Southern Baptists vow 'healing' after abuse claims

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The cross outside a Southern Baptist church in TennesseeImage source, Getty Images

Leaders of the world's largest Baptist denomination met on Tuesday to "discuss and process" an investigative report uncovered decades of abuse and cover-ups.

The Southern Baptist Convention - the US-based association for the church - had covered up the abuse and vilified survivors, it said.

Calls for help were often met with "outright hostility", the report added.

With 13 million members, SBC is the largest Protestant body in the US.

The investigation, carried out for the SBC by an outside firm, was launched in the wake of 2019 report by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that exposed hundreds of alleged cases of sex abuse within the church.

On Tuesday, SBC officials said they would discuss the report and begin what executive committee leaders have termed "the beginning of a season of listening, lamenting and learning how to address sexual abuse".

An attorney for the SBC's executive committee said that the organisation plans to make a list of abusers publicly available once it ensures that all the names included are substantiated, and survivors' identities are not disclosed.

During the meeting - which was broadcast on Zoom - the board also put forward an apology statement which said it "seeks to publicly repent" for previously dismissive responses and "wholeheartedly listen to survivors".

Amid internal divisions over how to handle the scandal, thousands of delegates at the SBC's annual gathering last year voted in favour of a third-party review of the church's actions.

The 288-page report issued on Sunday names a few senior leaders on the church's executive committee as having control over its response to the reports of abuse and of being "singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC".

These officials reportedly "protected or even supported alleged abusers", the report says.

Calls and emails from survivors or other concerned Southern Baptists would be "ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action" because of how the church functions, the report states.

The document also discloses for the first time that the executive committee maintained a list of its ministers who were facing abuse allegations but - in spite of calls for a public database - kept its findings secret.

It makes a series of recommendations, including creating an independent commission that would oversee reforms in the handling of sexual misconduct, and restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements and civil settlements by the accused.

In a statement on Sunday, SBC President Ed Litton called on Southern Baptists to lament in prayer and prepare to implement reforms, adding he was "grieved to my core" for victims.

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