Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express expose decades of abuse by Southern Baptist leaders
A joint effort from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express is chronicling the sexual abuse of over 700 people by Southern Baptist Church (SBC) leaders, stretching over 20 years.
The report contains the stories of people like Debbie Vasquez, who is now in her 50’s, and who told Southern Baptist leaders accounts of her abuse from when she was 14. Vasquez alleges that she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, Texas; a small town an hour outside of Dallas. At the age of 18, Vasquez said that the pastor had gotten her pregnant, and was a married man well over twelve years older than her.
Vasquez’s is one of many stories being collected by reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco that depict a Southern Baptist denomination engaging in cover-ups and shunning victims of sexual assault and molestations. They found that, since 1998, around 380 Southern Baptist leaders or volunteers have been accused of sexual misconduct and more of these worked in Texas than any other state. The investigation also revealed that at least 35 church pastors, employees, and volunteers who had allegedly done predatory things were still able to find work at churches over the past 20 years. Moreover, church leaders failed to either alert law enforcement about the complaints or to warn other church congregations about their alleged behavior.
Many victims were adolescents at the time of their abuses, and the forms of abuse range from being outright physically molested, sent explicit photos or texts, photographed nude, or raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were even molested or raped inside Sunday School classrooms or pastors’ studies.
August “Augie” Boto, the Southern Baptist Convention’s interim president, told the newspapers, “It would be sorrow if it were 200 or 600… Sorrow. What we’re talking about is criminal. The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it’s going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it.”
One of the things that makes it difficult for the SBC to take action in any official capacity is the fact that local churches are expected to practice local autonomy, which means that each church is supposed to take care of their issues in-house. This creates problems because the SBC does not have the institutional authority to make churches report sexual abuses.
Christa Brown, an activist who wrote a book about her experience being molested as a child by her pastor in Farmer’s Branch, Texas, told the newspapers, “It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister… Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church. It’s a porous sieve of a denomination.”