For decades, complaints of sexual abuse by pastors and staff in the largest US Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, were either ignored or covered up by top clergy an independent investigation has found. Abuse survivors, many of whom were assaulted as children, and those calling for justice, were treated appallingly by the Church. The lawyer and abuse advocate, Rachael Denhollander, who worked with survivors to hold SBC to account, describes the toxic and dysfunctional culture that led to systemic inaction
I watched the movie Spotlight the night I testified against Larry Nassar. It was the first time I’d been able to bring myself to see it. To this day, I can’t describe the emotions that flooded me watching that story unfold. The survivors who spoke up at so great a cost – I remembered watching their stories unfold in real life during the Catholic abuse crisis and deepening my understanding of what it would take to stop Larry, and how to do it.
The scene where the newspapers are flying off the press and remembering the day it was my face on the front page instead. Watching legal counsel for the Catholic Church pretend they were ignorant of everything the survivors and reporters were saying. Then attempting to strong arm whistleblowers and reporters into silence. Then defending their actions. “Look at all the good the church is doing in this community…during 9/11, people need us now more than ever…” The weight always put on survivors and whistleblowers – if you tell the truth, you’ll hurt more people. You don’t want to hurt people, do you?
Seeing the way Non Disclosure Agreements and privilege were used to keep survivors silent and stories buried. I am an attorney. I knew attorneys are almost always at the heart of a crisis. You see it in Spotlight. Then the scene in the restaurant. “Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child…look at how they treat their children.” The end of the movie – the papers are out. The church is silent. Survivors are flooding the tip lines, finally finding their voice, knowing they aren’t alone. And in the park one of the survivors is pushing his young child on the swing, the marks of mainlining narcotics visible on his forearms. Chaos, disbelief, relief, are swirling all around, but the only sound is the creaking of his baby’s swing. There is an exhale – the truth is out. But more than anything there is a crushing weight. He is left with the damage. While the world around him moves, people scrambling to grasp what they’ve read, as his baby ages and time marches on, he stands silently, pushing the toddler’s swing, the weight of what he has born, and the cost of fighting this fight not just against his abuser, but against the very institution that should have protected him and been his refuge, is left settled on his shoulders. And he pushes the swing in silence. There is no undoing the damage that was done. Not just by his abuse, but by what it cost to bring it to light.
I wish I could describe to you the emptiness and weight and exhaustion of what is happening in that moment, when all you hear is the creaking of a child’s swing. More than anything, Southern Baptist Church (SBC) members, I want you to know two things today. First, survivors everywhere are living in that moment right now. As they watch you react (rightly) with deep emotion, as they watch people scramble to grasp what they’ve read, as they read (right) outrage or grief, they are left with stillness. They’ve always known. We’ve always known. They tried to tell you. For years, and years, and years. They aren’t experiencing shock. They are left with the reality of what it cost them to bring this to light. And they are waiting to see if you pick up the mantel and start fighting with them. Waiting to see if you have even an inkling of what they have been through over the last several decades. They are reading the stories of children they couldn’t save, children who are so much more real to them because they have been them. They fought for them. And they couldn’t save them. They are left with the stillness of everything it has cost them to get that far, and they are waiting to see what you do, when the emotions stop swirling.
And then there is the scene that I hope most of you are living in. All through Spotlight there are hints that someone has been covering up this story. “I sent you a list years ago, you buried it. Check your clips”. “I sent all this stuff to you years ago. You should have read it then.” Survivors yelling in the newspaper office, why am I having to tell you this again? An attorney tersely whispering: “I tried, I can’t do this without pressure. You buried it.” And you start to wonder as you watch the movie unfold, who is this nefarious person who has been burying the story all these years? The spotlight reporters begin to wonder – who covered this up? And then the story is getting set to go to print. Everyone is in the office, and they are asking the same question – how could people have let this happen? Why didn’t someone do something? And then Robbie finally says it. “What about us? Where were we?” Robbie acknowledges “we had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it?” And he tells his team that he found the list an attorney had sent naming twenty abusive priests. Robbie himself had buried it, when he was a new editor. He doesn’t even remember it. What about us? Where were we? Why didn’t we get it?
That moment is the key to the entire film. Yes, there were abusers. But they stayed free because normal people didn’t care enough to see what was in front of them. Yes, there were corrupt attorneys and leadership helping cover it up, but the pieces were there. The survivors were there. The advocates were there. They were standing outside the literal door with all the evidence anyone needed. We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it? And the team sits with the reality that it could have, and should have, been unmasked decades earlier. That very real children sitting in Mitch Garabedien’s office that day, might have been saved. What about us?
This is where we all have to sit. Especially SBC members, especially now. Because this is the reality: the survivors and advocates were right. They have been telling the truth all along. Christa Brown, Tiffany Thigpen, Jules Woodsen, Jennifer Lyell, Dave Pittman, Debbie Vasquez, and so many others. They have been telling the truth this entire time. They told you that pastors were jumping from church to church, abusing kids. They told you it was possible to do a database; that it didn’t violate SBC polity and it could be done with excellent due process. Christa Brown is herself an attorney – you had a highly qualified attorney telling you for decades that this could be done, but you never asked her how. You listened to the people who said she was bitter, crazy, “didn’t understand the SBC”. You didn’t consider that maybe she, with all her legal expertise, was actually right.
Survivors told you how they were being treated. Emails and nasty comments even got leaked. You could see it for yourself. And every time they stood at a state or national convention or executive committee meeting, you walked past them and closed the door. Literally closed the door. They told you. And they were right. “What about us? Where were we? We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it?” What is abundantly clear in this report is that a handful of corrupt and wicked leaders, aided by some individuals on the Executive Committee (watch who says what on the privilege debate leading up to this investigation) controlled a denomination and an almost 100 member trustee board, literally for decades, mostly by simply lying. “Can’t do anything about abuse. SBC Polity after all.” But that can only happen because the average leaders do two things: 1 – Don’t proactively get good help to see if they are being told the truth. 2 – Don’t speak up, and speak up loudly, when something isn’t right.
If you take anything from this report, you need to take that away. A few bad actors can eventually be done away with. The mindset that allowed them to control, however, will only pave the way for more abusive leadership, if it’s not recognised and rooted out. This is the theme that emerges from this report, more than anything. Christa Brown and I, and so many others, (two of us – Christa and I – being attorneys) have been saying all along that a database is entirely feasible within SBC polity. But instead of considering that perhaps two experts in the field may actually know that this can be done, the response even by many “good men” was “you just don’t understand the SBC”. When in fact, it was good men who didn’t understand basic corporate practices and their own polity and incorporation documents. No one asked outside counsel to see if it could be done, so Augie Boto and others were able to simply repeat the lie that it couldn’t be, and keep an entire denomination in the dark. In this report you see EC Chairman Rolland Slade realise that he and almost the entire EC Board were kept in the dark about Jen Lyell’s case, and you see him ask Jen to come and tell them the truth. But then one bad actor tells the chairman he doesn’t have the right to invite a guest or put an item on the agenda. And the Chairman doesn’t seek outside help to see if this is true, nor does he take it upon himself to inform the rest of the EC of what he has become aware of. The weight of that is placed on the survivor, and when she isn’t allowed to speak, no one speaks for her. (And incidentally, multiple requests that he speak with her legal counsel – me – so that she didn’t have to carry that weight on her own, also went unheeded.)
The Chairman knew most of the EC was in the dark, but when the survivor was stopped from telling the truth, he didn’t tell it himself. You see in Jen’s case that legal action eventually had to be taken, at the recommendation of “good men” because everyone knew nothing would be done without it. But what you don’t see are the multiple conversations I had with four high-ranking EC and SBC leaders repeatedly urging them to help her without making her file a lawsuit, and explaining in detail how this could be done. I was literally repeatedly told by some that there was no help available without a lawsuit because the EC didn’t even have a bank account, and that it was impossible for them to help Jen due to SBC polity. I pulled the financials for the past five years myself, and literally pointed to the page that showed the EC’s investments and accounts and “unrestricted funds” and explained how those funds were entirely accessible by vote of the trustees, both legally and under SBC polity, without forcing her to undergo litigation. The response continued to be that I “literally didn’t have a clue how the SBC worked”. Except I did, and I was right, and this was admitted publicly in a later meeting when EC leaders noted the existence of this account and the ability to use it to pay off any liabilities they incurred. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand how the SBC worked, it was that the credentialing and outside expertise I possessed, wasn’t given real respect or consideration. I even requested and offered to pay out of my pocket for outside legal counsel to evaluate my recommendations to ensure they were possible within SBC polity. This also was rejected.
You see, a Credentialing Committee hamstrung by no trauma training and no expertise helping craft best practices for inquiries, or even help drafting communications and web content. But notice the places where it notes that this help was repeatedly offered to them and rejected by the leadership of the CC at the time. Notice that the only individuals they spoke with were Augie Boto and Jim Guenther – both the individuals widely known to have resisted all reform in the first place. I was the person who offered that help – I offered trauma training and best practices counsel consistent with SBC polity, for free. I offered to connect them with outside experts other than myself, to advise on those points. I pointed out that there was a twelve member Caring Well team who produced the curriculum, eleven of whom did trauma training professionally, and two of whom were in fact attorneys who worked specifically in this area, and suggested they contact even one of those individuals for help. I drafted standards for consideration when they refused to talk to anyone. I redid the web content – that too was rejected. I offered to discuss specifically the concerns with accepting anonymous reports and best practices for victim confidentiality. I warned over and over that if this help wasn’t sought, incredible damage would be done to survivors, and to them. Yes, it is true that the CC was hamstrung by no training and no outside expertise. But it is equally true that they not only didn’t try to get it, they actively rejected it when offered. Notice the times in the report that leaders urge not platforming non-SBC experts because of the assumption that they just “have no clue” how this works, when in fact, those experts could have identified the manipulation and deception, and just inaccuracies, that lead to this crisis, much earlier.
So what now? This is the reality – by and large, survivors and advocates aren’t out to destroy the church, or the Convention. They want to see it do so much better. And yes, there may be areas of disagreement, even theological, at times, but most experts are well versed in navigating convictional belief systems and finding best practices that are consistent and effective, within them. And many subject matter experts are actually very closely aligned theologically with the Convention. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22) is often repeated, but was not practiced in the SBC. Lip service was paid to the importance of the Body and the members’ many giftings, but those gifts were not only not sought out, they were often rejected when offered. This mindset is what must change, if change is to be effective.
The two key dynamics most at issue are as follows:
- Proactivity seeking wise help, asking what can be done, and how it can be done, from individuals who have the skills and convictions to help answer that question. If you want to learn something, if you really want to get to a goal, you find someone who can help you get there (and usually, you will find that those individuals are equally grateful for your giftings, and encouraged by your example of learning). But if you aren’t proactive at getting to that goal, you probably don’t actually want to get to that goal, as much as you emotionally feel like you do.
- Speaking up when something is wrong. Often this does begin, in many cases, with proper private appeals, encouragement, even rebuke. But often even private conversations have lacked any gravitas or emphasis behind it. And when that fails (as it so often has) then bringing the truth into the light has to happen. Without putting the weight on survivors themselves to do all the work.
There is a lot to sit with in the SBC report. But for the average SBC Messenger, and the average SBC leader (whether that is a leader of an entity, the EC, or a flagship church), this is your moment to sit where the Spotlight team sat so long ago. “What about us? Where were we? We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it?” And then become part of the solution. When the team had that moment, and sat in the reality, the silence was broken by their editor, Marty Barron. He acknowledges the reality: “Suddenly, a light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.” But then he notes that right now, in this moment, the team has done good work. Work that will have an immediate impact, and this is why we do this work. There is a fair share of blame to go around now that the light has gone on. Including and perhaps especially, about why it took so long for that light to go on, and why survivors had to carry that fight. But right now, the SBC Messengers did good work in commissioning this investigation and giving investigators access to all the information. It was good work. And it will have an impact, if you follow it through.
I do believe, for the vast majority in the SBC, bringing truth forward, standing against evil, and shining light into the darkness, is why they do this work. Because that is also the work of Christ. I remember my Sunday School teachers telling me repeatedly “the gospel isn’t just fire insurance. If you really believe it, it will change the way you act. It’s about what you do here and now, not just about what happens when this life is over”. That’s going to be an important reminder as you weigh where to put time, and effort and energy and resources. Standing against abuse and caring for those who were crushed, isn’t a distraction from your mission. It’s an integral part of it. Because the gospel isn’t just fire insuran