Southern Baptists Say Justice Dept. Has Closed Abuse Inquiry Into Leadership Body

A Southern Baptist Convention leader said on Wednesday that the Justice Department had concluded a sexual abuse investigation into the organization’s executive committee without issuing any charges.

The statement from Jonathan Howe, the executive committee’s interim president and chief executive, referred only to the closing of an investigation into the executive committee, and did not address additional Justice Department investigations into other Southern Baptist entities. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Nicholas Biase, declined to comment.

Federal investigators opened the inquiry into the denomination’s handling of sexual abuse in 2022, after Baptists commissioned a third-party investigation that found national leaders in the country’s largest Protestant denomination had suppressed reports of abuse and resisted reform efforts for decades. The report prompted widespread outrage from Baptist churchgoers, and energized activists pushing the denomination for greater transparency.

The S.B.C.’s executive committee, a group of 86 people who steer the denomination, said it was informed last week that the U.S. Attorney’s office had concluded its investigation “with no further action to be taken,” Mr. Howe said in the statement.

“While we are grateful for closure on this particular matter, we recognize that sexual abuse reform efforts must continue to be implemented across the convention,” he said.

When the investigation began, leaders in the denomination said the Justice Department was looking into “multiple S.B.C. entities,” a category that includes seminaries, missionary organizations and the denomination’s public policy arm. The leaders said at the time that they would cooperate fully.

Victims and their allies emphasized the limited nature of the apparent closure of the investigation into one entity of the denomination. If the Justice Department is not pursuing federal criminal charges, “that’s a pretty low bar,” said Christa Brown, a longtime activist for reform in the denomination. “The S.B.C. and the executive committee is still morally responsible for grievous documented harms.”

The crisis over sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention came into public view in 2019, when an investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News reported that more than 350 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers, including pastors and youth leaders, had pleaded guilty or been convicted of sex crimes against more than 700 children and adults since 1998.

Those revelations prompted the S.B.C. to change the way it handled accusations of sexual abuse in churches. It hired a third-party consulting firm to conduct an internal investigation, and published the scathing findings. And it started a task force that recently announced plans to form an independent nonprofit to take over the long-term work of instituting changes meant to prevent abuse.

But progress has been slow, in the eyes of some victims and their allies. At their annual meeting in 2022, Baptists overwhelmingly approved a set of recommendations to address abuse, including plans to set up a website to track ministers and church workers they said had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. But that list has not been published yet, with leaders of the task force citing unexpected legal and financial challenges.

The conservative denomination also faces questions about funding reforms at a time when its membership is in a long decline. The executive committee laid off staff members last fall, nodding to “financial realities.” It has also struggled to install a permanent leader after several years of turmoil. In August, an interim president resigned after it was revealed that he had falsified academic credentials on his résumé. A new candidate will be presented for a vote later this month.

Some critics regard the reformers’ approach to abuse as overreaching and tainted by personal vendettas, and say that constructing a new bureaucracy is unlikely to be helpful in addressing incidents in individual churches.

On Wednesday, some of those critics expressed triumph in the executive committee’s apparent exoneration.

“It’s almost as if unbiased, objective, professional investigators don’t think deceptive letters, mischaracterized recordings, hearsay reports and political speeches amount to actual evidence,” Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor who lost a bid for president of the denomination in 2021 after being accused of impeding its reform efforts, wrote on social media.

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