- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The chief of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention said Wednesday that federal officials say a probe of accusations that the panel suppressed child abuse reports is closed and that criminal charges against panel members are unlikely.

But other entities under investigation by the Justice Department, including the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, could be ongoing, according to one  victim’s advocate.

Jonathan Howe, interim president of the church’s executive committee, said the leadership group, which has been under federal investigation since August 2022, “was informed that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has concluded its investigation into the EC with no further action to be taken.”

He said, “While we are grateful for closure on this particular matter, we recognize that sexual abuse reform efforts must continue to be implemented across the Convention. We remain steadfast in our commitment to assist churches in preventing and responding well to sexual abuse in the SBC.”

The 2022 DOJ investigation was launched after an earlier independent probe of the 13.2 million-member church resulted in a 400-page report from Guidepost Solutions that detailed a coverup of sexual abuse cases and related misconduct. 

The revelations touched off a firestorm at that year’s Southern Baptist business session, where delegates voted to create an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, spend $3 million to create a database of criminally convicted or “credibly accused” abusers within the denomination and establish a “victim care fund” to provide counseling with an initial $1 million investment.

Last month, church leaders said the organization would establish an independent Abuse Response Commission to implement the database, which currently has no names listed. The new group, whose funding is undetermined at present, would also handle the training of Southern Baptist churches and clergy in preventing and dealing with abuse, they said.

Christa Brown, a woman who said a Southern Baptist pastor had sexually abused her when she was a teenager, said via email the end of a federal probe into the leadership panel did not close the matter. 

“While the DOJ has closed its investigation of the SBC Executive Committee without pursuing any federal criminal charges, that does not in any way lessen the SBC’s callous rejection of moral responsibility,” she said. “Nor does it alter the reality that, in countless SBC churches, leaders have violated state laws and refused to protect kids and congregants.”

Rachael Denhollander, a sexual abuse survivor and victim advocate who advised the Southern Baptist Convention in 2022 on its abuse task force, said on the X social media platform that ending an inquiry without charges against the executive committee doesn’t mean the entire matter is closed.

She wrote, “DOJ officials have confirmed to me that this investigation is not closed and that information did not come from their office.” 

Now an attorney, she was the first abuse victim of Michigan State University and U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to come forward with accusations.

“Just a reminder that no one at MSU, USAG or the FBI were convicted of covering up Larry’s abuse either,” Ms. Denhollander said in a separate message. “But cover-up, and unethical conduct, and inexcusable silence that wounded hundreds, still happened.” 

Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, said their office would “decline to comment” on the SBC statement. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a reporter’s inquiry.

The Washington Times has also contacted Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for comment.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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