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Reporters Uncover 20 Years Of Sexual Abuse In Southern Baptist Churches

Tom P
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Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

From Texas Standard:

The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News uncovered hundreds of Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC, church leaders and volunteers who faced sexual misconduct allegations in a recent investigation, “Abuse of Faith.” Reporters found that church leaders often knew about the abuse and did little, if anything, to stop it.

The investigation focused, in part, on Debbie Vasquez who was 14 years old when she was first molested by the pastor of her church. At 18, she became pregnant with the pastor’s child. Then, in 2008, she and others started asking SBC leadership to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. But SBC leaders resisted such reforms.

“We wanted to start with her because of the trauma of her story, and also that after all that, she continued fighting for these reforms – to no end, unfortunately,” says Robert Downen, the Houston Chronicle reporter who led the investigation.

As a result, Lise Olsen, deputy investigations editor at the Chronicle, says the newspaper created its own database of abusers.

Olsen says it was easier for the abuse to stay a secret because of the church's culture. The SBC does not allow women in leadership positions or condone same-sex relationships. 

“Many of the victims are either young women who are told it’s a sin to have sex before marriage, even if you’re forced to by your pastor,” Olsen says, "or [they're] young men who are being forced into homosexual acts with pastors or other leaders, and then are stigmatized. They feel very unempowered to come forward, to say the least.”

Olsen says that some victims lost their faith, and some even became suicidal.

“The stories we heard from victims were just devastating stories,” Olsen says.

Unlike the Catholic Church, the SBC does not have centralized leadership. Downen says each church is “autonomous and self-governing.” But there have been a handful of cases in the last 10 years where the SBC has excluded certain churches for accepting same-sex relationships.

“The mechanism for 'disfellowshipping' these churches is certainly there,” Downen says, “The question is why has it not typically been used in cases in which churches concealed abuses or knowingly hired sexual predators?”

Olsen says this investigation is just the beginning of delving into abuses within the SBC. "Abuse of Faith" is a three-part series, but she says "there’s a lot more to be done.”

Written by Morgan Kuehler.

Copyright 2019 KUT 90.5

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.