The Southern Baptist Convention is issuing 10 recommendations to improve how churches respond to sexual abuse — a major step for a denomination that prides itself on its decentralized structure and independent congregations.
Experts and some church leaders say the standards could be difficult to enforce under the Southern Baptist Convention's existing constitution, but they're considering major changes that could require congregations to implement steps like background checks and sexual abuse training.
The call for reform comes after the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reported nearly 400 sexual misconduct allegations against Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers across the country. Sixteen of those allegations were in Tennessee, dating back to 2007.
The Southern Baptist Executive Committee and the denomination's president, J. D. Greear, met for a week to discuss the denomination's sexual abuse crisis and later shared the 10 calls to action for Southern Baptist churches.
The recommendations include repentance, taking immediate action to help with abuse survivors, reviewing their ordination process and preparing an abuser database.
The Nashville-based denomination says it's taking serious action against sexual abuse, but because the Southern Baptist Convention is rooted in a tradition that gives broad powers to local churches, experts say denomination leaders will have trouble enforcing the recommendations on their churches.
"The only power that a local church really recognizes is itself," says Andrew Smith, a religion professor at Carson-Newman, a Tennessee university affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, "which means the executive committee and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention has no power."
Southern Baptists do have the option to disfellowship and remove churches that violate core theological principles. They have expelled churches over LGBT issues and allegations of racism in the past. Church leaders are recommending that sexual misconduct be added to the list of reasons to expel a congregation.
However, Phillip Bethancourt, the executive vice president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says disfellowship is not the intention.
"The goal is reflecting God's design for protecting the vulnerable in our convention's churches," he said.
But the denomination's leaders plan to modify their constitution, making it clear that uncooperative churches related to sexual abuse policies will be removed.
"They are willing to hold churches accountable to the expectations we have," Bethancourt says, "up to and including disfellowship from the convention."