Post Author: Rev. Merianna Harrelson
CW: sexual abuse and religious abuse
On Sunday, May 22, 2022, the Houston Chronicle and USA Today both released reports revealing the Southern Baptist Convention has covered up decades of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. These bombshell reports claim the leadeship of the Southern Baptist Convention knew about multiple counts of sexual abuse, sexual harrassment, and sexual assault and chose to handle those reports internally for fear that it would compromise the Conventions governing power and image.
These reports call back to the 2004 bombell reports that revealed sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harrassment in the Catholic Church. In the 2004 reports, over 4,000 priests had been accused of sexual abuse, and over 10,000 children had been victims of abuse by clergy members. The report and investigation of the Catholic Church continued revealing that priests who had been accused of sexual assault were not defrocked, but rather moved to other countries in order to cover up the sexual abuse charges.
In the same way, the Guidepost Solutions invesitigation reveals that many who were accused of sexual abuse in the Souther Baptist Convention were not asked to step down from power, but rather issued new positions of leadership. These new leadership roles were in different purviews, so as to conceal the initial allegations of sexaul abuse.
In 28 states, members of the clergy or those who have been ordained are consider mandatory reporters of child neglect and child sexual abuse according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. For both situations of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, those mandatory reporting responsibilities were ignored in order to preserve the power and authority of the religious institutions.
These reports provide enormous clarity and context for the latest Pew Research Report in which three of every ten adults claim to be religiously unaffiliated. These are the adults who grew up in the religious insitutitions where so much abuse and cover up of abuse has been revealed.
Both the 2004 and 2022 reports are particularly difficult to understand because they reveal two Christian institutions’ desire to maintain power and authority rather than to proclaim the Gospel. When power and protecting power becomes the gospel, religious institutions miss their calling and cease proclaiming Christ. When power and protecting power becomes the gospel, then religious institutions begin to value saving face over protecting individuals. When power and protecting power becomes the gospel, victims of sexual abuse are revictimized by being brought into conversation with their abusers in order to “forgive” the very person who hurt them.
Both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church should absolutely be called out for their participation and perpetuation of sexual abuse, religious abuse, and harm to children. If this kind of abuse was being covered up at the institutional level, imagine the stories from individual communities of faith who watched and heard and listened and learned that power and protecting power was gospel.
Now that these reports are out, there will be more stories of pastors admitting to “sexual incidents” over the coming weeks and months. These stories from individual churches will become pieces in a larger picture of the depth and breadth of sexual abuse and coverups in the Southern Baptist Convention. This is not a new story. It’s a story women in the Southern Baptist community have been trying to tell for years. Two dozen women confronted those gathered for the Southern Baptist Convention in 2018 to try to tell their stories. Perhaps it’s time for those who have been talking to do a lot more listening.
This story does not end with these reports. This is just the beginning of a story Jesus started telling a long time ago when he confronted religious leaders and authorities proclaiming that truth and love was the gospel, not power or protecting power. May we find ourselves telling the gospel of Jesus rather than the gospel of religious institutions.
The Rev. Merianna Harrelson is the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ. She is the author of Morning Light: A 30-Day Devotion Journey and Toast the Day: A 30-Day Prayer Journey. She is also a Spiritual Director.