Two Georgia churches no longer being reviewed by SBC over sexual abuse

The Rev. John Hull, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta. CONTRIBUTED

The Rev. John Hull, pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta. CONTRIBUTED

Two Georgia churches named in a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle about sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention churches are apparently no longer under "inquiry" by the Nashville-based denomination.

SBC President J.D. Greear had asked for a review of standing for 10 churches mentioned in the articles, including Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta and Trinity Baptist Church in Ashburn. The series found more than 700 people were victims of abuse that spanned decades at nearly a dozen churches. One church was found not to be a member of the SBC.

The SBC could not be reached for comment.

The SBC Executive Committee bylaws workgroup said in a Feb. 23 statement that, based on the information provided, there was no evidence that church leaders at Eastside and six other churches, among other things, knowingly hired a convicted sex offender, allowed that person to work with minors or did not comply with mandatory child abuse reporting laws.

"We also note that, based on media reports and conversations with church leaders (at Eastside), it appears that after the events in question the church strengthened its existing policies to prevent abuse and properly respond to charges of abuse." It said no further inquiry is warranted.

That would be good news for the Rev. John Hull, senior pastor of Eastside Baptist on Lower Roswell Road, except he said he was never officially informed that his church was among those under review by the SBC, nor has he been officially told that it is not.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Hull. “While we’re grateful, even today there are concerns by some members of the Executive Committee and advocates that it was premature. We anticipate there may be more investigations coming. They never used the word clear. They said based on the evidence from Greear.”

Indeed, a statement published in the Baptist Press by the Rev. Mike Stone, chairman of the SBC’s Executive Committee and pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga., confirms that more could come.

“No churches were ‘cleared,’ even though media reports characterized the study that way. The workgroup has no authority to ‘clear’ any church. In fact, if additional information comes to the committee, as has already occurred, it may indicate further inquiries are in order to determine if the actions of the church reflect the faith and practice of Southern Baptists.”

Victim advocates say the SBC cannot investigate itself and questioned the quickness in which the “inquiry” progressed.

Hull said he has invited the SBC leadership to visit Eastside and has suggested formation of a panel to investigate the “changes we’ve made. We welcome them to see our practices and improvements. We’ve made between $400,000 and $500,000 in security improvements.”

In a previous interview, Hull said he hadn’t been the lead pastor at the church for very long when he was contacted in 2016 by one of the associate pastors, then police, about the alleged sexual battery by Alexander Edwards, a volunteer intern with the youth ministry.

» Related: Archdiocese of Atlanta releases names of those “credibly” accused of abuse

Edwards was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy, whom he met at the church. Edwards had come to the attention of police before, though. He also worked in the youth ministry at a Baptist church in Leesburg when he was arrested in 2013 for allegedly using the internet for child pornography, according to the Houston Chronicle article.

Since then, Hull said the church has put into place a number of safeguards that include the formation of a church safety and security committee, specialized training for staffers, volunteers and ministers, the presence of security guards and between 40 and 50 cameras around the church and affiliated school.

The pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Ashburn, the Rev. Rodney Brown, declined to comment.

Like Eastside, the SBC committee also wrote that it believed no further inquiry was warranted at Trinity.

Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond Jr. said in Georgia, “strong efforts” have been underway for several years to prevent and address sexual abuse. “I am continuing that resolve and pursuit,” he said.

The Rev. Ashley Easter, a board member for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, isn’t satisfied.

“The culture of abuse and cover-up runs deep in the SBC, and for the Executive Committee to so cavalierly discount the serious allegations of abuse is both devastating and reckless but not surprising,” Easter said. “The 10 churches listed … require a thorough independent investigation by a credible group outside of the SBC so no bias gets in the way. The SBC is not qualified to effectively investigate these churches on their own. They need an independent third party, and the Executive Committee decision makes this need even more clear.”