Investigation shows how Southern Baptists responded to reports of sex abuse
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
A newly released report has found that for two decades, leaders of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States not only ignored sex abuse allegations against church leaders but actively worked to discredit accusers. The report, commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, comes after a reckoning began in 2019. That's when accusations against church leaders first came to light. They came to light because of investigations by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that found hundreds of church leaders and volunteers were criminally charged with sex crimes.
We're joined now by Russell Moore, who previously served as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He resigned from his position last year and now leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine. Good morning.
RUSSELL MOORE: Good morning.
FADEL: So I want to start with something you wrote yesterday after you read this report. You said you were wrong when you said the handling of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention's leadership was a crisis. You wrote that it isn't a crisis. It's an apocalypse. Would you talk about what you read in that report that got you to that word?
MOORE: Well, I was expecting not to be surprised by the report because, after all, I was the one to call for this investigation...
MOORE: ...Having fought through this for so many years. And yet I couldn't believe the callous inhumanity evidenced in this report. To see it - to see the very words used by leaders behind closed doors, the tactics being used against survivors and against whistleblowers, it was incredible. I mean, there was too much to even take in. And I said to someone, if I'm shocked by reading this report, then how must the average person in the pew who hasn't seen behind the veil be reeling right now?
FADEL: What shocked you most? What did you read that shocked you most?
MOORE: Well, one of the things that shocked me most is after all of these years of being told - when many of us would ask, how can we do a database that would actually track predators to make sure that predatory preachers aren't going from one church to the other, we would always be told by these people that we couldn't do it given our polity. Now we know, in this report, that they had a list that they were keeping in secret, not to protect abuse victims but to protect themselves, and that at every point, the question was liability. How do we protect ourselves from these claims? By keeping them quiet. And the language that was used, the amount of motive being revealed there - I honestly don't know what to call this other than a criminal conspiracy.
MOORE: And it's revolting.
FADEL: Now, one of the questions about databases was that there's no top-down hierarchy in the Southern Baptist Convention. So governance takes place at the congressional (ph) level. Is that an excuse for what has happened, that it couldn't be centralized to hold people to account?
MOORE: Well, no. I mean, I think we see that very clearly now, where autonomy and congregationalism - these are being used as a deflection from holding people accountable. I mean, the most minimal levels of accountability - when some of us would simply stand up and mention the names of the churches mentioned in the Houston Chronicle report and say this has to be looked into, that itself was treated as a shocking violation somehow, simply to say these are things we need to look into - along with, of course, as I mentioned in the commentary, constantly the question of, well, we can't say this is a crisis. These are a few bad actors - that sort of language. And yet look at this. Crisis is much too small a word for what happened here.
FADEL: Now, you were a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention when these abuses were happening. You've now left. Did you leave because things weren't changing?
MOORE: Yes. They not only weren't changing, but there was a constant stonewalling and intimidation of anyone who was pointing these things out and speaking to these things. And the worst part is that that went - it's not so much what the bad guys were doing as the fact that the good guys were often very silent and just waiting to see what happened. And so after the last SBC Executive Committee meeting that I would ever attend, I walked out. And my wife said, you know what? If you're still a Southern Baptist by summer, you'll be in an interfaith marriage. And we're committed evangelical Christians. We love Jesus. And that's actually why we had to leave the people who introduced us to Jesus. And that's heartbreaking.
FADEL: I know you've been speaking to sexual abuse survivors since the release of this report. What are they saying?
MOORE: For many sexual abuse survivors, there's a combination of relief that some of this is out in the light finally but a great deal of trauma being re-realized in this moment. It's - yesterday and today - these are very difficult days for people who have survived because for many of them, they not only have to relive what they went through but they're able to see in black and white the way that leaders they trusted were talking about them behind closed doors, as crazy or as people who just want to burn everything down. I mean, to see that is retraumatizing for many good and faithful people who have been speaking out about this for years and years.
FADEL: The current Southern Baptist Convention president, Ed Litton, said he was grieved to his core at the findings. And he called on Southern Baptists to prepare to change the denomination's culture and implement reforms. Do you have faith that the church will implement reforms?
MOORE: I don't know what the reforms would be. And I'm not saying that they can't have them. I just can't imagine what they would be because the problem here isn't primarily structural. There are some structural things that need to be done, and the investigation recommends some of those things. But the primary problem is cultural. There has to be an understanding of the dignity of women, the dignity of the vulnerable and a - an understanding of the way that a mythology of a certain group of leaders within the denomination as having essentially purchased it with their own blood and able to run it - that has to go away. And I'm not sure how to get there.
FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, you ultimately left the Southern Baptist Convention over this, and it has chipped away at the credibility of leadership. Can that be recovered?
MOORE: I'm not sure. One-point-one million of us have walked away in the last three years. And it will take a Southern Baptist Convention that really takes this seriously in ways that are as vast as the criminality and the cover-ups have been.
FADEL: Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. Thank you for your time.
MOORE: Thank you.
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