Southern Baptists and the sexual abuse of children
Is sexual abuse rampant in Southern Baptist Churches in the United States? I recently read an article that claims it is.
Published in the Houston Chronicle on 10 February 2019 the article is emotively titled, “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms”. The cover page contained pictures of over 100 pastors and church leaders who have been convicted of sexually abusing people within their own congregations. The stories of the abuse of children and teenagers are truly distressing. It is clear that in many of these situations, more could have, and should have been done.
I spent some time analysing the statistics in the article to see if abuse in Southern Baptist Churches is really at epidemic levels. Of course even one case of sexual abuse is too many and is a betrayal of Christ himself. The article claims that 700 people have been moles-ted in Southern Baptist Churches in the USA over the past 20 years. 700 people divided by 20 years equals 35 people who were abused on average per year.
The article further claims that there are 47,000 Southern Baptist Churches in the USA. That number (47,000) divided by 35 people equals one person abused in every 1342 congregations each year.
Average weekly attendance in Southern Baptist Churches in the USA is 5,320,000. That number (5,320,000) divided by 47,000 churches equals 113 people on average who attend a Southern Baptist church each week.
1342 congregations with 113 attendees each, totals 151,646 people. On the basis of the article’s own numbers (combined with Southern Baptist attendance figures), one person out of every 151,646 people (less than 6 per million) is abused in a Southern Baptist Church in the USA each year.
In terms of the perpetrators who have sexually abused these 700 victims over the past 20 years the article claims that “roughly 380 Southern Baptist pastors, ministers, youth ministers, Sunday School teachers, deacons, and church volunteers” have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Of the 380 who have been charged, 220 have been convicted or took plea deals.
But, let’s assume all 380 were guilty. 380 perpetrators divided by 20 years equals 19 perpetrators per year. 47,000 churches divided by 19 abusing church leaders and helpers equals one abuser in every 2,474 congregations each year for the past 20 years, or approximately one abuser for every 289,562 weekly church attendees.
Now, of course even one person who suffers sexual abuse by a church pastor or leader or helper is one too many.
But, in fairness, the following questions need to be asked: Is the Houston Chronicle’s article really an objective analysis of the level of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Churches in the USA when it fails to contrast the sheer size of the denomination (5,320,000 attendees) against the number of sexual assaults? Could an article have been written pointing out that at less than 6 confirmed sexual assaults per million people per year, this Bible-believing, God-fearing denomination is not a hotbed of abuse? Can anyone produce a lower statistical risk than that of the Southern Baptists? Can public schools? Or private schools? Or universities? Or orphanages, shelters, hospitals, or other government or private institutions? Or any of the other religions, sects or cults? I rather doubt it. Could it be that the Southern Baptist Churches are in fact, not among the most dangerous places to be, but among the safest?
Half-a-world away from Southern Baptists in the USA, there are church leaders in Perth who are currently claiming that 20 to 25 out of every 100 people in Western Australian churches have suffered “historic sexual abuse”. This is a preposterous, inflated claim that has no hard evidence to back it up. These people would have us believe that Western Australian congregants, even within Bible-believing denominations, have been the victims of sexual abuse at not twice, or ten times, or even a hundred times, but at literally thousands of times the level of abuse uncovered after thorough and extensive investigation into Southern Baptist churches in the United States.
Unsubstantiated, highly overstated claims like this damage the church. They cause unbelievers to conclude that church leaders are often child molesters and local churches are epicentres of sexual abuse where their children would be at risk. They present a serious obstacle to evangelisation of the lost. How extraordinarily sad when in fact Bible-believing churches with genuinely converted leaders are probably among the safest places of all.
Among the safest places to be, yes, but sadly still falling short of the mark from time to time. But just because sexual abuse happens sometimes, doesn’t mean it happens all the time. The Houston Chronicle article does not prove its main point that sexual abuse is rampant in Southern Baptist Churches in the USA in spite of pictures of dozens of convicted pastors, or heart breaking accounts of innocent people who have suffered abuse. Nor does it prove that many leaders within the Southern Baptist churches are callously unconcerned about sexual abuse. The statistics provided in the article, on close examination, seem to prove quite the opposite.