Sex abuse survivors dispute Southern Baptist leadership and say federal investigation is ongoing

FILE - This Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 file photo shows the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn. The status of a federal investigation into a leading Southern Baptist agency’s handling of sexual abuse is unclear. But this much is clear — survivors of abuse and their advocates are more skeptical than ever of leaders' intentions to address the scandal in the nation's largest Protestant denomination. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

FILE – This Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 file photo shows the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn. The status of a federal investigation into a leading Southern Baptist agency’s handling of sexual abuse is unclear. But this much is clear — survivors of abuse and their advocates are more skeptical than ever of leaders’ intentions to address the scandal in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

The status of a federal investigation into a leading Southern Baptist agency’s handling of sexual abuse is unclear.

But this much is clear — survivors of abuse and their advocates remain deeply skeptical of leaders’ intentions to address the scandal in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Recent events have deepened that distrust.

After the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee said Wednesday that the committee was no longer under federal investigation over its handling of sexual abuse in the church, several survivors and advocates say they’ve learned directly from Department of Justice officials that no part of the investigation has finished.

Further clouding the issue was an ambiguous phrase from the denomination’s official news service.

“Legal counsel for the SBC has since confirmed that the investigation into the SBC as a whole remains open and ongoing,” said an article Thursday in Baptist Press.

While it was long known that other SBC entities were also under investigation, including seminaries and mission agencies, the phrase “as a whole” appeared to advocates to include the Executive Committee and to represent a backtracking from the earlier statement.

Executive Committee spokesman Jon Wilke said Thursday that the Baptist Press article provided “added clarification” but did not represent a change in the committee’s previous statement.

The entity in the best position to clear things up — the DOJ itself — has not returned multiple queries from The Associated Press seeking comment on the reports. The department typically does not comment publicly on pending investigations.

But survivors and advocates say they’ve been in touch with federal investigators and been told the broad investigation continues.

“DOJ officials have confirmed to me that this investigation is not closed,” said Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and advocate for abuse survivors, on X, formerly Twitter. She said her understanding is that no portion of the investigation, including that involving the Executive Committee, has been closed.

Survivor and advocate Jennifer Lyell posted on Thursday: “I was personally and proactively contacted by one of the primary DOJ agents leading this investigation to inform me of the erroneous statement made by the EC regarding the state of the investigation & to reiterate their investigation is ongoing.”

In August 2022, the denomination acknowledged that the DOJ was investigating the handling of sexual abuse by several of its agencies, including seminaries, mission agencies and the Executive Committee, which manages day-to-day business for the convention.

On Wednesday, the Executive Committee’s interim president, Jonathan Howe, said that committee’s counsel was informed Feb. 29 by the DOJ that there is “no further action to be taken” in the probe, though he did not address the status of the investigation into any of the other SBC entities, which include seminaries and mission agencies.

“The work of abuse reform can and should continue regardless of the ultimate outcome of the investigation,” Denhollander said. “However, what has transpired in the past 24 hours highlights again why this work must be undertaken by an independent organization governed and staffed by qualified experts in the field of abuse reform and institutional transformation in order to be both effective and credible.”

The SBC has faced a reckoning over its handling of sexual abuse since a 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News, documenting hundreds of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches. That led to a 2022 independent consultant’s report saying top SBC leaders responded to abuse survivors with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.”

The Executive Committee has continued to struggle to respond to the issue, most hearing of plans for an independent commission to oversee a public list of abusive clergy. But advocates were frustrated that the commission was announced while Baptist officials still hadn’t secured funding for it.

Bruce Frank, a North Carolina pastor who chaired the Southern Baptists’ initial task force responding to sexual abuse, said survivors’ wariness is understandable.

“There’s been a lot of progress since 2019, particularly at the local and state level, a lot of training,” said Frank, whose task force operated from 2021 to 2022 and recommended reforms that another task force is now overseeing. At the same time, he said, “if I was a survivor, yeah, you have every reason to be skeptical, because at the national level there’s been some unnecessary obstacles.”

“Our standards shouldn’t be what’s a federal crime, our standard should be what’s the Christlike way to protect the sheep and deal with the wolves,” said Frank, pastor of Biltmore Church, which has several locations in western North Carolina.

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