BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Confronting an unprecedented sex-abuse crisis, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention's national meeting voted Tuesday to make it easier to expel churches that mishandle abuse cases.
The Rev. J.D. Greear, president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, said the SBC faced a "defining moment" that would shape the church for generations to come.
"This is not a distraction from the mission," Greear said of the fight against sex abuse. "Protecting God's children is the mission of the church."
The SBC's meeting comes as U.S. Catholic bishops convene in Baltimore to address a widening sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The Southern Baptist Convention says it had 14.8 million members in 2018, down about 192,000 from the previous year. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the U.S., with 76.3 million members as of last year — down from 81.2 million in 2005.
Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the SBC's 2018 national meeting in Dallas, after which Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem. Greear was unanimously re-elected to a second term on Tuesday.
Pressure on the SBC has intensified in recent months due in part to articles by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News asserting that hundreds of Southern Baptist clergy and staff have been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, while leaving more than 700 victims with little in the way of justice or apologies.
Stung by the allegations, SBC leaders forwarded to the delegates meeting in Birmingham a proposed amendment to the SBC constitution making clear that an individual church could be expelled for mishandling or covering up sex-abuse cases. It was endorsed by the delegates, as was a similar proposal designating racism as grounds for expulsion.
Delegates also voted to assign the SBC's credentials committee to review claims against churches with regard to sexual abuse and racial discrimination.
Even before this week's meeting, some action had been taken on recommendations from Greear's study committee.
For example, a nine-member team developed a training curriculum to be used by churches and seminaries to improve responses to abuse. The team includes a psychologist, a former prosecutor, a detective, and attorney and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with charges against sports doctor Larry Nassar ahead of the prosecution that led to a lengthy prison sentence.
The study group also is considering new requirements for background checks of church leaders, and it is assessing options for a database listing credibly accused abusers, though Baptist leaders say that process has been difficult because of legal issues.
Outside the convention hall, about two dozen demonstrators handed out flyers to Southern Baptists and held up signs with messages including: "End church abuse cover-ups" and "Be like Jesus: Take abuse seriously & love victims."
Some participants at a rally said they are abuse survivors and have been attending denominational meetings for years. First-time attendee Jules Woodson spoke through tears as she described being abused sexually by a Southern Baptist minister.
"He remains in the pulpit. I've reached out to him personally and he refuses to respond. And so I'm asking the SBC to hold him accountable," said Woodson, of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Ahead of the meeting, there was a surge of debate related to the Southern Baptist Convention's doctrine of "complementarianism" that calls for male leadership in the home and the church.
Particularly contentious is a widely observed prohibition on women preaching in Southern Baptist churches. Those recently challenging that policy include Beth Moore, a prominent author and evangelist who runs a Houston-based ministry for women.
"What I want to say to my own family of Southern Baptists: Our family is sick. We need help," Moore said at a panel discussion Monday night. "We have this built-in disesteem for women and it's got to change."
A female delegate to the SBC meeting, Alex Hebert, said she was pleased with the denomination's overall effort to address sexual misconduct.
"I think there's a huge push toward repentance and looking into what we can do to prevent that from happening and to prevent people who have been participating in that" from being part of church leadership, said Hebert, holding her 1-year-old son in her arms.
Hebert, 26, said she is very comfortable in her own Southern Baptist congregation, Calvary Baptist Church in Kemp, Texas, where her husband is head pastor.
Nathan Morton, a pastor from South Carolina, said he knows sexual misconduct is a problem based on personal experience, but he trusts the SBC's current leadership to address the problem.
"I had staff members that were abused by ministers when they were younger. Ministers got shuttled from one place to the other. Now there's some positive, proactive issues and resolutions coming up that's made us a greater and stronger denomination," said Morton, 56.
Crary reported from New York.