Christian Curriculum

In SBC meeting, victims confronting leaders point to small signs of big cultural change

ANAHEIM, Calif. — For the first time in 31 years, Tiffany Thigpen came face-to-face with the Southern Baptist leader who irrevocably changed her life.

Paige Patterson felt small at the time on Monday afternoon, she said, as she confronted him about her former protege who violently attacked her in 1991. The assault occurred after five years of accusations of misconduct by dozens of women in churches in Texas and Oklahoma that Patterson downplayed, and which allowed Darrell Gilyard to stay in the ministry and gain access to those like the teenager Thigpen.

In many ways, Patterson was responsible for pushing her through the decades of advocacy work that brought her to Anaheim, Cali. last week, where she and other survivors watched in tears as the country’s second-largest religious group continues to grapple with a sex abuse crisis that was made possible by top leaders.

Patterson said almost nothing to Thigpen. The next morning he told a reporter that Jesus had forgiven him of his sins but declined to specify what wrongdoing he was referring to.

Over the course of two days, more than 8,000 Southern Baptists overwhelmingly showed support for precisely the kind of culture change that Thigpen and others say will be needed to ward off predators and better care for those abused on their pews.

They enacted reforms and elected leaders who were staunch supporters of the survivors; and they delivered one rebuke after another to a radical conservative splinter group led by former leaders who covered up abuses or actively opposed even basic safeguards.

But the best evidence of this slow but crucial culture shift did not come from the huge arena hall where thousands of people cast their ballots; rather, it was in the little inflection points such as Thigpen’s showdown with Patterson — the little moments that wouldn’t even have been unfathomable in the denomination just four years ago.

31 years later

The SBC abuse crisis has been increasingly in the spotlight since 2018, when three longtime executives were mired in separate abuse scandals, including Paul Pressler, a former Texas Court of Appeals judge. who was accused of molesting several young boys.

Meanwhile, Patterson – who, along with Pressler, led the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC from the 1980s – has come under increasing criticism for old sermons in which he sexualized a 16-year-old girl and boasted of tricking a woman into staying with her abusive husband because the man came to church after giving her two black eyes. Two women eventually came forward about his mishandling of their rape reports, which led to his ousting from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“Women suffer”: Unearthed tapes and letters show support from Southern Baptist leaders for the pastor who faced a sex scandal.

The joint scandals prompted “Abuse of Faith,” a 2019 Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News investigation that found more than 400 church leaders and SBC volunteers had been credibly charged with sex crimes. over the previous two decades. They left behind more than 700 victims, almost all children.

Moreover, the newspapers found that senior SBC brass had for years refused even to consider reforms that experts and survivors say would help protect children in the SBC’s 47,000 churches.

In 2008, for example, top leaders even refused to allow a vote on proposals such as a database of credibly accused ministers and church workers that survivors say was crucial to preventing predators to abuse, repent, and then find new victims in unsuspecting churches – sometimes even just down the road.

In response to the series, the SBC approved a handful of grassroots reforms, developed a program to help churches better care for abused people, and pledged to undergo a culture change that senior leaders say , would be important to protect children.

Then, last year, more than 15,000 church delegates overwhelmingly demanded an investigation into the SBC executive committee. Published last month, the Guidepost Solutions report found that top leaders had for 20 years sought to silence survivors of abuse and thwart attempts at reform. Among them: The database of credibly accused ministers the leaders sacked in 2008, while privately saying the idea could be effective but could cost the SBC money in legal action.

Fourteen years later, on Tuesday, the SBC – comprising executive committee members who fought the reforms in 2008 – endorsed the measure.

Thigpen wept as the vote was taken. Such measures would have very well prevented his attack, 31 years ago.

“I’m so grateful,” she said minutes later.

Hours later, the SBC elected a new president who has been increasingly outspoken about the denomination’s abuse crisis and the need to do more to care for the abused people under their watch. The election of Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville in North Texas, came a day after the SBC executive committee elected a new leader, Arlington pastor Jared Wellman, who is the one of the most vocal advocates for survivors since 2019.

Both men immediately vowed to pursue deep changes to oust predators from the SBC’s 47,000 churches.

‘To finish’

On Tuesday evening, Thigpen sat quietly in a hotel ballroom among about 60 friends and other survivors. There, they quietly listened to a panel on trauma-informed survivor care that featured Indiana pastor Todd Benkert, who was instrumental in pushing for violence reforms at the annual meeting of the SBC last year.

It was also one of the first SBC events David Pittman has attended in years.

More than a decade ago, he said he was abused by a music minister at his childhood SBC church in Georgia. By then, the statute of limitations had passed and it was too late to initiate criminal proceedings; so Pittman tried to alert Southern Baptist churches and leaders about the man, Franklin Wiley.

Few answered his pleas for help — until 2019, when the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News featured him and others as part of their investigation into SBC abuse.

Since then, Pittman has spoken to more churches about the need for trauma-informed counseling and testing, hoping his advocacy would prevent others from experiencing the abuse that drove him to drugs and alcohol. alcohol, and almost ruined his life.

An hour into Tuesday’s panel, former SBC Chairman JD Greear arrived at the event, which he closed with prayers for survivors and for the SBC to continue to come to terms with its failures to do facing the problem of abuse that so many in the room had experienced first hand, and spent decades warning about.

All of this would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, Pittman said.

“Finally we have a voice and we are being listened to,” he said.

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