Sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church has apparently gone unchecked for decades, according to a damning report published this past weekend by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express.
Among other things, the newspapers’ joint investigation found that nearly 400 Southern Baptist pastors, ministers, Sunday school teachers, deacons, and church volunteers have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct since 1998.
At least 220 offenders were either convicted or accepted plea deals, while 100 remain in prison. More than 100 are currently registered as sex offenders, including some who have returned to the pulpit.
Their victims number over 700. They include teenagers who endured repeated sexual assaults at the hands of youth pastors, as well as children as young as 3 who were molested or raped in Sunday School classrooms.
In a few cases, adults – both men and women – were either sexually assaulted or seduced when they sought spiritual guidance from a Southern Baptist pastor.
Victims who reported their abuse were often shunned by their churches, while others were pressured to forgive their abusers or undergo abortions.
Some even accused several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention of concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.
After the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s second-largest faith group.
Although churches and organizations within the denomination share resources and often work together, pastors are ordained by local congregations after they’ve convinced a small group of church elders that they’ve been called by God.
The Convention doesn’t maintain a database to track ordinations, let alone reports of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. And while its governing documents clearly prohibit women or gay people from becoming pastors, the Convention hasn’t banned convicted sex offenders from working in its churches.
As a result, at least 35 Southern Baptist clergy, employees, and volunteers have been able to find work with Southern Baptist congregations since 1998.
Although its long been aware of the problem, the Southern Baptist Convention has resisted reforms that could protect its congregants.
In June 2008, for example, Debbie Vasquez traveled to the Convention’s annual meeting in Indianapolis at her own expense and implored church leadership to implement a system for tracking sexual predators, act against congregations that enabled or concealed sexual misconduct, and establish policies to prevent abuse.
“Listen to what God has to say,” Vasquez said, according to audio of the meeting she provided to the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”
But days later, the Convention rejected every one of her proposed reforms.
Then in her 40’s, Vasquez was first molested by her pastor a married man more than a dozen years older, when she was 14. By 18, she was pregnant with his child.
After she refused to get an abortion, Vasquez claimed church leaders threatened her and her baby. She was ultimately forced to confess and ask forgiveness before the entire congregation, while keeping the name of her child’s father secret.
Although Dale “Dickie” Amyx finally admitted to having sex with a teenage Vasquez after she sued him in 2006, he insisted their relationship was consensual.
That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, and Amyx was never charged with a crime. As late as 2016, however, he was still listed as pastor in the Southern Baptist Church.
“They made excuses and did nothing,” Vasquez said.
The Southern Baptist Church is just the latest religious denomination to become embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal.
Last year, for example, a grand jury investigation found that Roman Catholic Bishops and other church officials throughout Pennsylvania had for decades actively concealed hundreds of credible child sexual abuse allegations levied against priests in the state.
The findings help to increase support for the New York Child Victims Act, which finally passed both houses of the state legislature last month.
Once it becomes law, adult survivors of child sexual abuse in New York will have until their 55th birthday to file civil lawsuits against offenders, as well as the public and private institutions that enabled their abuse.
Those over the age of 55 will also have one year to revive old claims that would otherwise be time-barred.
Governor Andrew Cuomo will reportedly sign the Child Victims Act on Thursday.