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By Corky Siemaszko
For more than a decade, a Baptist preacher in Oklahoma has been what he calls “a lone voice in the wilderness.”
Pastor Wade Burleson called on the Southern Baptist Convention to protect its flock by creating a database that would track church workers accused of sexual abuse.
Such a list was published Monday, but not by the Baptists.
The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News in an expansive investigation named 220 pastors, ministers, deacons, volunteers, Sunday school teachers and others who were found guilty of sexually abusing churchgoers over 20 years.
More than 250 have been charged. And roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct involving more than 700 victims, the report found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued.
Some of the victims were molested repeatedly and some were as young as 3, according to the report.
The news outlets’ yearlong investigation also found that three dozen pastors and workers who have been suspected of being predators continue to work for Baptist churches.
“The thing that makes me saddest is that we didn’t do it ourselves,” Burleson told NBC News of the report. “That’s why you need a free press in America.”
Calling the report a “punch in the gut,” Burleson predicted it will lead to real change in the way the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant organization in the country, grapples with an issue that has also forced a reckoning in the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish community.
“The analogy I would give is this: I recently had a cancerous lesion removed from my skin and it hurt and the hole left behind was deep. Was it good? No, it was needed.”
“They can avoid an Oklahoma pastor who is a lone voice in the wilderness, they can’t avoid this,” Burleson said. “This will guarantee action is taken.”
Burleson said he intends to renew his call for having an independent nonprofit run and monitor a database of church predators.
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear responded to the report in a series of tweets, declaring “we should have been fighting for” victims, and vowing to stop the “predators in our midst.”
He also called for “pervasive change,” and, in an apparent reference to the relative independence of individual Baptist churches, said “church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse.”
Burleson, who is 57 and affiliated with the Emmanuel Enid church in Enid, Oklahoma, said his first proposal for a registry was rebuffed in 2008 because the convention said it could not tell the 47,000 churches under its umbrella who they could hire or ordain.
Then last year, amid the #MeToo movement and accusations against several prominent Southern Baptist leaders, Burleson once again called for the creation of such a database.
“Southern Baptist pastors need to recognize that we have a responsibility to protect women and to protect children from men, particularly ministers, who move toward them in sexual or physical abuse,” he told reporters.
The convention wound up passing a nonbinding resolution condemning all forms of abuse and supporting of victims.
“We call on all persons perpetrating and enabling abuse to repent and confess their sin to Jesus Christ and to church authorities and to confess their crimes to civil authorities,” it read.
Lesley Wexler, a law professor at the University of Illinois, who studies how large institutions react to the #MeToo movement’s demands for change, said she doesn’t share Burleson’s optimism that the Southern Baptist Convention will make meaningful changes.
“Sometimes institutions reform when massive bad behavior is brought to light and sometimes they don’t,” she said. “If you think about the Catholic Church and the aftermath of the Boston Globe reporting, even today we don’t see them being as nearly as proactive as they should be.”
Asked what else the Southern Baptist Convention could do to protect churchgoers, Wexler said “they could be more explicit about the conditions under which they ought to break off affiliations with local churches who hire people with allegations against them.”
“Another thing I haven’t seen is much discussion in the use of positive moral persuasion,” she said. The convention must come up with a list of best practices and reward churches that, among other things, “help identify harassing behavior,” she said.
“There are a lot of things the SBC can do if it has the political will,” she said.