The leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, said Friday that the church is under investigation by the Justice Department for sexual abuse and that it “would fully and fully cooperate”.
Church leaders said in a statement that multiple branches of the denomination, including seminaries and missions, were being investigated and the church continued to “mourn and lament over past mistakes.”
In May, Church leaders released a scathing review stating that reports of sexual abuse had been suppressed by top church officials for 20 years.
That investigation, conducted by an outside consultant, covered reports of abuse by women and children against male pastors, church officials and officials from 2000 to the present.
One of the most notable revelations in the report was the existence of an internal list of 703 people suspected of abuse, compiled by an employee of the denomination’s executive committee, the national leadership body.
“For nearly two decades, abuse survivors and other concerned Southern Baptists have contacted the Southern Baptist Convention,” the report said, “to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or were employed as church personnel.”
“They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails” and appeared at meetings and held meetings, the report continued, “but were answered time and again with resistance, opposition and even outright hostility.”
The church then published a 205-page list of hundreds of pastors and other church workers whom it described as “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.
On Friday, church leaders pledged to continue reforms designed to combat sexual abuse in its ranks. “We recognize that our reform efforts are not yet complete,” they said. “Our commitment to partnering with the Department of Justice stems from our proven commitment to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse transparently.”
Leaders included seminary presidents, members of the executive committee, and leaders of missions.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division declined to confirm the investigation Friday and had no immediate comment.
Pastors and church members have been openly frustrated in recent years at what the Southern Baptist Convention describes as inaction. The crisis erupted in 2019, when an investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News revealed that about 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers, from youth pastors to top ministers, had pleaded guilty or had been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 victims since 1998.
The Justice Department has been investigating Roman Catholic dioceses for sexual abuse in recent years, but has so far struggled to prosecute them. The FBI opened an investigation into the Roman Catholic Church in New Orleans in June, The Associated Press reported.
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 when Southern Baptists split from the Northerners on the issue of slavery, which the Southerners at the time supported and the Northerners opposed. The SBC now has nearly 14 million members and more than 47,000 churches in all 50 states.
Glenn Thrush, Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias reporting contributed.