HomeTop StoriesThe Justice Department's investigation into abuse within the SBC ends without charges

The Justice Department’s investigation into abuse within the SBC ends without charges

Federal investigators closed the books on a year-and-a-half investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention that aimed to determine whether leaders were criminally responsible for mishandling an abuse crisis in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The U.S. Department of Justice concluded its investigation last week without charging any SBC leaders, a decision that will come as a pleasant surprise to some and a disappointment to others pushing for change. Abuse survivors and their allies celebrated news of the DOJ investigation in August 2022 for its potential to hold denominational leaders accountable.

The DOJ opened its investigation following an investigation and a May 2022 report from Guidepost Solutions, a third-party firm, about SBC leaders’ inadequate response to the abuse crisis. Unlike Guidepost, the DOJ has the power to subpoena documents and charge people criminally.

Southern Baptist Convention delegates, known as messengers, will meet Tuesday in New Orleans for the denomination's 2023 annual meeting.

Southern Baptist Convention delegates, known as messengers, will meet Tuesday in New Orleans for the denomination’s 2023 annual meeting.

“On February 29, 2024, counsel for the SBC Executive Committee was informed that the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York had completed its investigation into the EC (Executive Committee) with no further action required,” said the SBC Executive Committee. president/CEO Jonathan Howe said in a statement in response to a request for comment.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York had not yet provided comment to The Tennessean.

The SBC Executive Committee, consisting of approximately 20 staff members and an 86-member board of elected representatives, manages denominations outside of the SBC annual meeting. Howe did not comment on whether other SBC affiliated agencies, called entities, are still under investigation by the DOJ.

However, the conclusion of the investigation into the executive committee suggests that federal investigators have not found sufficient evidence to charge the organization’s top leaders with a widespread conspiracy of cover-up.

The Guidepost report details a series of incidents over two decades in which employees and members of the SBC Executive Committee, including the SBC presidents, failed to forward abuse reports to law enforcement agencies and rejected calls for reform. SBC Executive Committee staff and attorneys also pressured SBC-affiliated Baptist Press in a story that mischaracterized allegations of abuse. The SBC and Baptist Press later changed the story and apologized.

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Guidepost’s report also details allegations of sexual misconduct against former SBC President Johnny Hunt, who is currently challenging these allegations in a defamation lawsuit against the SBC and Guidepost. Hunt, a former pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock in Georgia, allegedly abused a former FBC Woodstock congregation while Hunt and the alleged victim were both on vacation in Florida.

Over the past year and a half, the DOJ investigation has proceeded with few updates and high costs to the Executive Committee and other SBC entities. According to recent reports, the SBC Executive Committee spent $2.8 million on legal fees in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. In September, the executive committee laid off staff, citing increased costs associated with the denomination’s abuse response.

Recently, leaders of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force announced plans for an independent nonprofit organization to take on long-term abuse reform duties. Like the DOJ investigation, the SBC abuse reform was a response to the May 2022 third-party report on SBC leaders’ handling of the abuse crisis.

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“While we are grateful for the closure of this specific issue, we recognize that sex abuse reform efforts must continue across the Convention,” Howe said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to helping churches prevent and appropriately respond to sexual abuse in the SBC.”

Other recent SBC news: The SBC’s top committee predicts “sobering and difficult decisions” awaiting Southern Baptists

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at ladams@tennessean.com or on social media @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared in Nashville Tennessean: U.S. Department of Justice’s SBC Abuse Investigation Without Charges

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