SBC churches.
The report led delegates at the 2022 SBC’s annual meeting to set up a series of reforms designed to prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors and directed that SBC leaders appoint the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force.
In preparing its report, Guidepost investigated allegations that Hunt, a retired Georgia megachurch pastor, had assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010, then spent years covering up his actions.
Hunt first denied the allegations and later claimed the incident had been consensual. After taking several months away from preaching, Hunt returned to the pulpit on Jan. 18 at Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Florida, where the Rev. Steven L. Kyle, a friend, is pastor.
During his January sermon, Hunt claimed “false allegations” had ruined his life.
Kyle and a group of other pastors announced late last fall that Hunt had been through a restoration process and was cleared to return to ministry. That decision was denounced by a number of Baptist leaders, including current SBC President Bart Barber.
After Hunt’s January sermon, Benkert filed a complaint against Hiland Park and another church where Hunt had been invited to speak and told a reporter from The Tennessean newspaper that he had done so. The denomination’s credentials committee, which determines which churches are in good standing, is weighing whether to recommend expelling those churches for not taking the issue of abuse seriously.
In response, leaders at Hiland Park wrote to the credentials committee this week claiming there was no proof Hunt had been abusive and objecting to Benkert’s actions, accusing him of acting as both an activist and a task force member. Hiland Park’s leaders said they will meet with a lawyer to discuss “all of our legal recourses.”
Benkert, pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Indiana, said he has been honored to serve on the task force and that he hoped to support their work in the future.
“However, in order to maintain my ability to speak and act according to my conscience on these issues without representing the task force, it is clear I can best support survivors and advance reform in my role as an advocate rather than a task force member,” he said in a statement.
Relatively unknown until he took a key role in the SBC abuse reform movement two years ago, Benkert was one of several pastors who called for an investigation into the SBC’s treatment of abuse survivors at the denomination’s 2021 annual meeting in Nashville. SBC leaders initially moved to refer the matter to a committee, which would have effectively derailed any independent investigation.
But Benkert went to a floor microphone at the convention to challenge that decision, sending the matter to a vote by delegates at the meeting, known as messengers, that overruled the leaders. They eventually approved an independent investigation.
In an announcement that Benkert had resigned, the task force’s chairman, South Carolina pastor Marshall Blalock, said, “Todd has a clear concern for survivors and a passion to see needed changes implemented concerning abuse. We are grateful for Todd’s work and ongoing advocacy in support of abuse reform in the Southern Baptist Convention.”