An extraordinary investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News has found that hundreds of Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have faced accusations of sexual misconduct during the last 20 years.
Many have returned to church roles even after being convicted of sex crimes.
The report found around 380 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers had been 'credibly accused' of misconduct, with around 220 convicted or receiving plea deals. There were more than 700 victims, who experienced abuse ranging from exposure to pornography to impregnation.
The papers said the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) failed to deal adequately with the allegations, taking an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach. It failed to create a registry of alleged offenders, meaning they could move from city to city and continue their behaviour. The SBC cited the principle of 'local church autonomy'.
Among other examples, the papers cite a victim who died of a drug overdose 14 years after she was molested in 1994. After the abuse took place, when she was only 14 years old, she slit her wrists. According to the Chronicle, her mother blames the daughter's subsequent death on the trauma she suffered.
SBC leaders have reacted with horror to the revelations. Current president JD Greear issued a series of tweets in which he said: 'I am broken over what was revealed today. The abuses described in this @HoustonChron article are pure evil. I join with countless others who are currently "weeping with those who weep."'
He said: 'We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary.'
He said there could be 'no ambiguity' about the church's responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe space for vulnerable people, adding: 'The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists.'
'I will pursue every possible avenue to bring the vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to bear on stopping predators in our midst,' he said.
Other Baptist leaders also responded to the revelations. Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote that 'nothing is worse than the use of the name of Jesus to prey on the vulnerable, or to use the name of Jesus to cover up such crimes. The issue of predators in the church is not a secondary issue, on which churches should brush up merely because of the cultural moment. This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning.'
He said such abuse was 'Satanic' and stressed that 'church autonomy is no excuse for a lack of accountability'.
He concluded: 'No church should be frustrated by the Houston Chronicle's reporting, but should thank God for it. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden.'
The SBC has instituted a Presidential Study on Sexual Abuse which is due to report to the 2019 annual meeting.