Southern Baptist Convention grapples with sex abuse, women in leadership ahead of annual meeting

The Southern Baptist Convention, the annual meeting for the largest protestant denomination in the United States, kicks off this week in Birmingham, Ala., 40 years after the "Conservative Resurgence," when the SBC flipped from liberal leadership to conservatives leading the way.

With membership dipping below 15 million -- in 2005 membership was at about 16.6 million -- the decline is on the minds of SBC leaders.

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This year's meeting, held in the state that passed the strongest anti-abortion bill on the books, doesn't feature any high-profile political leaders like it did last year when Vice President Pence spoke at the Convention. That is not to say politics won't be discussed at the meeting.

But SBC president J.D. Greear told Fox News other topics will be at the forefront of the convention like the denomination's continued push for ethnic and gender diversity in leadership. But more than anything, he adds, the "pressing need of the hour is for our Convention to address the issue of sexual abuse."

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has been dealing with an ever-widening clergy sexual abuse scandal, the SBC is not a centralized church but rather a fellowship of more than 47,000 Southern Baptist churches. It teaches that the Bible has no errors and that personal acceptance of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. Southern Baptists also practice baptism by water immersion.

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"I join with those who lament the failures of our Convention," Greear added. "We have not cared well for survivors of abuse, nor have we taken their disclosures seriously enough. But I also believe we are on the cusp of a long-overdue change. With God's help, we are confronting our Convention's failures head-on and providing new training, new resources, and new screening processes."

Greear, 46, who was elected last year as the denomination's youngest leader, commissioned an advisory group in collaboration with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which released a 52-page report Saturday on sexual abuse over the past 20 years.

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 12, 2018 file photo, rape survivor and abuse victim advocate Mary DeMuth speaks during a rally protesting the Southern Baptist Convention's treatment of women outside the convention's annual meeting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. On Tuesday, June 11, 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention gathers for its annual national meeting with one sobering topic _ sex abuse by clergy and staff _ overshadowing all others. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 12, 2018 file photo, rape survivor and abuse victim advocate Mary DeMuth speaks during a rally protesting the Southern Baptist Convention's treatment of women outside the convention's annual meeting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. On Tuesday, June 11, 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention gathers for its annual national meeting with one sobering topic _ sex abuse by clergy and staff _ overshadowing all others. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

The group has worked to get every SBC church up to speed in its awareness, prevention, and care practices for abuse.

For example, the nine-member team has been developing a training curriculum to be used by churches and seminaries to improve responses to abuse. The team includes a psychologist, former prosecutor, detective and Rachael Denhollander, the first women to go public with charges against sports doctor Larry Nassar ahead of the prosecution that led to a lengthy prison sentence.

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It is also considering new requirements for background checks of church leaders after pressure to address abuse increased following investigative reports by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News earlier this year.

Greear concluded: "We can—indeed, we must—become churches that are safe for survivors and safe from abuse."

Protesters, who are frustrated with the slow pace and have been advocating for a database listing abusers, will be demonstrating Tuesday night.

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On Wednesday night, there will be a panel with Greear, Denhollander, Bible teacher Beth Moore and Susan Condone, senior associate dean of academic affairs of Mercer University School of Medicine.

Moore, a best-selling author, ignited a recent debate on Twitter when she hinted that she would be speaking during a Mother's Day church service. SBC's doctrine of "complementarianism" calls for male leadership in the home and in the church.

“For a woman to teach and preach to adult men is to defy God’s Word,” wrote Owen Strachan, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Elders must not allow such a sinful practice.”

But last Wednesday, Moore addressed her thoughts about the convention.

"I have 1 priority thing on my mind right now: seeing bold, forthright, effective, immediate action against sexual abuse in churches," Moore tweeted. "It'll be my privilege to serve on the panel discussing it."

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As of 2018, there were 47,456 Southern Baptist churches spread across 41 state conventions, according to the denomination. But Southern Baptists remain heavily concentrated in the South: SBC figures show that 81 percent of its members live in the southern region, including about 2.7 million in Texas and more than a million each in Georgia and North Carolina.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.