The Justice Department has started an investigation into sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, and the executive committee of the United States’ largest Protestant denomination has received a federal subpoena in connection with the probe, the group said Friday.
A spokesman told The Washington Times the committee’s general counsel acknowledged “the [executive committee] has received a subpoena. No individuals have been subpoenaed at this point. This is an ongoing investigation and we are not commenting on our discussions with the [Justice Department].”
The Baptist group said in a statement Friday it “recently became aware” that the Department of Justice had begun an investigation into the 13.7-million-member church as well as “multiple SBC entities.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
An independent investigation of sexual abuse charges in the Southern Baptist Convention led to the May release of a 400-page report documenting a decades-long coverup of the abuse and related misconduct.
“Individually and collectively each SBC entity is resolved to fully and completely cooperate with the investigation,” Friday’s statement said. “While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future.”
The Rev. Bart Barber, elected in June as SBC president, signed the statement along with a group that included the presidents of seven affiliated seminaries, the North American and International missions boards, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the group’s executive committee.
“Our commitment to cooperate with the Department of Justice is born from our demonstrated commitment to transparently address the scourge of sexual abuse,” the statement said.
The statement says the SBC’s efforts to change the way sexual abuse charges are handled in the group “are not finished,” adding that the denomination’s “recently announced Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force begins its work and as each entity has strengthened its efforts to protect against abuse.”
The federal investigation comes 15 months after Christa Brown, a woman who said she was sexually abused dozens of times by a Southern Baptist pastor, called for a probe.
“The resources of the federal government should be brought to bear to comprehensively investigate sexual abuse, indifferent responses and institutional enablement in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Ms. Brown wrote at Religion News Service.
After news of the Justice Department investigation broke, Ms. Brown wrote on Twitter, “Fingers crossed,” adding, “I hope this may be the start of something.”
At its June business meeting in Anaheim, California, SBC delegates voted to create an abuse reform task force and the appropriation of $3 million to create a database of “credibly accused” and/or criminally convicted sexual abusers within the denomination available to churches checking on prospective employees or volunteers. A further $1 million would establish a “victim care fund” to provide counseling services to abuse victims.
After his election at the Anaheim convention, Mr. Barber vowed to make the Baptist church a “hunting ground” where predators can be found and exposed.
“Predators have realized the vulnerabilities of our system; it is time for Southern Baptists to realize how nimble and resilient our Baptist polity can be to put sexual predators on notice that Southern Baptist churches are a dangerous place for them,” Mr. Barber said.