Southern Baptist Church Leaders Bow to Pressure to Open Records on Sex Abuse Cases

Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention agreed Tuesday to legally open records for investigators to examine how the church handled or mishandled instances of sexual abuse in the past two decades, the Associated Press reported.

The SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., came under fire in 2019 after a report published by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found that hundreds of sex abuse cases had emerged in its churches and some of those accused were permitted to remain in its ranks. The SBC's Executive Committee voted 44-31 Tuesday to legally open the records after several efforts to reach a compromise failed and some board members resigned, the AP reported.

It was the third vote of such votes by the committee in a three-week period, reversing two previous decisions to retain attorney-client privilege for the records. The waiving of attorney-client privilege was considered a necessary step for a completely open review of the church's response, or lack thereof, to the alleged abuse, the AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Southern Baptist Convention
A top committee of the Southern Baptist Convention agreed Tuesday to open up legally protected records to investigators who will look into how it handled, or mishandled, cases of sexual abuse within the nation's largest Protestant denomination over the past two decades. People attend the morning session of the SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 16. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo

Proponents said the Executive Committee really had no choice because it was directed to waive privilege by the ultimate authority in Southern Baptist government: the church representatives, or messengers, who voted at the convention's annual meeting in Nashville in June to authorize an investigation of the committee.

Opponents said waiving privilege would be financially reckless, citing attorneys' advice that it could prompt insurers to drop their coverage of the convention's entities.

"What we're doing is about creating chaos," committee member Joe Knott of North Carolina said in opposition to the waiver.

The messengers "voted to investigate sexual abuse" but not to "void our insurance," he said.

Another member, Mike Keahbone of Oklahoma, countered that the committee also had a "spiritual fiduciary duty."

"We have victims who have been waiting for a long time for a tangible step toward healing," he said.

The review will be overseen by a task force and conducted by an investigative firm, Guidepost Solutions.

Advocates for abuse survivors applauded the vote.

"This is one small step forward, for which I am thankful, but it's only the beginning of a long road ahead," tweeted Jules Woodson, an advocate for those like herself who have come forward with accounts of sexual abuse by SBC clergy. "May truth prevail."

Pressure on the Executive Committee had built from within the denomination, with groups of pastors saying a refusal to heed the messengers on the attorney-client privilege issue could jeopardize trust among rank-and-file Baptists. They also said it could put at risk donations to the convention's unified budget, which funds seminaries, missionaries and joint projects on the global, national and state levels.

Seminary presidents and state Baptist leaders also called for the committee to follow the messengers' directive.

During Tuesday's meeting, those seeking to maintain attorney-client confidentiality said the committee had sought a compromise that would have given investigators some access but were unable to reach an agreement short of a full waiver.

Committee chairman Rolland Slade of California sought to bridge differences after the vote, saying trustees had tried to do their best "while navigating uncharted territory" and people on all sides had faced "unnecessary personal attacks" during bitter debates online and elsewhere.

"Most importantly, it's time to know for sure where we have fallen short on the question of sexual abuse...so we can correct any errors and move into the future as a convention that's the most safe for our most vulnerable members," Slade said.

SBC Facing Sex Abuse Scandal
The Southern Baptist Convention came under fire in 2019 after a report published by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found that hundreds of sex abuse cases had emerged in its churches and some of those accused were permitted to remain in its ranks. Second Baptist Church, Cypress Campus is pictured in Houston, Texas on February 12, 2019. Loren Elliot/AFP via Getty Images