NASHVILLE, Tenn. – More than a decade after the Southern Baptist Convention rejected the idea of creating a database of ministers credibly accused of sexual abuse, leaders said on Monday night the possibility is on the table.
The denomination already was looking at how it could better respond to abuse when two Texas newspapers published an investigation last week that detailed hundreds of cases of abuse in its churches.
Those revelations added a sense of urgency to a meeting of the SBC's executive committee on Monday night, where President J.D. Greear reported on the progress of a sexual assault advisory committee.
With 15 million members and over 47,000 churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But the SBC's structure as a voluntary association of autonomous churches has hindered past efforts at fighting sexual abuse.
At the denomination's annual meeting in 2008, the executive committee said local church autonomy made it impossible to implement a database of abusers, an idea that survivors and their supporters had been advocating. Critics accused the denomination of using the structure as an excuse not to act.
But on Monday, Greear said Southern Baptists needed to "repent of appealing to autonomy as a cover-up for lack of accountability."
He said the advisory group was studying the possibility of a database but that the subject is complicated.
"Just because we are not announcing any plans regarding a database tonight does not mean that we are not doing everything we can to evaluate it as an option," he said.
Greear also said the denomination should kick out churches that show "wanton disregard for sexual abuse and for caring for the survivors" and suggested an investigation of 10 churches that have been identified in media reports as covering up abuse.
The Nashville-based denomination already kicks out churches that affirm homosexuality or call female pastors.
Greear, who is a pastor at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, said if there had been news stories of Southern Baptist churches performing gay weddings, the denomination would take action "because our position is clear.
"We must make it clear that our position on abuse is not up for debate."
He said a constitutional amendment is already in the works.
The emotional meeting began with a personal appeal from the executive committee Chairman Mike Stone, a pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Georgia. Stone showed a photograph of himself as a young boy on screens in the auditorium as he told the members of the committee, with his voice quavering at times, that he was abused as a boy, although not in a Southern Baptist church.
"That boy needs you to take the next steps in confronting this evil," he said. "He's asking you to take bigger and bolder steps than you've ever taken in the past."