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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Southern Baptists’ Legal Brief on Abuse Victims Sparks Controversy and Criticism

A relatively quiet legal brief filed by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in a Kentucky Supreme Court case has ignited a firestorm of controversy and led to significant criticism from abuse survivors and reform advocates within the denomination. The SBC’s amicus brief in the case, which deals with expanding the statute of limitations for abuse victims to sue third parties, including religious institutions, has raised questions about the church’s stance on accountability for abuse. This brief has disrupted ongoing reform efforts within the SBC, which have gained momentum following revelations of widespread abuse within the denomination.

The case revolves around a woman who sued several parties, including the Louisville Police Department, alleging they knew about and had a duty to report the sexual abuse she suffered as a child by her father, a police officer. While the case does not seem directly related to the SBC, the denomination’s lawyers filed a brief in April opposing the expansion of the statute of limitations for abuse victims to sue third parties. This move has been met with strong opposition within the SBC.

The controversy surrounding the brief comes in the wake of revelations that SBC leaders had suppressed abuse reports and resisted reforms for decades. The legal document has created division within the denomination, with many former leaders and delegates expressing strong opposition. Russell Moore, former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, described the anger among Southern Baptists as “unmitigated and justified.”

The SBC has been working on abuse reform efforts, including passing a resolution recognizing abuse as both a sin and a crime, commissioning an investigation into its handling of abuse, and committing to creating a database of individuals credibly accused of abuse within the denomination.

The SBC’s current president, Bart Barber, has taken responsibility for the denomination’s involvement in the brief. He indicated that the decision was made by the SBC’s legal team and expressed regret for not giving it more attention. While taking responsibility, Barber stated that he remained undecided on the matter, citing mixed feelings about statutes of limitations in the law.

This legal issue extends beyond the SBC, as some states have expanded the statute of limitations for civil suits in abuse cases. The controversy has affected the denomination’s reputation, with victims and advocates feeling that the brief contradicts the reform efforts supported by local pastors and delegates at the SBC’s annual meetings.

According to Mike Keahbone, an Oklahoma pastor involved in the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, abuse reform measures have consistently passed in recent meetings, reflecting strong support for reform within the denomination. However, the legal brief filed in Kentucky contradicts these reform efforts.

Many survivors of abuse, including Jules Woodson, who experienced sexual assault by her youth pastor in the 1990s, believe that the SBC’s actions behind closed doors contradict its public support for reforms. Woodson and two other survivors issued a statement condemning the brief as a “disgusting” move to undermine measures of justice rightfully owed to abuse victims.

The parties supporting the brief include Lifeway Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing arm, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both entities are defendants in a lawsuit filed in Kentucky by a woman who experienced abuse by her Baptist pastor father. The woman’s lawsuit contends that employees of various institutions failed to protect her.

The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler Jr., stated that in matters of law, the seminary must rely on legal counsel. Lifeway Christian Resources did not respond to requests for comment.

Jonathan Whitehead, a lawyer often representing religious institutions in court, believes it is challenging for the denomination to provide pastoral support to victims, accept legal responsibility for past abuses, and protect its own existence simultaneously.

For reform advocates, this episode has been deeply disturbing, raising questions about the denomination’s commitment to addressing abuse and supporting survivors while maintaining its institutional identity and membership.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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