Southern Baptists accused of covering up sexual abuse complaints

Prominent Ga. evangelical leader, Johnny Hunt, named in investigation

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee is drawing condemnation for its failure to address allegations of sexual abuse and its treatment of victims over two decades, according to a newly released investigative report.

The report, issued Sunday, was the result of a seven-month investigation and was released just weeks before next month’s 2022 SBC Annual Meeting & Pastors’ Conference in Anaheim, Calif.

The scathing report, by Guidepost Solutions, a domestic and international investigations, monitoring, and security and technology consulting firm, also found “credible” allegations that prominent Georgia evangelical leader the Rev. Johnny Hunt, a former president of the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, sexually assaulted another pastor’s wife in 2010.

Hunt, who served as president from June 2008 through June 2010, could not be reached for comment. In a statement posted on Twitter, Hunt said his “heart breaks for all victims of abuse” and “vigorously” denied the allegations.

”I have never abused anybody,” he said in the statement..

The report found that a few senior executive committee members closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits and were focused on avoiding liability for the SBC. Abuse survivors were “ignored, disbelieved” or told that the denomination couldn’t take action because of church autonomy.

Rolland Slade, chairman of the SBC Executive Committee and Willie McLaurin, interim president and CEO of the executive committee, vowed in a statement to do “all we can to prevent future instances of sexual abuse in churches, to improve our response and our care, to remove reporting roadblocks, and to respond to the will of the messengers in Anaheim next month.”

Hunt served for more than three decades as pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock.. He later served as as senior vice president of evangelism and leadership for the North American Mission Board until May 13 when he resigned.

The Rev. Derrick Jackson, executive pastor of administration at First Baptist Church Woodstock, said the church was unaware of the allegations against Hunt, who served as pastor there until December 2019.

The church has about 10,000 members.

“There’s a lot of information that we’re processing through right now,” said Jackson. “More than anything, we just need people’s prayers for wisdom.”

Southern Baptists have a large spiritual and cultural footprint in the Georgia with more than 3,374 churches in the state. Nationwide, Southern Baptist represent the largest Protestant denomination with 14 million members.

The report found that survivors, and other concerned Southern Baptists, repeatedly shared allegations with the Executive Committee, “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC.”

Several top Executive Committee leaders have resigned, and the body — under interim leadership — will meet Tuesday to discuss the report

The Rev. Ed Litton, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declined to comment specifically on the allegations against Hunt, whom he knows.

The report “is extremely painful. It’s shocking.” He said there was initially shock then grieving and anger and “all sorts of thing that we normally have in response to this issue. "

He said he felt strongly for the victims of the abuse.

Addressing the issue of sexual abuse was one of Litton’s missions when he was elected in 2021.

" We’re staring at reality. This means we have a lot of serious work to do,” he said. “There has to be a culture change.”

In a statement, NAMB President and CEO Kevin Ezell said he was unaware of the allegations of misconduct by Hunt, prior to his resignation on May 13.

Ezell said in the statement. " The details in the report, which we are just now beginning to process, are egregious and deeply disturbing. We honor the courage of the survivors who came forward. We are praying for survivors and their families, for our churches, for wisdom, for discernment, and for the humility to use this report for God’s glory.”

The Alpharetta-based NAMB is an agency of the SBC that assists Southern Baptist churches reach people through evangelism, church planting and compassion ministry.

Hunt previously served at Lavonia Baptist Church in Mooresboro, N.C.; Falls Baptist Church in Wake Forest , N.C. and Longleaf Baptist Church in Wilmington.

Robert M. Franklin Jr., the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said the SBC is facing a lot of negative reaction to its mishandling of sexual abuse complaint.

What the SBC does next “will be a fundamental test for their future credibility. They are now in a credibility crisis,” Franklin said.

Susan Codone, a professor at Mercer University, doesn’t know Hunt, but she is all too familiar with the abuse that has gone on in Southern Baptist denomination.

When she was 14, Codone alleges that she was sexually abused by a youth minister at a small Southern Baptist church outside of Birmingham.

When she told her pastor, he suggested that perhaps she had brought the unwanted attention on herself.

He fired the youth minister, but then she alleges the pastor began sexually abusing her.

The abuse didn’t end until she was 16.

“My hope is that the messengers act to implement all of the recommendations from Guidepost Solutions,” said Codone in a telephone interview. “Sometimes it takes a generation to change the direction of a system and sometimes you need a catalyst like this report.”

Messengers are very influential in the denomination, and can elect officers, approve trustees and vote on the direction of the convention until the next annual meeting

When asked why she thought the SBC failed to adequately address the abuse allegations over decades by victims, her response was blunt: “Power breeds corruption.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Among the recommendations in the report for corrective action:

  • Establish an independent commission responsible for implementing and overseeing reforms. The commission would be in place for a minimum of 10 years.
  • Creation of a Resource Toolbox, which could include a variety of resources - protocols, training and education - associated with prevention and management of sexual abuse.
  • Create and maintain an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders.

The Associated Press