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Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse problems

Some excellent longform reporting from the Chron, with more to come.

Thirty-five years later, Debbie Vasquez’s voice trembled as she described her trauma to a group of Southern Baptist leaders.

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas. It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

In June 2008, she paid her way to Indianapolis, where she and others asked leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 churches to track sexual predators and take action against congregations that harbored or concealed abusers. Vasquez, by then in her 40s, implored them to consider prevention policies like those adopted by faiths that include the Catholic Church.

“Listen to what God has to say,” she said, according to audio of the meeting, which she recorded. “… All that evil needs is for good to do nothing. … Please help me and others that will be hurt.”

Days later, Southern Baptist leaders rejected nearly every proposed reform.

The abusers haven’t stopped. They’ve hurt hundreds more.

In the decade since Vasquez’s appeal for help, more than 250 people who worked or volunteered in Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reveals.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.

The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Along the way, it references the Paul Pressler scandal, which continues on. Here’s the index page for this series – there are two more stories coming – where you can also search their database of offenders. If there’s one lesson we can learn from the Catholic Church’s long-running scandal, it’s that no matter how much we think we know now, there will be more to come. And it can’t be emphasized enough that both the SBC and the Catholic Church have been among the biggest power players behind all of the main “morality” crusades in recent decades, most prominently restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and LGBT equality (Paul Pressler was a big donor to the anti-HERO campaign). Never, ever forget any of that.

The immigration wedge issue for the GOP

I have three things to say about this story.

Evangelical ministers in Texas and across the nation are splitting off from the hard right, declaring immigration reform is needed that includes a path to citizenship without first deporting millions of illegal immigrants.

That aligns evangelicals with conservative Republican businessmen who want reform because they want the labor. But it puts the evangelicals at odds with the fiscal and hard right conservatives who take the position that illegal immigrants broke the law and should be deported before being given a chance to re-enter the country.

“It may split the old conservative coalition. It’s not going to split the new one,” said Richard Land, a Houston native who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“If the conservative coalition is going to be a governing coalition, it’s going to have to include an awful lot of Hispanics, and you’re not going to bring an awful lot of Hispanics into your coalition with anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric,” Land said.

I’ll stipulate that President Obama has been a disappointment on immigration reform. I’ll stipulate that too many Democrats have been lily-livered and just plain wrong on this issue, to the point of using the crazy as cover to tack right on the issue. But look, if even ten percent of the GOP caucus in Congress were willing to vote for a comprehensive immigration reform plan, it would be damn near a slam dunk. Hell, if the GOP Senators would just agree to not filibuster, that would almost surely be enough. They might have even gained yardage with Latinos if they had adopted a non-obstructive strategy. It’s not hard to imagine the Democrats taking months dithering and negotiating with themselves and dealing with hostage takers as they did with health care reform before finally putting forward a weak-kneed, compromise-laden kludge that nobody really liked but they owned 100%. The Republicans didn’t need to lead on this, they just needed to get the hell out of the way. So while I applaud Land and his fellow evangelicals for their words, until such time as they call out the Republicans for their intransigence, especially the so-called “moderates” from Maine and Massachusetts and the heinous flip-floppers McCain and Graham, it’s all just words, and they mean very little. Calling out the racists and the liars would be nice, too.

Bill Hammond, president of the Republican-leaning Texas Association of Business, said the state’s businesses need the foreign workers, especially in hospitality, agriculture and construction.

Immigration, Hammond said, is an issue that’s “dividing us from our traditional friends. We would cross swords on this one.”

Again, this is a matter of all talk and no action. Hammond and his cronies could have found and supported a primary opponent for the likes of Leo Berman and Debbie Riddle, if they really meant to “cross swords”. Put some of your considerable financial resources where your yap is, Bill, and then I’ll give you some credibility on this matter.

And speaking of crazy Leo:

Berman said he believes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is a path to creating Democratic voters.

“There’s 25 million in the United States – you can’t listen to the 8 million to 12 million numbers that come out of Washington every day – you’re going to create an instant 25 million Democrats,” Berman said.

“I don’t think these evangelical leaders understand that.”

Actually, I thought Richard Land addressed that point pretty clearly, but whatever. Leo’s not about the facts anyway, as you can see. But I agree he’s right that most undocumented immigrants would vote Democratic if they were allowed to vote. Berman has himself and others like him to blame for that, as they have done all they can to make the GOP as warm and welcoming of immigrants in general and Latinos in particular as they’ve been of blacks, gays, and unmarried women. Funny how these things work, isn’t it?