Southern Baptists vote to debate sex abuse investigation

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People pray during the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to have a floor debate on a proposed investigation into the denomination’s handling of sexual abuse.

The SBC’s business committee had planned to refer the proposal to its Executive Committee — the same entity alleged to have failed in its response to abuse cases — but the vote put the measure back out on the floor for discussion in the afternoon.

The previous day, Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines proposed setting up an independent task force to lead the investigation. That came in response to leaked letters and secret recordings purporting to show some leaders tried to slow-walk accountability efforts and intimidate and retaliate against those who advocated on the issue.

The allegations involve the Executive Committee, which conducts denomination business outside of the annual meetings. Committee president Ronnie Floyd has defended the body’s response, but last week he announced that the panel had retained an outside consulting firm to investigate the claims.

Critics called that a conflict of interest, arguing that the results of the probe will be discredited unless people trust the process.

“We can’t have the Executive Committee setting the terms of the investigation themselves,” Gaines said Wednesday.

Abuse survivors “brought their cases to (SBC authorities) only to feel that they were brushed off, disregarded and turned away,” he said. “These are not the kind of allegations we can sweep under the rug.”

The debate over the investigation came on the concluding day of the two-day gathering of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, attended by more than 15,000 voting delegates, the most in decades.

A separate proposal for an outside audit of the SBC’s handling of the abuse issue was referred to the denomination’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The proponent, Indiana pastor Todd Benkert, said he believed the commission would take such an audit seriously.

On Tuesday delegates elected Ed Litton as their new president, turning back a push from a conservative faction that had sought to paint the Alabama pastor known for his work on racial unity as too liberal.

The buildup to the meeting included the departures of the Southern Baptists’ top public policy official, Russell Moore; mega-selling Christian author Beth Moore; and several prominent Black clergy, amid overlapping controversies including sex abuse, racism, politics and the treatment of women.

Others had threatened to leave as a faction calling itself the Conservative Baptist Network pushed for action on culture war issues like critical race theory, an academic tool for analyzing systemic racism that has been a target of Republican-controlled legislatures in at least 16 states.

Delegates on Tuesday approved a consensus measure regarding critical race theory that did not mention it by name but rejected any view that sees racism as rooted in “anything other than sin.”

That didn’t end discussion on the topic, however.

In reports to the convention Wednesday, Southern Baptist seminary presidents doubled down on a controversial statement they issued several months ago denouncing critical race theory. They called it “toxic” and incompatible with Christian doctrine.

But Adam Greenway, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, acknowledged the objections of several Black clergy.

“What they heard from us is that we were denying the reality of structural or systemic racism. … For any way in which I personally have hurt you, I apologize and I ask you to forgive me,” Greenway said.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said that while “CRT is a toxic ideology, racism is a sin that sends souls to hell.”

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Loller reported from Nashville, and Smith reported from Pittsburgh.

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