Analysis: Key Problems Contributing to SBC Systemic Abuse

SUMMARY: This page uses four different lenses — cultural, theological, legal, and institutional — to identify key problems that have combined together to create a system where sexual abuse and misuse of spiritual authority have become endemic. It also takes a more in-depth look at questions of autonomy and accountability, as these have become increasingly prominent in online critiques of the Southern Baptist systems.

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SOURCE NOTES: Tiffany Thigpen — a survivor of sexual abuse in an SBC setting — posted the following Twitter poll on January 11, 2020. After results were automatically compiled, she opened it for continued responses to the SBC. My reply thread, starting with this tweet, serves as a good introduction to what I am seeing as key problems that have locked the SBC into systemic abuse. I’ve edited my tweets slightly to account for abbreviated language used in Twitter.

I’ve been thinking of points involved in this very question: How could the SBC earn entrustment? IMO they need to rectify 3 key problems. 1) Corporately they show immense ignorance about who/what “survivor communities” are, and negative-label us: social justice warriors/SJWs, liberals, ambulance chasers. /1

As I’ve quoted before the famous philosopher–okay, so it was Dana Carvey–“To label me is to ignore me.” On the whole, the SBC has ignored survivor community recommendations on two other crucial points. 2) Push-back on SBC hypocrisies in stated theology vs demonstrated praxis. 2/

3) Pull-forward recommendations for dealing transparently plus justly with legitimate ill-will remaining from failures to resolve past abuse situations, failing to respond with listening ears and open hearts to present suggestions, failures to show due diligence to prevent future abuse. 3/

I’ve gathered details from range of abuse survivor communities for patterns of perceiving SBC on these three points. More survivors/advocates have expressed willingness to help, if the SBC would only welcome us. A few good apples wholeheartedly have, but can they redeem what seems a big, rotten barrel? 4/

A conundrum: Thousands of autonomous churches seek to share in a positive corporate reputation, but as a whole don’t seem to care about survivors of sexual abuse/violence–which = 1/3 of all women globally and U.S., and about 1/4 men (U.S.)? #SBC makes a huge population invisible to ministry! 5/

My concluding tweet to Tiffany: No one speaks for all, but lots of us are speaking. If the larger SBC world of official entities and local churches want our trust, they need to heed and listen. Hope they will. Increase in “Too little, too late” warnings imply their system is beyond repair and will self-dismantle by implosion.

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This list captures three critical issues — all of which hinge upon how people from SBC churches and official entities choose to relate with members of abuse survivor communities.

  1. Ignorance About Abuse Survivor Communities, and Mislabeling in Order to Marginalize Them.
  2. Ignoring Push-Back on SBC hypocrisies in Stated Theology versus Demonstrated Praxis.
  3. Ignoring Pull-Forward Recommendations for Dealing Transparently and Justly with Past, Present, and Future Concerns about Systemic Abuse.

I have suggested that a key to unlocking productive solutions to systemic abuse issues among Southern Baptists can be found by listening to the real-world experiences of abuse survivors, advocates, and activists; by better understanding their perspectives and approaches to institutional changes; and by heeding their practical wisdom while forging correctives for the SBC cultural and organizational context.

In this, ignorance can be fixed by more information. Abuse survivor communities have much to offer to educate members of the Southern Baptist Convention. But ignoring problems and recommendations for needed change is a matter of conscience and will. So, SBCers who intentionally refuse to look at issues and options, and/or who actively ignore insider wisdom from abuse survivors can expect abuse survivor communities to continue challenging with facts, personal narratives, and calls for just and transparent responses.

But what exactly are “abuse survivor communities”? I use the plural because this is not one monolithic paradigm. The focus on my research writing from December 2018 through December 2019 was to lay out a “cultural geography” on this varied set of individuals and organizations that advocate the cause of those who’ve been abused. I had been writing on related subjects since 2007, and writing about trends affecting these communities for a decade.  Here are some of the questions I sought to address, about the contours and trajectory of these communities:

  • What are their lived experiences in terms of various forms of abuse by Christians and/or in church/ministry settings, and in constructive or destructive interactions with those institutions after the abuse becomes known?
  • What do they want and need, in order to find truth, justice, and healing?
  • What attitudes and tactics have typically been the most difficult hindrances for survivors — and how does this illuminate what kinds of approaches and processes they are willing to accommodate, or outright reject?

This turned out to be a long-form read because I felt the need to define terms, describe issues in enough detail, and include a range of additional resources. I believe that investing the energy to understand survivor communities better will yield wiser perspective on problems from their point and view and insights into more effective correctives. The following set of slides overviews the content of A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities. (Click on slide to access full-screen view.)

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SOURCE NOTES: The material in this section was originally posted June 8, 2019, as part of a Twitter Moment, entitled: Evaluations and Recommendations on Systemic Sexual Abuse in the SBC. I have edited it slightly for clarity, and left intact the thread number at the end of each tweet for reference purposes.

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THREAD: SBC AND ACCOUNTABILITY. I’ve been super-saturated in details about SBC and its problems of systemic abuse, enablement, and concealment. I’ve found mega-compiling of observations is typically a first stage in analyzing and interpreting a situation. Now I’m at synthesis stage. /1

That means I’m broadening my understanding of big-picture/macro situation by building on analysis of what’s happening in smaller snapshots/micro situations. So far, I’ve extracted three key points about accountability and how it relates to the SBC. (I may identify more later.) /2

#1. Accountability is about consequences. Consequences can be tangible (ex: losing clergy misconduct lawsuit) or intangible (ex: reputation). They can appear “positive” (in favor of individual, institution, ideology) or “negative” to insiders, and same or opposite to outsiders. /3

The impact of individual and corporate actions and underlying ideologies sometimes are purposely hidden. But they are increasingly coming into the light publicly, for good or ill. The calls for accountability (consequences) for destructive beliefs and behaviors is also increasing. /4

#2. SBC local churches and institutional entities are *automatically* subject to at least 5 sources of accountability. This is so, regardless of whether they choose to submit voluntarily to their assessments and consequences or not.

1) Criminal statutes (ex: mandatory reporting). /5

2) Corporate regulations (ex: IRS non-profit mandates for transparency and governance, and against self-benefiting board, staff, family/friends.

3) Civil law on non-criminal matters.

4) Constituting documents of local church and SBC (ex: doctrine, polity, required procedures). /6

5) Culture. How does culture hold SBC responsible? One way is via earned reputation due to actual or perceived actions in public and private realms. Does SBC say one thing, but its people act opposite? Tangible hypocrisy can lead to intangible reputation of being untrustworthy. /7

Culture may also mean public pressure for concrete institutional changes and justice. It now seems to be labeling SBC as “the Pedophile Protestant Denomination.” Sadly, leaders of SBC entities and local churches have provided decades of evidence to support having earned that title. /8

#3. This is the SBC’s “Spotlight” moment, as the @HoustonChron #AbuseOfFaith series on the SBC documents. The SBC’s current crisis of recognition for its decades-long systemic sexual abuse shows it didn’t accept accountability well in the past. Will it now and into the future? /9

Awareness challenge to SBC local church’s leaders + congregants, and each entity’s boards + employees: What do you see happening with issues of sexual abuse and related misuses of power in the Church? In the SBC? What survivors of abuse in SBC settings have you personally heard? /10

What specific, documented situations of sexual abuse can you describe, where abuse perpetrators, enablers, and/or concealers abuse–or shamed/silenced victims–were from an SBC church or entity? If you can’t cite a situation, why is that? And what do you commit to do about it? /11

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