After decades of sexual assault survivors clamoring for justice, the nation’s top federal law enforcement agency is investigating one of America’s most powerful religious institutions.
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the U.S., announced recently that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the church’s handling of decades of church sex abuse cases.
Survivors and their advocates met the news with a mix of praise and skepticism about the extent to which a federal probe would bring about immediate reforms.
“I’ve long believed the day would come when there would be a federal investigation of the horrific abuses and cover-ups in the SBC. But I wasn’t sure if I would live to see it. I’m still here. And I think it’s happening. Check out the headline! #SBCtoo,” survivor and advocate Christa Brown said in a tweet.
The news, which the Justice Department has not confirmed, comes just weeks after Guidepost Solutions, a third-party group the SBC hired, released a report detailing how high-ranking SBC officials handled reports of sexual abuse in affiliated churches from 2000 to 2020.
Guidepost is a secular organization hired by the SBC to investigate claims it mishandled cases of sexual abuse in SBC organizations. The report Guidepost released following their investigation revealed church leaders repeatedly intimidated and silenced victims and advocates who publicly discussed abuse.
Bart Barber, the SBC’s president, said in a statement about the federal investigation that the organization would fully cooperate with investigators.
“While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future,” Barber said, pointing to the Guidepost investigation as evidence.
Advocates called the news of the DOJ investigation ultimately progress for the #ChurchToo movement, which highlights sexual abuse within Christian churches.
Brown published a column criticizing the SBC’s abuse task force the same day the federal investigation was announced. In the column, she wrote: “It would be a mistake to imagine that all of this rests on the shoulders of a few [abusers]. These evils could not have become systemic without thousands of quietly complicit enablers.
“For decades, egregious wrongs have been tolerated and even normalized in the SBC. This has happened not only because SBC leaders allowed the wrongs to happen but also because countless others turned a blind eye.”
Brown called the SBC Executive Committee’s statement on the investigation “a minimizing & image-repair statement.” Other commenters on Twitter also criticized the SBC’s framing of sexual abuse as “mistakes.”
The DOJ investigation news came a few days after SBC officials announced the members of the Abuse Response Implementation Task Force, a group charged with addressing the root of sexual abuse in SBC churches. All the nominees are members of SBC churches, something some advocates have criticized.
“I hope y’all weren’t actually expecting the ‘reforms’ passed at the annual SBC convention this year to do anything meaningful for past or future survivors,” activist and author Emily Joy Allison said in a tweet posted in response to the task force announcement, noting that each member of the task force is a member of an SBC church.
As of publishing time, SBC President Bart Barber has not responded to a request for comment on criticism of the SBC’s statement and reform efforts.