The Southern Baptist Convention gathers for its annual national meeting Tuesday with one sobering topic — sex abuse by clergy and staff — overshadowing all others.
Inside the meeting hall in Birmingham, Alabama, delegates representing the nation's largest Protestant denomination will likely vote on establishing criteria for expelling churches that mishandle or cover up abuse allegations. They also may vote to establish a new committee which would review how member churches handle claims of abuse.
Outside the convention center, abuse survivors and other activists plan a protest rally Tuesday evening, demanding that the SBC move faster to require sex-abuse training for all pastors, staff and volunteers, and to create a database of credibly accused abusers that could be shared among its more than 47,000 churches. They will also be urging the church, which espouses all-male leadership, to be more respectful of women's roles — a volatile topic that's sparked online debate over whether women should preach to men.
Sex abuse already was a high-profile issue at the 2018 national meeting in Dallas, following revelations about several sexual misconduct cases. Soon after his election as SBC president at that meeting, the Rev. J.D. Greear formed an advisory group to draft recommendations on how to confront the problem.
However, pressure on the church 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.
"For years, there were people who assumed abuse was simply a Roman Catholic problem," said the Rev. Russell Moore, who heads the SBC's public policy arm. "I see that mentality dissipating. There seems to be a growing sense of vulnerability and a willingness to address this crisis."
As evidence of that willingness, Greear's advisory group issued a detailed report Saturday about sexual abuse within the SBC.
It contained several first-person stories by sexual abuse survivors, and acknowledged a variety of failures in how the SBC has responded to abuse — including inadequate training of staff, failure to believe and support victims, failure to report abuse to law enforcement, and recommending suspected perpetrators to new employment.
The scandals have created a major distraction at a time when recent political events have thrilled many Southern Baptist members. The convention is happening in the state that passed the strictest abortion ban in the country, an issue near and dear to many Baptists. And President Donald Trump has advanced an agenda that has pleased many conservative Christians, including a remade U.S. Supreme Court.
With the abuse scandal spreading, Greear's study committee issued 10 recommendations, and some action has been taken.
For example, a nine-member team has been developing 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 women 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 abusers, though Baptist leaders say that process has been difficult because of legal issues.
Greear, in an email to The Associated Press, said he was "thankful for the light" that the articles by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News "shined on a dark area of our Convention."
"Only when sin is exposed to the light of truth, true repentance, healing, and change can begin," he wrote.
Activist and writer Christa Brown, who says she was abused by a Southern Baptist minister as a child, has been advocating for a database since 2006, and is frustrated by the slow pace. She says any eventual database might be ineffective unless it is run by outsiders, not by SBC officials.
"It has to be independently administered to provide survivors with a safe place to report," she said.
The study group's No. 1 recommendation is for Southern Baptists to "enter a season of sorrow and repentance."
Ahead of next week's meeting, there's been a surge of debate — much of it waged on social media — 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 defying that policy include Beth Moore, a prominent author and evangelist who runs a Houston-based ministry for women.
Beth Moore hinted on Twitter in April that she was preaching a Mother's Day sermon at a Southern Baptist church, which drew rebukes from some SBC theologians.
"For a woman to teach and preach to adult men is to defy God's Word," wrote Owen Strachan, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Elders must not allow such a sinful practice."
Beth Moore responded with a series of tweets on May 11, questioning the motives of SBC leaders seeking to limit women's roles.
"All these years I'd given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture," Beth Moore tweeted.
"Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin.... It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses & misuses of power."
Several male Southern Baptist pastors have aligned themselves with activist women in decrying sex abuse and limits on women's leadership roles.
Among them is Wade Burleson, a pastor from Enid, Oklahoma, who contends that gifted women should be encouraged to serve in the ministry on an equal basis with men.
"The sooner we learn that men can learn spiritual truths from women, the better off we are," Burleson wrote on his blog, adding that he would welcome Beth Moore preaching at his church.
The Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says SBC leaders will not soften the prohibition on women serving as pastors.
"When it comes to questions short of that, there's going to be a robust Southern Baptist discussion," he said.