Southern Baptists’ Sexual Abuse Task Force continues to make progress in the independent investigation into allegations that the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee mishandled sexual abuse claims over the past 20 years.
Bruce Frank, task force chair, and Marshall Blalock, task force vice chair, in a wide-ranging Jan. 13 Special Report interview with TAB Media Group’s Jennifer Davis Rash and Margaret Colson, provided insight into how the task force has tackled its assignment as well as shared their personal perspective since serving with the group.
‘Good and godly’ denomination
Frank, lead pastor of Biltmore Baptist Church of Arden, North Carolina, acknowledged that it took a “little bit longer” for the task force to get started on what messengers to the SBC Annual Meeting in June 2021 had “asked our team to do, but eventually it was done,” referring to the multiple meetings it took the task force and EC this past September and October to agree on waiving attorney-client privilege during the scope of the investigation.
“In the end,” Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church Charleston, South Carolina, said the question was, “Are we going to do what the messengers asked us to do?
“To find the facts and get to the truth and then find a way to do what God wants us to do with that truth, the waiver of privilege made that necessary,” he said, adding, “So far … the cooperation level has been exactly what we’d hoped it would be.”
With that waiver, Guidepost Solutions, the third-party firm tasked with independently investigating the allegations, “is able to see things they would not have been able to see,” lending credibility to the investigation, Frank explained.
Guidepost is “hard at work,” Frank said, and he is “very confident in their ability to provide a very thorough report that will help out the SBC to be as good and godly of an organization as we can.”
‘Can’t mess this up’
While Guidepost is not initiating conversations with survivors in its investigation, it has provided an online link, for survivors to initiate such conversations. The same website also shares updates on the work of the task force, with each member reviewing and/or assisting with each post.
“At the very beginning, we had to decide what to do [with online communication] because there was no standard. It was clear to us early on that we needed to be as forthright and as clear and as transparent as we possibly could,” Blalock said.
In addition to the national task force, numerous state conventions this past fall took action to investigate sexual abuse allegations and response in their respective locales. The national group hopes to open lines of communication and collaboration with state conventions, Frank reported. More details about how that might work should be available soon, he and Blalock said, noting they are currently working on setting up a meeting with leaders from each state convention task force.
“It cannot hurt to have all these state conventions wanting to do the same thing. It gives an opportunity perhaps to see a more useful report from us but also from the state conventions as well,” Blalock said.
This June, when the report from Guidepost and other information from the Sexual Abuse Task Force is made public, Blalock said the hope is that the report will include “actionable motions … some opportunity for the Convention to say, ‘This is what we plan to do based on this report.’”
Frank also shared how task force members see themselves as serving alongside every individual in the denomination, calling on their fellow Southern Baptists to pray, offer suggestions, encourage survivors to come forward with their stories and “make sure their church is the safest, most secure spiritual place that there possibly can be,” Frank said.
“We know, without a shadow of a doubt, that without the Lord’s leadership on this, we’ve got no chance of producing anything of real value to the Convention,” Blalock said.
“This is not just a nice thing to do. This is biblically appropriate,” he added. “The Bible points us to protect the weak, and we can’t just ignore this. This is a critical path for us if we’re going to be gospel-focused people; we’ve got to get this right. We can’t mess this up.”
Survivors are ‘heroes’
The task force leaders also opened up about how serving in this role has made a significant impact on the group’s members.
Members of the task force have read books and interviewed survivors to gain a better understanding of sexual abuse and its devastating impact on individuals, Blalock said.
“Our hearts were broken universally by some of the things we heard,” he said. “I wish I didn’t know the things I know today, but I’m grateful that God has put people along the way to help us to learn and see so we can do better. It’s not that we didn’t care before; I think we have a much more personal understanding than we ever had before.
“It’s meeting people who are survivors and seeing their hearts and lives. It’s made me understand them in ways I couldn’t have understood before this experience. It’s made me realize how ignorant I’ve been for a lifetime.”
Although emotions have run high throughout the process, Frank said the survivors are the “heroes,” describing “their faith and their fortitude” as “staggering. … It’s a privilege to try to find some degree of justice as well as putting in processes that will make it better and safer and protect the vulnerable. It’s been deeply impactful personally.”
Messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting approved a motion June 16 calling on the new SBC president to appoint a task force composed of Southern Baptist church leaders and members to oversee a third-party review into the handling of sexual abuse claims by the SBC Executive Committee between Jan. 1, 2000, and June 14, 2021.
In July Ed Litton, who was elected SBC president on June 15, appointed the seven-member task force. In addition to Frank and Blalock, task force members are:
Liz Evan, judicial law clerk at Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, Nashville, and member of Hilldale Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee;
Heather Evans, director of Evans Counseling Services, Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, and member of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Center Valley, Pennsylvania;
Andrew Hébert, lead pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas; and
Bucas Sterling III, senior pastor of Kettering Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Additionally, Litton announced two advisers to the task force with “expertise in handling sexual abuse dynamics”: Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and survivors’ advocate; and Chris Moles, a pastor, counselor and author. Denhollander and Moles previously served the SBC as members of a sexual abuse advisory group formed in 2018 by former SBC President J.D. Greear.
The task force then engaged a third-party firm, Guidepost Solutions, to oversee the investigation.
In early October, after several meetings, members of the SBC EC voted to waive attorney client privilege within the scope of the independent third-party investigation.
In late October, the five members of the new Committee on Cooperation were named to serve as the liaison between the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, the Sexual Abuse Task Force and Guidepost Solutions.
The members are Litton, who will chair the committee; Mike Keahbone, pastor FBC Lawton, Oklahoma; Chris Dupree, pastor of BT.Church in McAllen, Texas; John Batts, pastor of FBC Clear Lake, Washington, and Nancy Spalding, a layperson and CPA from Michigan.
Guidepost will share its findings in mid-May, and the task force will then release those findings publicly within one week. Recommendations for action will be presented prior to the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting in Anaheim, June 14–15.
Periodic updates will continue to be posted to the Sexual Abuse Task Force website.