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SBC messengers approve task force for sex abuse investigation after leaders rejected expanded review

SBC, Messengers
Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting June 15-16, 2021, cast ballots for several motions and elections throughout the two-day event in Nashville, Tenn. |

Two days after the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee rejected a motion to create a task force to oversee a third-party investigation of allegations SBC leaders mishandled a “crisis of sexual abuse” in the denomination, messengers overwhelmingly approved a motion to do just that on Wednesday.

The motion presented by Grant Gaines, pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, at the denomination's annual convention in Nashville, calls for new SBC President Ed Litton to appoint the task force within 30 days.

The motion calls on Litton to direct the Executive Committee to transfer oversight of the investigation to the task force, which shall comprise members of Baptist churches cooperating with the SBC and “experts in sexual abuse and abuse-related dynamics."

The SBC Executive Committee announced on June 11 that Guidepost Solutions would review recent allegations made by the former leader of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, that SBC leaders intimidated whistleblowers and exonerated churches with credible claims of negligence of sexual abuse victims.

Guidepost Solutions was also commissioned to "review and enhance training provided to SBC Executive Committee staff and its board of trustees" as it relates to sex abuse and the organization’s "communications to cooperating churches and congregants in cooperating churches."

Grant Gaines
Grant Gaines, the pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., presents a motion during the morning session of the SBC Annual Meeting on June 16, 2021. |

According to Baptist Press, the soon-to-be appointed task force can choose to oversee the Guidepost Solutions review or start a separate third-party review. The review must include an investigation of “any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.”

The investigation, funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program, will cover the period from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021, and include a review of “actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee.”

The investigation will also include an audit of the procedures and actions taken by the SBC Credentials Committee, a body formed at the convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 2019.

When Texas Pastor Jared Wellman offered a motion before the Executive Committee Monday to create a task force independent of the committee to oversee the Guidepost Solutions' investigation, it was rejected by the committee. Committee Secretary Joe Knott of North Carolina argued that expanding the scope of the investigation would be “horrific” for the denomination.

Wellman also urged the waiving of privilege “so that Guidepost Solutions has access to all data and information” and advocated for a public report “on all the findings and recommendations that is not vetted or edited first by the Executive Committee leadership.”

Wednesday’s motion allows the task force to “follow the accepted best-standards and practice as recommended by the commissioned firm, including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the investigation.”

“A written report on the factual findings of this investigation shall be presented to the task force 30 days prior to the SBC annual meeting in 2022, and made public in full form within one week of the Task Force’s receipt of the report along with suggestions from the task force for actions to be taken by our convention,” the motion notes.

Bart Barber, James Merritt, Jared Wellman
Bart Barber, (back L) speaks with chairman James Merritt during the Committee on Resolutions report during the two-day SBC Annual Meeting June 15-16, 2021. Robyn Hari, left, Nathan Finn, and Jared Wellman (standing R) are also pictured on the convention stage. |

SBC Executive Committee President and CEO Ronnie Floyd told messengers he supported approval of the motion while it was under consideration, Baptist Press reported.

Gaines also argued that the Executive Committee could not be tasked with holding themselves accountable.

“In order for this investigation to be truly external, independent and unbiased, we can’t have the Executive Committee setting the terms of the investigation themselves," he said. "They can’t be the ones to hold themselves accountable. This might seem like too much trouble to some, but I assure you it is the least we can do for abuse survivors.”

The motion was reportedly first referred to the Executive Committee, but messengers voted to overrule the Committee on Order of Business to consider it on the convention floor.

A statement Wednesday from the SBC Executive Committee expressed support for the motion.

“The SBC Executive Committee thanks the messengers for their passionate concern. Alongside SBC president Ed Litton, and in consultation with the full SBC Executive Committee, our legal team, and other advisors, we will work to expeditiously implement today’s motion," the Executive Committee statement reads. "It has always been our intention to be forthright and transparent in this process."

Rachael DenHollander
Rachael DenHollander speaks at the "Caring Well" conference in Dallas, Texas. |

“Today’s decision, in whose outcome we are confident, will have the ultimate blessing of removing all doubt in the minds of our community of Southern Baptists allowing us to chart a more confident future, together," the statement added. "We thank those messengers who have invested so much righteous energy in this important cause."

Attorney and abuse advocate Rachael Denhollander, who has spoken freely about sexual abuse in the SBC, called the motion's approval a “critical step” in the right direction for America's largest Protestant denomination.

“What I hope we all take from this is the following: Sound theology and SBC polity is not and never has been, in opposition to meaningful steps to reform. All that is needed are leaders willing to ask those who can help ‘how do we get this done?’ and then fighting for it,” Denhollander said in a series of tweets outlining an arduous journey of advocacy from multiple sexual abuse survivors in the SBC.

“Change is slow. It can take decades of invested time and the work of so many before tangible fruit is seen. But that investment of love and faithfulness is not wasted. Fighting for truth, justice and reform is the work of a community. Caring well for those who have been deeply wounded requires the participation of everyone. Messengers had to listen, pay attention, care, and take a stand. And they overwhelmingly did,” she continued.

“This is the work we have been called to: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly before God. I am so grateful we saw a tangible example of this in Nashville. The work is not done; but we'll do it, together.”

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