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ARITF Chairman’s Report: What’s Next for Sexual Abuse Reform in the Southern Baptist Convention

These are the remarks delivered by Josh Wester, Chairman of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and member and pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, NC at the February 19, Executive Committee trustee meeting.

Before we begin, I’d like to recognize and thank the survivors who have joined us in the room tonight as well as those watching online. Your courage and commitment to call for reform and fight to end abuse is the reason we are able to stand on the stage this evening. Thank you for being a voice for the voiceless.

I’m grateful to be joined up here by several members of the ARITF. This team is godly, faithful, and incredible. They have sacrificed countless hours away from their families, churches, and jobs to see abuse reform advanced in the SBC.

Psalm 67 says:

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us,

2 that your way may be known on earth,
    your saving power among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you!

More than anything else when it comes to abuse reform, our goal is to honor God and his righteousness. 

As a task force, we recognize that, ultimately, this fight is not our fight. It is the Lord’s. Tonight, I am going to bring you a brief and critical update on the status of abuse reform in the SBC. 

Last week we shared much of this presentation and our proposal for next steps for abuse reform with our State Execs. We also shared the details of this plan with the Great Commission Council, which is made up of entity heads from across the SBC. Not only was their feedback overwhelmingly positive, but we were both challenged and encouraged to hear from them about how they believe this work will help the churches in their states.

I hope your reaction will be the same. Every person on this stage with me, and I know every person in this room, loves the Southern Baptist Convention AND hates sexual abuse.

So we, as a task force, have endeavored for the last 7 months to bring Southern Baptists a plan for abuse prevention and response that is, biblical (because that’s what God requires), helpful (because it actually works), responsible (so it makes things better, not worse). And above all else, we’ve aimed to make it simple.

Sexual abuse is horrible. Survivors have taught us how much pain and damage it causes.

Every pastor I know is scared to death of mishandling this issue. So we have been working to ensure that every Southern Baptist Church has access to FREE tools and resources to help them prevent and respond to abuse. The kind of tools and resources that are simple enough to help any church, of any size, anywhere prevent and respond to abuse.

But before we get there, let me tell you about some things I’ve noticed. There is a sense of fatigue in some parts of the SBC with this subject. We first started using the words “sexual abuse crisis” in early 2019. That’s when the Houston Chronicle released the abuse of faith series. And in response, our leaders started using words like “reckoning” and “Southern Baptist apocalypse.” That’s when we launched the Caring Well Initiative, which had time to BOTH get off the ground and largely be forgotten due to COVID and other factors. 

Then in 2021 we were reminded again when we commissioned the Guidepost Investigation, and in its wake leaders in our convention like Dr. Mohler described the report as “devastating, heartbreaking, and infuriating.”

What was tragic about the Houston Chronicle series and the Guidepost Report was the description of Southern Baptist leaders repeatedly resisting abuse reforms.

What was encouraging were leaders like Dr. Paul Chitwood saying in 2022 that reforms like the very ones we are discussing tonight would be “incredibly difficult and costly … [but] absolutely necessary.”

But after some time passes, we are tempted to move on. We grow fatigued or weary of the issue. But here is the truth. This issue isn’t going away. It’s a sin problem. And it runs deep.

I’ve learned it’s not a theology problem. It’s not a Calvinist problem or an Arminian problem. It’s not a small church problem or a large church problem. It’s not an old guy’s problem or young guy’s problem.

It’s heroes from the past like Paul Pressler. It’s heroes from the present like Aaron Ivey.

Here is what we know for sure. Time itself isn’t going to solve this problem. And just hoping it goes away isn’t going to protect anyone or make any of our churches safer. So let me tell you what the ARTIF has been doing about it. 

3 Objectives

When we convened in August as ARITF round 2, we quickly identified 3 objectives:

  1. Expand the Ministry ToolKit which will contain a free training and implementation curriculum
  2. Get categories 1 & 2 of the Ministry Check website online. (As a reminder, Category 1 refers to criminal conviction and category 2 refers to civil judgments.)
  3. Find a long-term home for Abuse Reform

Each of these objectives was born out of a problem our convention is facing. The first and most significant problem is that our churches need help but don’t know where to turn. 

It’s not that helpful resources are not available but that it often comes piecemeal or incomplete with churches turning to one vendor for background checks and another to train volunteers. And they rarely know where to turn for help in times of crisis. 

So let’s start with the first objective, the Ministry ToolKit. This is the part I’m so excited about. I’m going to let Kris Buckman and Brad Eubank tell you about it:

Over the last year and a half, we’ve spent time listening to state execs, AMS leaders, and pastors and we found something was missing. AMS regional leaders estimated only 25-30% of their churches were doing anything in the area of sexual abuse prevention and response. We knew we needed a simple, clear step by step plan to help churches set up and implement solid prevention and response plans that were aimed at the normative size churches in our convention – those that have 100 or less and are often led by a bi-vocational pastors. There are many resources out there, but as Josh said, sometimes they’re scattered or not easily accessible.

As a follow up to last year’s 12,000 rack cards –on chairs in New Orleans, we’ve created a training curriculum based on the five essentials TRAIN, SCREEN, PROTECT, REPORT, CARE. The goal is for every church to be able to answer “yes” to all of the questions on the rack card when finished with this training curriculum making your church a safe place. Within the training materials you’ll find five 25-30 minute videos, one for each essential with 3-5 Next Steps for each one, including sample, editable documents, and frequently asked questions for each essential

This material is designed for churches to gather a small group of church leadership to walk through. We want you to gather, watch one video, and commit to completing the next steps for that essential before moving on to the next one. Everything you need to complete the next steps will be there for you, sample documents, links to pertinent information, and recommendations for outside providers. The essentials are specifically designed to be implemented in order. Be aware, the next steps for each essential may take several weeks to implement. That’s ok. Reforming prevention and response plans takes time – it doesn’t happen overnight.

This free video-based training curriculum will be first available in June at annual meeting in Indianapolis. Essentials: Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Training will be available in several formats. Churches will be able to access all the material after that at, or you will be able to access the information in a physical guidebook, or a thumb drive – removing any barriers that may arise at a church.

We believe this resource will help churches no matter it’s size, budget or location. This could be a watershed moment for SBC churches to potentially prevent the sexual abuse of countless number of children and students and respond well when sexual abuse does happen whether inside or outside the church. We pray that you and your church and that you encourage others in your association and state to hear the call and help your church become the safest place on planet Earth.

The second problem facing our convention is that our polity leaves us uniquely vulnerable to predators moving from church to church. This is what gets lost in all of the conversations about the database. 

Our second objective is getting the Ministry Check database online There is tons of misinformation floating around out there about the idea of a database. I want to dispel that with GOOD information

You’ve been told “that no one has a database like this, that something like this would never be insurable, and that it would hold so much liability it would sued into oblivion.” To be clear, all of that is bad information. It turns out, databases like this do exist, they are insured, and they don’t get sued all the time.

It’s the desire of this task force to publish the database as soon as possible. For now, it will be limited to 2 categories, as I mentioned before: criminal convictions and civil judgements related to sexual abuse. It’s not going to shock anyone in this room to hear me say we’ve encountered numerous obstacles trying to get the database online.

While we have cleared the majority of these hurdles, we are working with our legal and insurance partners right now to navigate the few remaining legal challenges the database presents. We are committed to doing this in a way that secures our convention’s ability to continue its mission and guards against unnecessary liability.

We are doing everything we can to address these outstanding questions and challenges in the most efficient and expeditious manner possible. Let me be clear: The ARITF is unwavering in our resolve to fulfill the messengers’ mandate. 

The people on this stage with me tonight have spent hundreds of hours of their lives trying to keep a promise, a promise that you heard from this very stage one year ago to get the database online. 

We have encountered more legal, financial, contractural, technical, and spiritual challenges than I can begin to count. I wish I could tell you that all of those challenges came from outside of the convention. 

So let me tell you about the path forward. Our third problem is that our churches are easy targets for abuse.

Over the last 2 years, ARITF members have advised roughly 50 churches. You might be surprised to hear that, because most of you have never heard their stories. It turns out, when churches have access to good advice and good information, they tend to not make the headlines. 

You’ll remember that Objective #3 was to find a long term home for Abuse Reform And this is where I want to give you perhaps the biggest update from the ARITF we’ve had in the past 2 years. 

We’re excited to announce tonight that your ARITF is launching a new independent non-profit organization to help Southern Baptist churches and entities prevent and respond to sexual abuse. 

This decision was made in consultation with President Barber, your EC leadership, and members of the Great Commission Council. 

Churches overwhelmingly want to get it right when it comes to sexual abuse but they need help and our convention promised help was on the way. The reality is this problem is too big for any group of volunteers. 

So let me answer the question you’re all asking:  Why create a new organization outside of the SBC? After painstakingly evaluating and exhausting every option, there is broad agreement that the best way to accomplish all 3 objectives is through an independent organization.

  • An independent organization will have more credibility with survivors, more flexibility to help our churches, and more success in accomplishing the mandate given to us by the Messengers.
  • This organization will be committed to giving Southern Baptist churches and entities the very best resources to prevent sexual abuse, stop predators from moving from church to church, care for survivors, and help us accomplish the goal of becoming an abuse-free family of churches.
  • The formation of this new Abuse Response Commission represents the ARITF’s relentless commitment to advance the cause of abuse reform no matter what.Given the current legal and financial challenges facing the SBC and the Executive Committee, the formation of a new independent organization is the only viable path that allows progress toward abuse reform to continue unencumbered and without delay.

To do this, we have to do it together. If this is the SBC’s response to our sexual abuse crisis, the SBC must come together to invest in this initiative. 

Earlier today ERLC President Brent Leatherwood announced his intention to ask his board of trustees to  make a significant investment to support the ARITF’s proposal. Southern Baptists have long said we are better together. What better way to express our unity than by coming together to combat the scourge of sexual abuse. We are asking President Barber and other SBC entity leaders to assist the ARITF in securing the financial resources required to launch this new organization.

We are grateful for the strong support demonstrated by the Great Commission Council and we are confident that with their assistance, we will bring a report to the Messengers of the 2024 SBC annual meeting that this new organization is fully funded and supported by all of our national entities. Further we are asking our Southern Baptist family to join us in this effort by praying for and partnering with us. 

Once again, the ARTIF is unwavering in our resolve to see meaningful abuse reform within the Southern Baptist Convention. Along with our national leaders, we are confident that the plans we’ve set before you this evening represent the very best path to accomplish this goal. We’ve been told a thousand times that “everyone is against sexual abuse.”

Now is the time to move from words to actions, by coming together to relentlessly pursue a day when we can say we are an abuse-free family of churches.
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Photo credit Baptist Press