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Largest US protestant church has annual meeting after sex abuse report

Sex abuse is just one of the challenges facing the group as they gather this year.
Largest US protestant church has annual meeting after sex abuse report
Posted at 6:22 PM, Jun 12, 2023

Jules Woodson remembers the backlash, even after her former youth pastor, who had become a popular megachurch preacher, admitted to the so-called "sexual incident" she experienced when she was a teen.

"I thought, truly, maybe 100 people would read it. But if it helps just one person who had been through what I had been through, then it was worth it to me," Jules Woodson told Scripps News of her decision to go public about sex abuse she says she endured as a teen.

She blogged about the incident in 2018 at the height of the #churchtoo movement.

"My abuser got a standing ovation for a faux apology you know, that continued to heap shame and blame on me and call for cheap grace for himself," said Woodson.

It was blame she says she'd felt before recalling a similar response when she told church leaders about the abuse 20 years ago.

"They stopped me mid-sentence and said, 'So you're telling me you participated.' And it was at that moment that I knew they were blaming me, and they told me not to talk about it, but the church would handle it and it was horrifying," she said.

She wasn't alone. Following a damning investigation from the Houston Chronicle, the SBC implemented an abuse taskforce and commissioned an independent report confirming years of accusations of abuse and coverups, finding that churches punished victims like Woodson, who were met with "stonewalling" and "hostility."

Since then the SBC has promised to put measures in place to prevent abuse, telling Scripps News in a statement they're launching the Ministry Check Website, an online database with a list of abusers in June. However, that website will require vetting and local churches to actually report abuse to be effective.

The SBC has also expelled one church over their refusal to follow new guidelines and address sex abuse accusations.

SEE MORE: Catholic clergy abused far more Illinois children than acknowledged

Bob Smietana, a writer for Religion News Service says changes are happening but are challenging due to the somewhat autonomous nature of the cooperative churches that make up the SBC, saying the structure is different from say, Catholicism.

"If there's abuse by the priest, that priest was placed there by a Bishop and is overseen by the Bishop, and that parish is under the authority of the Bishop. There's a direct line of authority here. This is a bunch of people who cooperate together, use the same name, have some shared values, but there's not no one at the national office can tell that church what to do. The only thing they can do is expel them," Smietana explained.

In the SBC, messengers or delegates from cooperating SBC churches from across the country attend the annual meeting and elect various leaders and committees which then hold their own delegated powers.

Sex abuse is just one of the challenges facing the group as they gather this year. Recent disputes have involved everything from Critical Race Theory to the role of women in leadership.

"'The communists are taking over, the Marxists are taking over. We have to get rid of people.' So there's a Puritan kind of movement in there that wants to really, really kick out anyone who doesn't closely agree," said Smietana of a small movement within the group.

There have been rifts in recent years over support of President Trump, the role of African Americans within the church and so-called "woke" churches.

In February, the Southern Baptists made headlines after expelling several churches from its convention for having women in pastoral positions, a violation of the church's statement of faith.

SEE MORE: Catholic priest convicted on 5 counts of sex trafficking

Among the expelled churches was the Saddleback Church, started by best-selling author Rick Warren.

The SBC is the largest protestant denomination in the U.S., and broke away from northern Baptist churches in the 1800s over the issue of slavery. Now church representatives gather in New Orleans to discuss the future and unity of its 13 million members, a number that's declined in recent years.

According to Lifeway Research, a branch of the SBC, while baptisms and attendance in the church are up since the pandemic, membership overall declined by more than 400,000 members, its biggest dip in 100 years.

Scott McConnell, executive director for Lifeway, tells Scripps many older religious members are dying, and younger members aren't replacing them at the same pace.

Smietana says the denomination's work is important because the SBC is a big humanitarian arm around the world, donating millions of dollars in Global Hunger Relief and hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer and disaster work.

"If these denominations in particular, in this case Southern Baptist, can't figure out how to get along and can't continue to do this work, then it's going to affect a lot of people in unexpected ways," he stated.

Woodson's former youth pastor resigned, left the SBC and is currently preaching at a nondenominational church.

She says her focus now is two-fold, rooting out sex abuse beyond the walls of the Southern Baptists churches, calling for removal of statute of limitation laws while continuing to focus on the mission at home.

Woodson has started the nonprofit Help, Hear, Heal to help victims in and out of the church find therapy and resources, and is fundraising to make sure fellow survivors are present at this year's meeting.

"The moment we feel like we have everything figured out and solved, is the moment we're vulnerable," Woodson stated.

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