For more than a year now, the Southern Baptist Convention has been under fire for its longtime ignorance of sexual abuse in its own churches. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express News found that, since 1998, “roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct involving more than 700 victims.”
At the time, the SBC’s president J.D. Greear published a list of 10 churches (including some prominent megachurches) that had a history of hiring predatory pastors and/or ignoring claims of sexual abuse. He singled out those churches as ones that needed to correct their policies when it came to handling these cases. But the SBC’s Executive Committee bylaws workgroup undercut his message by saying seven of those churches didn’t need any more oversight.
The SBC has also defended its own lack of action by saying it simply can’t tell churches what to do because that’s not how it operates. Unlike the top-down Catholic Church, the SBC is a loose collection of churches under a large umbrella. But the head of the SBC doesn’t get to dictate how any particular church should operate.
That finally changed last year when the SBC’s Credentials Committee was given the ability to recommend churches for possible disfellowship. In English, they had the power to say, “We should kick out this church.”
On Tuesday, acting upon one of those recommendations, the SBC voted to disfellowship Ranchland Heights Baptist Church in Texas because it continued to employ a pastor who was a “lifetime registered sex offender.”
Phillip Rutledge, who was convicted in 2003 of aggravated sexual assault charges against two girls ages 11 and 12, respectively, has been pastor at Ranchland Heights since 2016.
It’s good that they kicked out this church. It’s appalling that it took this long and this many hurdles for that to happen. But now we know the bar: If your current pastor has a history of raping little girls, then the Southern Baptists might maybe possibly break up with you.
Everything else is still a big maybe.
Meanwhile, the SBC has previously kicked out a church for supporting marriage equality. That wasn’t nearly as complicated as what happened this week.
By the way, there’s an appeals process built into the system. So the Sexual Assault Church can still ask to be let back into the SBC.
None of this is good enough. It’s the bare minimum. I wouldn’t trust my kids in a Southern Baptist church given how little the SBC leaders seem to care about claims of abuse, and I have no clue how any decent parent could even if they’re believers. It’s amazing how hundreds of victims mean so little to so many people.
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